By Bharath Ramaraj
During a typical rain-sodden English summer season in 2002, James Anderson lit up the Old Trafford Stadium with a sharp in-swinger to trap Surrey’s run machine Mark Ramprakash dead in front. In his first county game itself against Surrey, the shy lad from Burnley left Lancashire’s cricket cognoscenti spellbound with an awesome spell of swing bowling.
Anderson has since become a huge force to reckon with. With subtle changes of wrists and fingers, he penetrates every crevice in the batsmen’s defence to plot their downfall.
If we turn back the years and trace Anderson’s early career, it’s like listening to a fairy tale story. Lancashire’s then player-development manager John Stanworth was impressed by Anderson’s range of skills, and tried to persuade the county’s coaching staff to have a look at him. Incidentally, Lancashire, just like other counties, wanted to hire an overseas professional. But Anderson’s range of skills impressed the coaching staff, and he was drafted into the side.
In his first season, the Burnley Bullet regularly scythed through county batting line-ups with pace, cut and swing, and gave batsmen all over England headaches. Those 50 wickets he took in 2002, caught the eye of England opener Marcus Trescothick. When England’s touring party to the Ashes in 2002-03 was ravaged by injuries to key fast bowlers, Trescothick recommended Anderson’s name to England’s captain Nasser Hussain. Anderson subsequently made his debut at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) in a one-day match against Australia.
Anderson’s fairytale story continued, as he ripped through Pakistan’s famed batting line-up in the World Cup at Cape Town in 2002-03. For most fast bowlers to bowl an out-swinging yorker on off-stump is beyond the realms of possibility, but by sending Yousuf Youhana’s off-stump somersaulting with the new ball, Anderson made it a reality.
The hat-trick Anderson took against Essex in a county match in May, 2003, fast-tracked his entry into the Test side as well. In his first Test at the hallowed Lord’s cricket ground against Zimbabwe, he swerved the ball away from the right-handers, and took a five-for. He was suddenly the talk of the town, and was even touted as the saviour of English cricket.
Unfortunately for Anderson, his honeymoon period was soon coming to a very bitter end. The coaching staff started to tinker with his action, and the emergence of a troika of quick bowlers — Andrew Flintoff, Steve Harmison and Simon Jones — led to Anderson being reduced to warming the benches.
And whenever Anderson got a rare opportunity to play, he was wayward. When Anderson replaced Simon Jones for the Wanderers Test during the tour to South Africa in 2004-05, he hadn’t played even a single First-Class game for close to five months. It is hard to fathom why the coaching staff didn’t think of playing him in the First-Class game against South Africa A at Potchefstroom. It came as no surprise when the South African batsmen tore his bowling to shreds.
Anderson, however, remained on the periphery of English selection. He wasn’t selected to play in the XI in the 2005 Ashes. It must have been a bitter pill for him to swallow, as England went on to win a historic Test series against Australia. Every English cricketer’s dream is to play in the Ashes, but in ’05 that dream didn’t materialise into reality for Anderson.
When called up as a replacement for the injury-prone Simon Jones, during the tour of India in 2005-06, he did make his presence felt by taking six wickets at Mumbai. But with Anderson, every good show was juxtaposed by a poor performance. It made the critics give him the name of ‘Daisy.’
Another body blow to Anderson’s career came in the form of a stress fracture he suffered on his back in 2006. The irony of it being, the injury was caused due to coaching staff constantly tinkering with his action. These days, young bowlers are indoctrinated to bowl with a certain action, leading to loss of form and even injuries. When Anderson was bowling with his natural action, he was hooping it around the corners and taking wickets. But that wasn’t the case with his remodeled action.
The timely advice by former Lancashire’s coach Mike Watkinson, to go back to his old action, helped him to find his swing back. But on the cricket field, his career touched its nadir, as the Australian batsmen took a liking to his bowling. In the 2006-07 Ashes, Anderson took just five wickets at a cost of 82.60. To make matters worse for him, he had bowled a mere 34.1 overs since his comeback from the back injury. Yet the English selectors and coach Duncan Fletcher were convinced that he will be match fit to take on the blood-thirsty Australians, waiting to take revenge for the ’05 Ashes loss. It was certainly a tumultuous year for Anderson.
