The trials and tribulations behind James Anderson’s 700 Test wickets

Anderson has picked up 700 Test wickets


Where to start and how to end? The question that flashes in the mind while penning a few words on James Anderson. If you frantically search for old photos of Anderson, there is a chance of getting a headshot of a 19-year-old bowler, with a completely different hairstyle. He had just made his first-class debut then. 

At the end of that County season, he took a five-for against Lancashire’s arch-rivals, Yorkshire. He had also removed Mark Ramprakash with a yorker. So, it was quite natural that there was a bit of hype about a young bowler who seemed to have the ability to trouble the best in the business in the English domestic circuit with a delivery that slants in and then moves away and late. Although, Kyle Hogg, his Lancashire teammate, was said to be ahead of him in the pecking order. 

On the back of a recommendation from Marcus Trescothick, he joined an injury-hit national side for the tri-series in Australia in 2002-03. The rest is history as more than two decades later, at the age of almost 42, he is still plying his trade. And that again brings up another question – How to look at the different stages of Anderson’s career? He has had so many of them.

There is the image of a young Anderson bowling full and generating late swing in the 2003 World Cup. The outswinging-yorker to Mohammed Yousuf in that tournament illustrates the point. You also visualise him running through the heart of the Zimbabwean line-up in his maiden Test match. He soon found out Test cricket is a hard grind as Graeme Smith took a liking to his bowling and Anderson struggled to find his rhythm. Although if Nasser Hussain had taken a sitter at Lord’s, things could have been a bit better for the promising bowler.

That was followed by a phase where Anderson’s action was changed by Troy Cooley. He lost his swing and confidence. In 2005, when Anderson played ahead of Simon Jones at the Wanderers, he bowled all over the shop. He still put in a few good performances in the One-Day arena during that period, but for a moment, it seemed as if England had messed up yet another cricketer with burgeoning potential. With Duncan Fletcher at the helm of affairs, England also were more inclined towards picking tall hit-the-deck fast bowlers, with Matthew Hoggard as the workhorse. 

There was still a ray of hope of Anderson resurrecting his Test career in India in 2006. He took six wickets in a Test at the Wankhede, and his victims included the likes of Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag. Unfortunately for Anderson, that small window of light was quashed. On May 1, 2006, Anderson was laid low by a stress fracture of the back.

When he returned to action, he was straight away picked in the XI for an away tour of Australia. The tour of Australia was a chastening experience for Anderson. On Day 1 at the Gabba, he bowled with an upright seam consistently. Just that there was a problem with his strategy. As a first-change bowler, he was bowling too full. The Kookaburra in Australia stops assisting pace bowlers after about 20 overs. 

Anderson finished the series with a mere 5 wickets at an average of 82.6. The only silver lining being the razor-sharp outswingers he bowled at SCG. Right at that juncture, you wondered whether he had rediscovered the art of generating new-ball swing. 

By 2007, Anderson had gone back to an action that was based on his original one, but with certain tweaks. He had also added the inswinger to the right-hander. After hours and hours of practice in the nets, he employed the new-found weapon to nail Hampshire’s Michael Brown in a County Championship match. It had curled in to rattle the timber.

A few months later, he had dislodged the legendary Sachin Tendulkar with the inswinger at Lord’s. There were still a few nuts and bolts missing from his bowling: Anderson was smashed to shreds in a Test in Kandy at the backend of 2007. At the completion of that Test, his overall average stood at 39.2 and his away record was even worse: 59.53!

By the time England toured New Zealand in early 2008, Anderson’s Test career was still at the crossroads. But a watershed moment was about to happen. Peter Moores, the-then England coach, decided to bring in some fresh blood – Both Stuart Broad and Anderson were preferred over Hoggard and Steve Harmison. After taking a five-for in helpful conditions at Basin Reserve, Anderson’s performances were once more below-par for the rest of the series. So, the knives were still out. 

In fact, after England played out a two-match Test series in India in 2008, Anderson averaged a whopping 51.48 abroad. It was time for Anderson to put his thinking cap on and unleash a new weapon. Anderson has also been a diligent disciple of the game of cricket, who watches his competitors to pick up cues about how to bowl in different climes.When Pakistan toured England in 2010, Mohammed Asif seemingly had the ball on a string. And the delivery that caused sleepless nights to the English batters was the wobble ball. 

Along with David Saker, Anderson worked out his own method of getting the ball to wobble, which turned out to be a game-changer. During his litmus test, a tour to Australia in 2010-11, with a medley consisting of swing and seam, he made the ball talk. He harvested 24 scalps at 26 in that series.

The highlight of his spells was how he set-up a young Stever Smith with two inswingers before zipping one away to induce the edge at the MCG. Then there was a wicketless spell on Day 3 at the Gabba. He used the wobble to beat both Brad Haddin and Michael Hussey on the outside edge. He also won an LBW appeal against Hussey, only for the batter to reverse it via the DRS. 

