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James Anderson's enduring class masks England fears about spin support

Oldest seamer to take a five-for in Asia shows up deficiencies of the rest of the attack

George Dobell
George Dobell
During the English summer of 1986, as a Richard Hadlee-inspired New Zealand completed their first away victory over England, Graham Gooch bemoaned the relentless dominance of the opposition's great fast bowler.
"It's like [facing] the World XI at one end, and Ilford Second XI at the other," he was famously quoted as saying.
It was an exaggeration, of course. And a bit harsh. Indeed, New Zealand's first Test victory in England, in 1983, came in a match where Hadlee didn't take a wicket. Gooch, no doubt, had his tongue in his cheek when he came up with that line.
But it wasn't without a germ of truth. In that 1986 series, Hadlee bowled 153.5 overs and claimed 19 wickets. New Zealand's next most successful bowler, John Bracewell, claimed six wickets. Their next most successful seamer, Willie Watson, claimed four.
So while Hadlee's record of 36 five-fors in Tests is ridiculously good - especially as he achieved it in only 86 appearances - it might, to a limited extent, also reflect the lack of wickets being taken at the other end. By comparison, Joel Garner, who had to fight for his wickets alongside the likes of Malcolm Marshall, Andy Roberts and Michael Holding, claimed seven five-fors. Suffice to say, New Zealand came to be enormously grateful for Hadlee's longevity, resilience and reliability. He was really was as good as it gets.
This was a scenario that occurred while watching James Anderson complete his 30th five-wicket haul in the second Test in Galle. While it would be absurd to claim Anderson has gone through his career with as little support as Hadlee, having enjoyed bowling with Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann among others, there were moments in this performance - really quite long, drawn-out moments - when England seemed unhealthily over-reliant upon a 38-year-old with more miles on the clock than a London taxi.
Make no mistake: Anderson's performance here was outstanding. To provide such unrelenting service, in this heat, at his age is just about unprecedented. No seamer has ever taken a five-wicket haul in a Test in Asia at the age of 38. Hadlee, at 37 years and 145 days, was the previous record holder.
But the unfortunate side effect of Anderson's excellence was to show up the lack of contribution of England's spinners, in particular. For this was the first time since 2001 that all 10 wickets in an innings had been taken by the seamers in a Test in Sri Lanka.
It was more than that, though. Everyone would accept that, on the first day especially, there was little assistance for the spinners. But to contribute just seven maidens between them - Anderson, by contrast, bowled 13 - showed they also failed to provide the control required. For Dom Bess to bowl fewer overs than Anderson or Mark Wood is a far from flattering reflection of his ability to do the job required.
It's tough to set a field for Bess. You need sweepers for the long hops. But that means gaps closer in. And while you might like to stop the singles, he produces the odd full toss, too - Niroshan Dickwella brought up his 50 from one - which leaves a captain requiring at least 15 fielders to retain any hope of building pressure. Really, he can be milked like a Friesian without any need to take risks. Long term, this puts an unsustainable burden on the shoulders of the seamers.
The comparison with Sri Lanka's spinners was unflattering, too. Within 13 balls of Lasith Embuldeniya's spell, he had done twice what England's spinners failed to do in their combined 66 overs: claimed a wicket. Not just that, but Sri Lanka's spinners gained turn and bounce that was almost entirely absent for England's. Yes, the pitch was wearing a little. But to change radically over the course of the tea break? That's more a reflection of the bowlers than the surface.
It felt like an entirely different challenge when Anderson was in the attack. At the start of day two, for example, Sri Lanka scored 24 for 2 in eight overs while Anderson was bowling (his figures were 4-2-5-1 in the spell). But once he was rested, Sri Lanka scored 60 without further loss in 18 overs.
A similar thing happened either side of lunch. Before Anderson returned to the attack, Sri Lanka had scored 30 in 10 overs without loss. Once he was in the attack, they added 27 in 10 overs for the loss of two wickets. Anderson's share was 6-1-11-2.
With Wood - who gave great support in this innings - spent, Root was instead obliged to turn to Sam Curran to provide a spell of back-of-a-length stuff. With Ben Stokes in the side, that is a tactic that works just fine. But Curran? He is a young cricketer with many qualities. But as another 78mph/125kph bouncer sailed over the batsman's head, the thought occurred that this was like using a Chihuahua as guard dog.
That's not Curran's fault. The point is, he was asked to fill a hole created by the failure of the spinners to fulfil their role. He, like Anderson and Wood, has been asked to compensate for England's lack of credible spin threat.
The real worry here, is that England are about to head to India for a four-Test series. Unless there is a vast improvement in the performance of the spinners - and, to be fair, they may both improve for the overs they are bowling in this series - it is tough to see how England can mount a sustained challenge.
Indeed, given the obvious strengths and weaknesses of England's squad, you could understand them deciding to place their faith in their seamers instead.
England have been down this road before. On the 1981-82 tour, for example, they pursued a policy of backing their seamers at least as much as their spinners; they lost the six-match series 1-0. Even in 2012, when they won, they started the series in Ahmedabad with only one specialist spinner, in Swann, and two what might loosely be termed spinning allrounders in Samit Patel and Kevin Pietersen. India won that game by nine wickets.
There's probably another lesson from that series. India erred in the next match, in Mumbai, by attempting to prepare a pitch that provided huge assistance for their spinners. Instead, it allowed Swann and Monty Panesar into the game.
Things are a bit different now. Panesar and Swann have gone. Kevin Pietersen and Alastair Cook, who scored centuries in that game, too. Given India's daunting all-round strength - the depth of their seam bowling, the quality of their batting and the options among spin - you would think they are best served simply preparing the sort of old-school flat pitch which we saw in Chennai on the 2016-17 tour. On flat surfaces, where the element of chance is diminished, it is hard to see how England can win.
But then, it was hard to see how a 38-year-old seamer could take a six-for in Galle. This game, and Anderson in particular, has a habit of surprising us. It's a huge part of its enduring charm.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo