Twenty-two is a frighteningly callow age for your career to reach a crossroads. It is a time when the vast majority of young men and women still have little idea of what they want to do in their working lives. But this is where James Anderson, the Lancashire and England fast bowler, sits after being omitted from England's 12-man squad for the first Test against Bangladesh.
Nobody at The Oval on 20 June 2003 would have dreamt that this would be the case. After a disastrous World Cup, in which Anderson had been one of the few pluses, English cricket was in desperate need of a fresh new face on which to pin its aspirations. And during a glorious summer afternoon in south London, in front of a full house in the game against Pakistan, Anderson turned into that man when he became the first England bowler to take a hat-trick in one-day internationals. Almost 20,000 rose to their feet to cheer English cricket's brightest young talent as he led his team from the field.
This performance epitomised Anderson's remarkable transformation from a shy, good-looking 19-year-old lad who opened the bowling for Burnley in the Lancashire League, into the figure the England and Wales Cricket Board was using to symbolise everything that was good in the game.
Yet within six months of reaching these dizzy heights a fatigued, injured and out-of-form Anderson found himself being used as a squad player, not the leader of the pack. And this has remained the case for the last 18 months. An injury to Simon Jones allowed Anderson to play in England's last three Test matches against the West Indies in 2004, but following a worryingly erratic bowling performance in South Africa, many felt that he would benefit from returning to county cricket and learning his trade.
Selecting the centrally contracted Anderson in the squad for the first Test may have helped soften the blow, but bowling in the nets and ensuring his team-mates are fully hydrated would have done him no good at all. Lancashire play Oxford University while Michael Vaughan's side takes on Bangladesh, and he will benefit more from bowling at The Parks than watching his team-mates bowl at Lord's.
"The last 18 months have been very difficult," admitted a downbeat but immaculately turned out Anderson. "I do miss the limelight a little, but to be honest I'm not that bothered. I guess at the time I was happy about it. I enjoyed all the attention, as well as everything that came with it. But I now realise there are more important things. At one stage I may have got a little complacent, but I did not get carried away with it all because my bowling has always come first."
Anderson's hair, looks and trendy dress sense, has put him on the front covers of dozens of glossy magazines. And as I tried to hurry him up for this interview he told me to hold on while he got his hair right.
The red stripe, that led to one journalist comparing him to a peacock, has gone, but there were still highlights in his scruffy, waxed mane. I asked him whether the styling of his hair reflected his inner mood. Looking at me quizzically, and with a smirk on his face, he quietly said: "No, it's got nothing to do with that, and you know it. I take pride in my appearance. Who doesn't?"
For a young man with so much going for him Anderson is very reserved and quietly spoken. He is polite and thoughtful, the sort of bloke you would be happy to see your daughter go out with. But he is very intense about his cricket, and when I spoke to him he had just felt the full force of Graeme Hick's strokeplay.
"I'm really pissed off about this evening," he said. "I have bowled well at times this season but today I did exactly what I have been trying to avoid. Then I just tried to be patient and bowl maidens. Today I got a bit carried away. I should have eased my way into it but I ran in hard and tried to bowl fast. Because we didn't get a great score I was desperately trying to get people out and the more I got hit the more everything went out of the window. I'm angry because when I ease my way into it I swing the ball."
Anderson made his England debut in front of 40,000 unsympathetic Australians in Melbourne in December 2002. Wearing a blue England one-day shirt without his name or number on it, he received plenty of abuse from the hostile crowd. 'Hey Pom, are you too $*?£%$* embarrassed to have your name on your shirt,' was the general gist of the taunts, but he came through it and took the wicket of Adam Gilchrist.
Anderson's performances improved steadily and in a limited-overs match against Australia in Adelaide he showed his potential when he conceded just 12 runs in a superb 10-over spell. Ten wickets were taken at the 2003 World Cup, including four on that unforgettable night in Cape Town, and on his Test debut at Lord's he took 5 for 73 against Zimbabwe.
A further five-wicket haul followed in the third Test against South Africa, but by then worrying signs were beginning to appear. Anderson's control, and ability to produce wicket-taking balls, wavered and the bad days started to outnumber the good. The swing bowler finished his first full season as an international cricketer knackered and with a knee injury which caused him to miss England's Test tour of Bangladesh.
Anderson recovered in time for the pre-Christmas tour of Sri Lanka but an ankle injury, sustained playing squash, kept him out of the first two Test matches. In the third he bowled poorly and ever since he has struggled to produce the consistency that is required from an international bowler.
During this period every facet of his bowling has been looked at, and there has been no shortage of advice. Some observers have suggested that Troy Cooley, the England bowling coach, modified his bowling action, but this accusation has been denied by both.
"People keep saying there has been a massive change to my action but there has actually been very little at all," Anderson said. "Troy was in today and we looked at some footage from when I was playing for England Under-19s. And apart from my load-up [the position of his hand before his arm comes over] there is not one difference. I am perfectly happy with the way my action is at the minute."
If the problems are not technical then they must be mental? "Yes, I pretty much think that is what it is," he says. "It is my confidence. Last summer I didn't play that much and the only time I felt really good was in that last Test at The Oval against the West Indies. But because that was right at the end of the season it didn't help much. Simon Jones then came back and bowled better than me in Zimbabwe and he got picked in the first Test in South Africa and took five wickets."
Anderson's body language on the day after I spoke to him, when Hick was at his brutal best, was that of a bowler almost at his wits' end. Having watched almost every over of his England career I feel Anderson's lack of consistency has more to do with what he is attempting to do with each ball he bowls.
And to prove this I put him in a hypothetical situation. I asked him what he would be thinking as he walked back to his mark after bowling a well directed ball that the batsman let harmlessly pass through to the keeper. "Well, it depends on what sort of dot ball [a delivery where no runs are scored of it] it was," he said.
I enquired what he meant by that. "Well if it passed by the off stump by, say, nine inches I would then want to bowl the next ball a bit straighter, say three inches outside off stump."
At this point I wanted to get up, grab him by the neck and shake him. Why? Because it may sound impressive for a bowler to strive for such perfection but it is totally unrealistic.
Glenn McGrath, Curtly Ambrose and Shaun Pollock, three of the most accurate bowlers cricket has produced, would never set such unrealistic goals. In such a situation they would just try to bowl the same ball again and again, knowing that there would be a natural change in the line and length because men are not robots.
"I have not yet got the patience to bowl the ball on the same spot time and time again," he said. "I know what I should have done today but I didn't quite get it right. It's frustrating because over the last couple of years I have worked so hard at my cricket, yet I haven't been able to crack it and return to the form I had.
"There are times when I put too much pressure on myself and become too intense about my cricket, but this is because I am desperate to succeed. I don't think I will ever get back to the frame of mind I had when I first played in Australia because from now on there will always be some sort of expectation. Then I just couldn't believe I was there and just got on with it, whatever happened. I didn't really think about my cricket I just ran up and bowled.
"Now, especially with the bowling attack England have, when I run up to bowl I'm thinking I have got to do this, this and this to get past them and get back in the side."
Anderson will need to bowl with consistency for Lancashire before the selectors consider him for Test cricket, but anyone with an interest in England's fortunes will hope that, having reached this junction, he does not turn left or right, but storms straight ahead.Reuse content