With injuries to Hoggard, Harmison and Flintoff in ’07, Anderson got a window of opportunity to show his wares against the touring Indians. He made that chance count, by taking a five-for at Lord’s. Anderson seemed to be in a relaxed state of mind, and by going back to his original action, he was able to generate prodigious swing. Anderson also seemed to have worked very hard on his inswinger, as he bowled the inswinger with better control, and troubled the Indian batsmen throughout the series.
The watershed moment in Anderson’s career came about in 2007-08 in New Zealand. England’s coach, Peter Moores, decided to drop both Matthew Hoggard and Steve Harmison. England had lost the first Test at Hamilton, and as a result, Moores wanted to inject fresh blood into the pace attack. Stuart Broad and Anderson were selected for the game at Basin Reserve, and England won that Test convincingly. Anderson in particular had a good game, as he took a five-for at Basin Reserve.
Anderson caused more misery for the Kiwi batsmen, when they toured the Old Blighty in ’08. At Trent Bridge, he put on a virtuoso exhibition of swing bowling to make short work of New Zealand’s batting line-up. The way he in-slanted the Dukes ball, before making it swing late and away from both Redmond and McCullum was a sight to behold. Late swing has become one of those utterly mundane cliches used by commentators to describe every swing bowler going around, but it sits well with Jimmy Anderson.
When Pakistan toured England in ’10, Anderson ran riot by bowling on some sprightly tracks. He took 23 wickets in that series at a cost of just 13.73. The peach of a delivery he bowled to send Imran Farhat’s stumps cartwheeling at Trent Bridge was a swing bowler’s equivalent to Shane Warne’s magic ball in the Ashes of ’93. By bowling from around the wicket, he swung it into the left-handed Farhat, before it virtually snaked away at a high speed to take out the off-stump. Farhat must have felt like he had been hit by a 440-volt shock that day.
In spite of some sterling performances for England that year, there were lingering doubts about Anderson’s ability to perform on hard wickets, and with a Kookaburra ball Down Under. It seemed to have spurred Anderson, as by banishing all his inner demons, he bowled with zest, verve and gusto to take 24 wickets in the series. It was a spirited riposte to all those critics baying for his blood.
He didn’t have sheer pace to send the Australian batsmen quivering for cover on those hard wickets. But Anderson used every little trick available to a swing bowler to succeed. If it was swing that got him those prized scalps of Clarke and Ponting at Adelaide then, with seam movement, he impressed everyone at Brisbane and Melbourne. At the SCG, he used reverse swing to good effect in the second innings. The now famous Anderson’s ‘knuckle ball’ and his surprise inswinger, kept the Australian batsmen on tenterhooks. To make it worse for the left-handers, he would bowl from around the wicket, and by using the crease, bait them like a temptress. Australian batsmen found it hard to decipher Anderson’s modus operandi in that series.
In Australia, Anderson seemingly had the ball on a string, and did whatever he wished to do. Cricket pundits compared him rightly to a cheetah, as just like a true predator he was preying on unsuspecting batsmen stealthily. The way he would set up a batsman, before delivering the coup de grace was a sharp contrast to the Anderson who bowled with lingering self-doubts in 2006-07 Ashes.
In 2011, Anderson’s effervescent endeavours even helped England to usurp India as the No 1 ranked team in Test cricket. Last year, he hammered the final nail in the critics’ coffin by succeeding in Asia. He strained every sinew on abrasive surfaces of UAE, Sri Lanka and India, and did well. In India, he continuously played on the batsmen’s minds with a mixture of in-dippers and swing. It tells us: a good bowler can succeed anywhere.
With 295 wickets to his name, Anderson is on the cusp of becoming only the fourth English bowler to take 300 Test wickets. In the ongoing series in New Zealand, he has been slightly below par. But it shouldn’t take long for Anderson’s competitive juices to flow again.
Just having a glance at Anderson’s bowling average of 30.46, it can be misinterpreted that he is overrated. But he was mismanaged by the coaching staff, and as a result, took more time to mature. In his last 35 Tests, he has chalked up some impressive numbers, as he has taken 147 wickets at 26.03. It also has to be said that these days, bowlers have to bowl on some flat decks. With modern-day batsmen sporting all those strange accoutrements, it makes that much harder for a bowler to make his mark. The metamorphosis of Anderson from being called a ‘Daisy’ to a world class swing bowler can be a ray of hope for all those promising quicks struggling to make their mark.
(Bharath Ramaraj, an MBA in marketing, eats, drinks and sleeps cricket. He has played at school and college-level, and now channelises his passion for the game by writing about it)