Anderson didn’t lose the plot as he once more rapped Hussey on the pad. To the naked eye, Hussey looked dead in front. Unfortunately for Anderson, Aleem Dar didn’t raise his finger and England had wasted all their reviews. This particular spell happens to be Anderson’s best wicketless spell. 

A couple of years later, Anderson also played a significant role in England’s memorable triumph in India, with superlative spells of reverse swing at Eden Gardens and Nagpur. Tendulkar, who bore the burnt of those two spells, still recalls the mastery of Anderson’s ‘reverse swing reverse’. Basically, it was reverse swing as per science. In that series, he was clearly hiding the shine of the ball – An art that he picked up from Zaheer Khan, the former Indian pacer.

By 2015, he had succeeded across four successive rubbers in Asia – versus Pakistan in the UAE, Sri Lanka, India and again in the UAE. Was there still a scope for improvement? Maybe there was. In 2015, in Sharjah, Anderson generated considerable reverse swing, but he rarely used the inswinger. 

Even though Anderson took six wickets in that Test, it was perhaps his one golden opportunity to bag a 10-for in a match in Asia. Only if he had ushered in a few more inswingers. The one consolation for Anderson was Waqar Younis, then coach of Pakistan, and one of the masters of the art, commended Anderson for his nous with the old ball.

Six years on after that Test in Sharjah, when England took on India in a Test in Chennai, it felt as if Anderson had learnt his lesson. He bowled within himself in the first innings and looked to keep it tight. In the second innings, with the surface getting abrasive, he ramped up his pace by a bit and ran through the cream of the Indian middle order. More importantly, both his wicket-taking deliveries to Shubman Gill and Ajinkya Rahane with the old ball were inswingers. He also dinked out the dangerman, Rishabh Pant, with a cutter.

In 2022, he was one of the cornerstones of England’s 3-0 triumph in Pakistan, averaging 18.5. Mohammed Rizwan, who was cleaned up by a delivery that reversed in a touch before hitting the crack to shatter the timber, couldn’t stop marvelling at Anderson’s skill-set. The wicketkeeper-bat said: “Naseem Shah told me, ‘the way he bowled you, that is what he also does with Dukes in England’, I love him.”

Another successful series away from home followed – A tour of New Zealand. Finally, his away average had dipped below 30. Bit-by-bit, inch-by-inch it had improved – 49, 48, 44, 38, 35, 34, 33, 32, 31, 30 and now 29. Incidentally, for a timeframe of 4 years between January 2019 to April 2023, he ended up averaging 18.64 at a strike rate of 50.8 abroad. In Asia, in that period, he averaged 14.59. 

Ironically, for a bowler who was called ‘home bully’, his home record had started to take a bit of a dent. But it was quite evident that Anderson had touched the peak of his prowess at the age of nearly 41. He was rightfully ranked the No. 1 Test bowler during the New Zealand tour.

But all great things have to come to an end at some point. Before the commencement of Ashes 2023, Anderson had a hamstring injury. He did recover from that injury, but the subsequent Ashes was a nightmare for the ‘Burnley Bullet’: Five wickets came at the cost of 86. Australia also deserve plenty of credit for working out Anderson’s methods. A slew of left-handers negated Anderson’s away-swing by playing the line. A point to observe is Anderson’s inswinger isn’t that effective, especially while bowling to the southpaws. 

However, Anderson wasn’t going to give up yet. Beyond the cameras and all the criticisms, he did the hard yards and chiseled out a slightly new run-up. At the age of 41, when most fast bowlers would be thinking of father’s time, he was still eyeing incremental improvements. In the Test series against India, Anderson’s maximum speeds were in the range of 137-139 kph, which for his age is commendable. 

On the flip side, barring one session in Dharamsala, he didn’t swing the old ball much. Probably he was hitting the ‘zero-mark’ with the older ball? In science, zero-mark relates to a pacer bowling at a certain speed (around 80-82mph), where he is supposed to generate little new-ball or old-ball swing. But with just enough seam movement and new-ball swing, Anderson still turned out to be England’s best pacer of the series and became the first-ever fast bowler to reach the coveted landmark of 700 Test wickets.

Maybe, just maybe Anderson will play one more home season before hanging up his boots. After all, he deserves a proper send-off at his homeground, Old Trafford. Whatever the future holds for Anderson, he has been a magnificent servant of English cricket. A bowler who made continuous upgrades to his game, refining and tweaking it to find the best version of himself. 

The one question still remains unanswered – Where to begin and how to end an editorial on a bowler who has played 24 years of professional cricket and 21 years of international cricket? Oh! Probably we have to now transport ourselves back to the domestic One-Day game between Lancashire and Hampshire in 2002, when Anderson put on a splendid exhibition of swing bowling. It could serve as the starting of another long chapter on Anderson’s career…

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