Can Jimmy Anderson Get the Ball Talking Again?

Just over four to five months ago, in February this year, James Anderson was making the pink ball move this way and that as he ran through the heart of the New Zealand batting unit at Bay Oval. At 14,187 days, Anderson soon became the oldest No.1-ranked Test match bowler since Clarrie Grimmett. At that moment, it felt as if Anderson was a freak of nature. After all, in the previous series in Pakistan, he bowled with tactical nous, augmenting it with subtle swing and supreme fitness.

But as an athlete gets on the wrong side of 30, questions are asked: when does he/she retire? For much longer can the athlete last in the harsh world of professional sport? Anderson’s case has been no different. Just a few months after Anderson briefly took over the summit of the Test rankings, one of England’s finest was left out of the Test side for the crucial Headingley game against Australia. England’s spearhead for much of the past decade and more seems to have lost his groove in the ongoing Ashes series, having taken just three wickets at an average of over 75. 

Let’s just scratch the outside coating to assess what could have resulted in Anderson losing his rhythm in the span of just a few months. After succeeding in the Test series in New Zealand, where he bagged 10 wickets in two matches, he had a fruitful time while playing for Lancashire, finishing with 16 wickets in just four matches. He still seemed to be hitting the high notes, finding a nice shape away from the right-hander, and also employed the wobble seam. He also picked a five-for on a flat deck in Taunton, where the scores read: 441, 554 and 256/6. In the match against Essex, he dismissed Alastair Cook, his former England skipper, twice.

Just that, in the return home fixture between Somerset and Lancashire at Anderson’s home ground – Old Trafford – he sustained a minor groin strain. The niggle was perhaps a premonition of sorts.  Although Anderson recovered from it, he went into a big-ticket Test series without having bowled a single delivery in any competitive game. The lack of fitness might have played a part in Anderson struggling to locate the right line and length in the Edgbaston Test. The couple of times he seemed to have found his groove was during his first spell on day three, when he castled Alex Carey from round the wicket. And then on the tense final day, when he troubled Cameron Green with his wobble seam.

The slow Edgbaston deck also did play a role in rendering Anderson ineffective. With little grass on the surface, the conditions didn’t offer any real movement off the seam and there was little reverse swing on offer. The tall pace bowlers from both sides – Pat Cummins, Stuart Broad and Ollie Robinson – did bash the pitch hard and reaped some rewards. Even though Anderson and his Australian counterpart, Scott Boland, are around 6’2″, the duo aren’t exactly renowned for their hit-the-deck skills. The pair combined to pick up just three wickets between them. Boland, who is known as a parsimonious bowler, went at more than six an over in the first innings.

After the Test, Anderson penned down his thoughts about the thrill-a-minute Edgbaston game in a column for The Telegraph and criticised the pitch conditions. However, just reading between the lines, it felt as if Anderson went overboard. “That pitch was like kryptonite for me,” he wrote. “There was not much swing, no reverse swing, no seam movement, no bounce and no pace. I’ve tried over the years to hone my skills so I can bowl in any conditions but everything I tried made no difference. I felt like I was fighting an uphill battle. It’s a long series and hopefully, I can contribute at some point, but if all the pitches are like that I’m done in the Ashes series.”

The pitch for the second Test at Lord’s had a little more bounce. On day one, there was also just enough seam movement and swing on offer. Despite relatively more favourable conditions for bowling, Anderson still finished with a solitary wicket in the first innings.  Here it has to be observed that the left-hand-heavy Australian batting unit seemed to have negated Anderson’s threat. To his credit, Anderson has had his fair share of success against left-handers, but some of them have employed batting smarts to nullify Anderson.

In the past, Graeme Smith, the  former South African skipper, frustrated Anderson no end by leaving deliveries in the channel. And whenever Anderson drifted the ball down leg with his attempted inswinger, Smith would end up collecting runs. A case in point would be the Wanderers Test in 2009-10, where Anderson had a chastening experience in helpful conditions – 0 for 111 from 30 overs. And it was Smith who dented Anderson’s prowess. Somewhere, the Australian left-hand batters – six of them played in the Lord’s Test – also seem to have worked out such a template to blunt Anderson.  

Although Anderson possesses an inswinger in his repertoire, he doesn’t exactly stick to the old edicts of how an outswing bowler should bowl to a left-hand batter – a mixture of inswingers sprinkled with the occasional away-going ball from over the wicket. One of the reasons could be that his action pushes him a tad away from the stumps. So perhaps he feels the ball would angle slightly down leg from over the wicket. But even from round the wicket, Anderson employs the inswinger mostly as a surprise weapon.  

Meanwhile, even when Usman Khawaja was getting squared up in defence in the first innings of the Lord’s Test, he was mostly aiming to play the line and leave Anderson. Yes, Anderson did force Khawaja to edge it to the cordon with an away-swinger, only for Joe Root to grass a tough chance. However, it was quite clear that while facing Anderson, let it be from over or round the wicket, the modus operandi from David Warner and Khawaja was to leave as many deliveries as possible.

