If you ever wondered how much James Anderson puts into his bowling, it’s worth thinking back to how his South Africa tour ended.
Anderson broke his rib in the Cape Town Test. Not because he sustained a blow. But through the repeated effort of pushing his body through the rigours of fast bowling. The England medical team said they had never seen such an injury.
By the time he left the pitch – pain etched all over his face having tried to bowl his side to victory – he had delivered 37 overs in the match. Not bad for a 37-year-old. And nor was his analysis: 7-63.
Now 38, he took another five-wicket haul here. Ridiculously, really, it was his 29th in Test cricket. Only one seamer, Sir Richard Hadlee, has claimed more.
Perhaps of more interest, the return, 5-56, put Anderson on the brink of 600 Test wickets. He requires only two more now. And while he has yet to take a second-innings wicket this summer, the way in which he is bowling suggests Pakistan may need some help from the weather to deny him.
He could – should, maybe – have reached the landmark already. At one stage, late in the day, he saw three catches put down off his bowling in the space of 10 balls. All of them should have been taken, though to be fair, the light was murky.
A few years ago, Anderson’s reaction might have got the better of him. Oh, he looked furious all right. But who wouldn’t? And he didn’t say a word. Instead, he walked back to his mark and concentrated on creating another chance. The fourth of them in 22 balls was taken to finish off the innings and seal his haul. You suspect relief was the overwhelming emotion in the England dressing room.
But Anderson’s ability to control his emotions has been one of the many areas in which he has improved in recent years. Until 2014, he was famously grumpy on the pitch. And while he felt he needed that edge to spur him on, there were times it seemed to spill over and become a distraction. Remember the Ravi Jadeja incident at Trent Bridge? Whatever really went on in that corridor, the repercussions rumbled on for a long time and persuaded Anderson he needed to change.
He learned he didn’t need such a side. Just as few of those West Indies bowlers needed to say much to convince their opposition they were in hostile territory, so Anderson realised he was best served by concentrating on his craft and allowing the results to sort themselves out. That’s how to claim four chances in 22 balls despite the disappointment and distractions of missed chances.
But nothing has ever come easy to Anderson. Yes, he was drafted into England’s international teams as little more than a kid: 20-years-old and blessed with an ability to swing the ball late at sharp pace.
But within a couple of years, attempts to refine his action saw him lose his pace, his swing and, eventually, his fitness. The stress fracture he suffered left him a spectator during the 2005 Ashes and threatened, for a while, to derail his career.
All the time he was sidelined he was watching, though. Watching and talking and learning. Friends talk of him as a “cricket geek”. It’s meant fondly. But while others may want to turn off between games, Anderson watches all the cricket he can: Test cricket; T20 cricket; even videos of county footage to ensure he is informed not just about his opponents but so he can pick-up any new skills. Have two fast bowlers even reinvented themselves in their mid-30s the way Anderson and Stuart Broad have? That spirit of self-improvement may define them both.
Later, as a member of the four-man attack that took England to No. 1 in the Test rankings, he was obliged to operate as both strike and stock bowler. Yes, he took some wickets on days when the ball jagged around in England. But oh, he earned them from all those days he answered the call from captain after captain, not knowing where else to turn, for yet another spell on a heartbreakingly flat pitch. Really, anyone who thinks Anderson has had it easy haven’t been paying attention.
All those overs took their toll. That right shoulder has bowled more deliveries than any seamer in the history of Test cricket. At this stage it’s held together by habit and hope. At one stage, in late 2016, those closest to him recall him not being able to pull on his t-shirt or tie his shoe laces without significant pain. The England management told him not to worry about the tour to India. Relax, they said. Take your time. Come back to the team for the next English summer.
But he was having none of it. Instead he persuaded his then manager, the former county player Luke Sutton, to pad up and face him in the indoor nets at Old Trafford. Anderson would then video the sessions and send them to the England management with a message that basically said ‘Look! I’m fine! Get me to India.’ He arrived in time to play in the second Test and claimed four wickets.
Let’s put that in perspective. Anderson was, by this time, a fast-medium swing bowler in his mid-30s. He had proved, as MS Dhoni put it, to be the “difference between the sides” on the previous tour, in 2012. He had nothing to prove to anyone. He could easily have skipped the tour, protected his figures and waited for the green pitches and Dukes ball of the next summer. What sort of madman would insist on the heartbreak of India?
Well, the sort that becomes a champion. The sort that doesn’t know when they’re beaten. The sort that loves not just the plaudits on the good days, but the graft that goes with the tough ones. The sort that breaks a rib through the effort of trying to win a game for their country. The sort that, you suspect, won’t ever have had their fill of this great game of ours.
Again, it’s worth thinking back to that South Africa tour at the turn of this year. Anderson talked eloquently of this enduring love for the craft then. Not for taking wickets or winnings matches, so much. More about the craft and effort. The love – yes, that was the word he used – of claiming a second new ball on a flat wicket with the opposition set. Of the satisfaction he felt when “you struggle to get out of bed to walk to the toilet”.
The outcome of all this is that Anderson has taken 330 Test wickets (at a cost of 23.91) since he was 30. And, for all the talk of struggling overseas, he’s claimed two five-wicket hauls in his most recent five Tests overseas. And three in his last 13. Yes, he’s not as quick as he was. But if pace was everything, Tino Best would have more Test wickets than Vernon Philander and Jofra Archer would have been the man leading the team off the pitch on Sunday.
Logic tells us it will end soon. He’s 38, for goodness sake, and England’s next Test tours are to Sri Lanka and India. By the time the Ashes come back round, he’ll be 39 and Australia, surely, is no country for old men. Really, any day could be the last. Enjoy it while you can.
So, yes, time will get him eventually. It has a broader bat than Sachin and more patience than Boycott. But Anderson’s been defying convention and logic and expectation for a while now. Who is to say he won’t keep doing it for a while yet? And he only needs 102 more wickets to reach the 700 mark.