Anderson back in the sunlight at last

The boy bowler that was Jimmy Cricket is emerging as a mature international competitor

The formation of a review group to look at all aspects of the England cricket team since 2003 - and not solely this winter's Ashes - suggests that the England and Wales Cricket Board work on a four-year cycle. And with the tour of Australia and the World Cup coming in such close succession it is an opportune time to take stock, for one of England's brightest yet most frustrating young cricketers just as much as the team as a whole.

James Anderson burst on to the international scene during the corresponding tri-nation one-day tournament in Austra-lia four years ago. On a nervous yet encouraging debut he was carted around the Melbourne Cricket Ground by Adam Gilchrist and Ricky Ponting. No disgrace in that. Bigger, better and vastly more experienced bowlers than Anderson have suffered at the hands of those wonderful strikers of a ball.

At the tender age of 20 Anderson had been drafted into England's one-day squad from the National Academy in Adelaide after injury had forced Darren Gough and Andrew Flintoff to return home. He took regular wickets with his lively away-swing before highlighting his potential against Australia at Adelaide, the venue for England's next match against New Zealand on Tuesday, where he conceded just 12 runs in an outstanding 10-over spell.

That catapulted him into the 2002-03 World Cup in South Africa, where he was England's star performer in a hapless campaign. It seemed that a new superstar, blessed with the looks of the lead singer in a boy band, had arrived.

An encouraging Test debut against Zimbabwe followed, as did a hat-trick in a one-day match against Pakistan at The Oval, but suddenly the fairytale took a grim twist. Out of form and then out of the side, Anderson became England's travelling 12th man for 18 frustrating months. He admits now that there was a period when he became a bit complacent.

But now the sun may be starting to shine on him once again. The way he has bowled in England's last two one-dayers against New Zealand and Australia suggests that at last he is back on track. In Hobart and Brisbane the 24-year-old bowled with pace, skill, purpose and, most importantly of all, belief.

Coaches love tinkering with players' actions, and undoubtedly there have been times in the past four years when all was not technically right with Anderson. But so much of sport at the highest level is played in the head, and it is here where he has struggled most.

Overcoached young bowlers believe they have to do the lot: bowl at 90mph, swing it both ways, bouncers, yorkers and two or three types of slower ball. What a bowler really needs is a good solid foundation to fall back on when things are not going right. It has taken Anderson time to find this.

The Australian legend Glenn McGrath does not know how lucky he was learning his cricket hundreds of miles away from a big city. He has bowled one ball for 14 years and it seems to have served him pretty well.

It takes a bowler time to work out what sort of cricketer he is and what he wants to be and, thankfully, Anderson seems to be getting there.

A chat with him at the start of the 2005 season revealed a very confused and frustrated young man. He was out of the England side and felt under enormous pressure to take wickets every time he bowled. My suggestion was that he should forget about taking wickets for the moment and concentrate on bowling well. The two, much to any bowler's frustration, are not always linked, but if you bowl well for a long period the wickets will eventually arrive. Anderson seems to have realised that you do not have to try to take a wicket with every ball, or send down six different deliveries in every over.

His tribulations have not been helped by the over-indulgence of coaches. Troy Cooley is lauded as a fast-bowling guru, but Anderson was not part of his success story. It is great for a bowler to have a mentor to confide in, but he needs to learn to fend for himself too.

Anderson spent four years growing up in the sanitised and slightly pampered world of Team England. It made for a nice life but very little action on the field of play. What he needed was to spend some time in grade cricket in Sydney or Melbourne. Ander-son would have benefited enormously from playing in the hostile and ultra-competitive world of club cricket here.

He would have had to work and play hard to win the respect of team-mates and opponents alike. He would have been placed in tough situations, and the experience would have provided him with a far better education than that which many of England's most talented young cricketers now receive at the National Academy. Nets and video analysis are beneficial, but it is in match situations where you learn the most about yourself.

England need Anderson to continue developing as a bowler because there will be a couple of fast-bowling places available in the not-too-distant future. Patience with Stephen Harmison is wearing thin, Matthew Hoggard has passed 30, a milestone when a fast bowler's age suddenly becomes an issue, and Flintoff's left hoof continues to give cause for concern. Anderson should have been a Test regular by now but, perhaps, the best is about to come.

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