In the second innings, Anderson did bowl more from round the wicket to the Australian openers but couldn’t find the elusive breakthrough. The first over of his innings saw Anderson bowl five outswingers before settling for an inswinger. Perhaps Anderson could have gone for the double bluff and used the inswinger first up with no midwicket fielder in place? And subsequently attempted a few outswingers in that over? 

The reasoning behind it is the two left-hand openers were expecting Anderson to start with the outswinger. Yes, the first ball might have drifted down the leg-side. But even if Khawaja had flicked it into the boundary boards, the attempted inswinger would have sowed the seeds of doubt in the batter’s mind. Even after the lunch break, Anderson tried three outswingers before an inswinger almost trapped Warner in front. Just that Warner had found an inside edge.

It is also true that the Australians have played Anderson’s varieties of swing and seam the best among all Test teams. Even before the current Ashes, he was averaging 33.76 against England’s arch-rivals, with his home average surprisingly high at 33.38. His home average now has gone up a few notches to 36.06 against Australia. The left-hand-batter puzzle seems to have compounded his problem against Australia.

Anderson was also largely used from the Nursery End at Lord’s, and he seemed to be disturbed by all the footholes from that particular end. TV visuals kept showing Anderson kicking the crease umpteen times. Now, that could be a reason as to why Anderson couldn’t settle into a rhythm. In hindsight, England could have tried Anderson from the Pavilion End for a few overs, with his wobble ball coming more into play.

Anderson certainly bowled quite a few short and wide deliveries. Even his only wicket in the second innings came via a short and wide ball.  Simply put, we didn’t see enough of the quintessential Anderson line and length at Lord’s.

There is also a school of thought that with age, Anderson struggles more in the second innings. Yes, the stats indicate that it is true, but if you unearth more evidence, it could be observed that since the start of 2019 most of his failures have come at home rather than abroad. It is a tad ironic that a bowler who is called names for his perceived success at home is now getting more rewards abroad.

Since the start of 2019, Anderson averages an impressive 18.64 away for his 59 wickets. His strike-rate of 50.1 is also noteworthy. Since the start of 2020, it gets even better: 47  wickets at 15.72 away, with a strike-rate at 47.1. Even if you consider his second-innings efforts, almost all his better spells in that period have come abroad, including his impactful spells in Chennai and Rawalpindi. The same can’t be said about his bowling in home comforts. Although he has maintained a good average of just over 26 since the start of 2019, his strike-rate stands at 62.6. Now that is a sign of more of a stock bowler rather than a strike bowler.

Anderson’s relative struggles at home could be a combination of opposition teams playing him better, and also England’s slip cordon dropping loads of chances. In the last four-five seasons, England’s slip catching percentage has been mostly hovering in the mid-70s, which is quite modest. To make matters worse for Anderson and also his pace colleague, Stuart Broad, both of them depend more on edges behind the wicket. It shouldn’t be a surprise that three catches have already gone down off Anderson’s bowling in the Ashes 2023.

What about movement? Has one of the finest practitioners suddenly lost his ability to move the ball? Let’s dissect this point further. At Edgbaston, it was quite evident that barring one spell to Green on the final day, Anderson could only find a modicum of movement. On day one of the Lord’s Test, in the first nine overs, Broad and Anderson found an average 2.50 degrees of movement (cricviz), which is considerable movement indeed.

A few nuts and bolts of his bowling could still be fixed. Swing bowling is also about your fingers being tension free. Perhaps he is putting too much pressure on himself? Or probably he isn’t tilting the wrist like he used to? Only Anderson would know the answer to it. The one silver lining for Anderson is his top pace in the Ashes 2023 is still around 85-86mph. And 85-86mph has generally been his top speed for the last several years. 

All the above points indicate that Anderson, for the moment, has lost some of his wicket-taking sense. As he himself wrote in his column after the Lord’s Test. “I am not going to criticise the pitch again,” he said. “They have not suited me so far but I have found ways of getting wickets in the past on flat pitches. At the moment I am just not finding that knack. I just have to keep working on my game, chat to the coaches and see if there is something more I can be doing.”

Many summers ago, in August 2002, this writer watched a baby-faced Anderson run through Hampshire’s batting unit via ESPN highlights in a Norwich Union League match. Prittipaul, Jason Laney and Nic Pothas were his three victims. There was something different about his action compared to many other seamers who had come through the English system. His arm was creating some extra whip, and from mid-crease he was getting a few to slant in a tad before moving the ball away from the right-hand batter. 

Since then, Anderson has navigated his way through hundreds of different chapters in his cricketing career, making incremental improvements to his bowling and action. Some 21 years later, you sit and wonder whether the final chapter of Anderson’s cricketing career is being written by someone up there. The other way to look at it is to see the kind of ‘Bulldog Spirit’ he showed for a No.11 on the final day against the rampaging pace of Mitchell Starc – advancing down the deck, trying to get into line and taking some body blows. That gives an inkling he might be down but not out yet. 

Only time can tell whether the final chapter is being written…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *