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Jimmy Anderson still has magic 21 years after England pin-up’s Test debut | Vic Marks
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Jimmy Anderson still has magic 21 years after England pin-up’s Test debut | Vic Marks

He’ll finish where he started: at Lord’s with Rob Key looking on admiringly and a Labour prime minister residing in Downing Street. Some 21 years ago, when Tony Blair was in charge and Key was batting at No 5 for England, a shy, young whippersnapper from Burnley, James Anderson, made his Test debut against Zimbabwe.

It’s a long time ago and quite a lot has changed since then: on that weekend at the end of May 2003, Paul McCartney was performing in front of 100,000 fans in Moscow’s Red Square, preparations were in hand for the first ever Twenty20 matches on the county circuit and Phil Tufnell was about to win I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here! What remains is the prospect of Anderson bowling for England in a Lord’s Test match – one last time.

Anderson was 20 years of age and a replacement for the injured Andrew Caddick. He was probably a little nervous on the Saturday of his first Test as he conceded 17 runs from his first over. Then he bowled Mark Vermeulen in his third before dispatching the middle order in the second session to finish with five for 73. I was on duty for The Observer and wrote: “But grabbing the glory in mid-afternoon was England’s potential pin-up of the next decade, James Anderson.” Apologies for that. I meant: “The next two decades.”

Anderson became a ­paceman nonpareil but I’ll make some comparisons anyway. Back in 1978-79 before his back problems and a subsequent loss of litheness, Ian Botham was at his peak as a bowler, swinging the ball at genuine pace as he stormed on to the Test scene. There are shades of the young Anderson there but the comparisons do not last long.

Botham, whom Anderson ­surpassed as England’s leading wicket-taker when taking his 384th wicket way back in 2015 in Antigua, spent his last 10 years as a Test bowler in decline (his batting ensured he was undroppable). Contrast that with Anderson’s past decade in Test cricket when he kept getting better and ­better and, amazingly, fitter and fitter.

Split Anderson’s career in half and we find that he took 343 Test wickets at 30 apiece in his first decade, 357 at 22 in his second. In Botham’s first 51 Tests he took 231 wickets at 23; in his next 51 there were 152 wickets at 36. A more surprising difference: Anderson sledged more than Botham.

Anderson celebrates taking the wicket of Travis Friend in his first Test in May 2003 at Lord’s.View image in fullscreen

If Botham “had a word” with his opponents when he was bowling, which did not happen that often, this was plain for all to see. Anderson eventually overcame his shyness and would surreptitiously be in the batsman’s ear on a regular basis with a dour whisper, though a pair of binoculars and a potent stump microphone might be required to pick it up.

He was one of those ­sportsmen with white line fever, albeit in a discreet way. In this he has been ­reminiscent of Glenn McGrath. Both are an absolute delight off the field and universally popular but they could be mongrels in the middle. Somehow it seems that they needed to be so to be effective.

Amid the grumpiness was the magic. When the ball was ­swinging for Anderson it was akin to ­watching a great wrist-spinner. It seemed impossible to discern in which direction the ball was going to deviate at the end of its flightpath. Gobsmacked batters might shoulder arms to the surprise in-swinger as if it was an undetected googly before plodding back to the pavilion.

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In this mode Anderson was/is the ultimate fast bowling artist. But he became more pragmatic as the years rolled by, ever more economical as he strangled batters with ­unrelenting accuracy and an action now as smooth as silk, echoes of Richard Hadlee here.

Graeme Swann has detailed how Anderson’s mastery of reverse swing became most apparent in the last Test of a tour to the West Indies in Port of Spain in 2009. This skill enabled him to become far more effective in the subcontinent on tracks that sent most overseas pacemen into despondent resignation. From that game onwards Swann was convinced his mate would be the leader of England’s attack for some time. But not this long.

This is where Anderson stands alone. His hunger for the game, ­coupled with his fitness in his fifth decade, is unique, as is his ­longevity. It’s hard work but he just loves ­bowling; it is probably the one area in his life when he feels in complete control. Recently, with retirement looming, he mused over whether he should have joined his eldest ­daughter on a visit to a school’s career officer.

Last week he took eight for 64 from 31 overs in Lancashire’s match against Nottinghamshire at Southport. If he does something similar at Lord’s against West Indies from Wednesday will he sidle up to Ben and Brendon with an: “Are you sure?”

Source: theguardian.com