Apprentice in the dark over his flying sorcery

NatWest Challenge: For his next trick, Anderson will try to explain what makes his bowling such a lethal weapon
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The James Anderson Show continues to provide a severe examination of its author's creative talents. Trouble is, if it goes on like this much longer, the viewers' credulity will be stretched beyond breaking point.

When Ian Botham was still regularly achieving the implausible, he once came back against New Zealand after a nine-week suspension for admitting to smoking cannabis. He took a wicket with his first ball, which prompted Graham Gooch famously to ask him: "Who writes your scripts?"

There is a not a snowball in hell's chance that Anderson will ever have a drugs ban to come back from, and other comparisons with the great Botham may be similarly odious, not to mention premature. Anderson, lest we forget, is still an apprentice international bowler.

There is one obvious similarity between the pair, though. Like Botham, it is increasingly clear that Anderson has a golden arm. Botham developed the useful trick of taking wickets with poor balls. Anderson does likewise, and like his predecessor also peppers the opposition with some mighty good ones.

On Friday, he took a wicket with the first ball of the match, and then later on took a hat-trick to bring Pakistan's hapless innings to a close. It was the 18th hat-trick in one-day internationals but the first by an England bowler in their 371 matches. (Statistical-trivia collectors may like to know that Chaminda Vaas of Sri Lanka also took a first-ball wicket and later in the game a hat-trick, in 2001.)

Anderson clearly has something, though he is not himself quite sure what. "It's going pretty quickly at the minute. The luck's with me. The ball's going to hand, so I've just got to make the most of it while that's happening."

He first began taking wickets at opportune moments in Lancashire's Second XI. "Sort of a partnership-breaker, and it's happening more regularly with each game. I haven't got a clue why. If I could put my finger on it there'd be a lot of successful bowlers out there."

The England coach, Duncan Fletcher, had a reason. "He's willing to learn, which is very important. In every department, that is, including his batting, and he takes it on board very quickly."

The list of Anderson's scintillating achievements started almost the moment he was summoned into an injury-ravaged side in Australia last winter. That itself begs a question: he was a scholar at the National Academy, but would he have been called up had it not been for others' misfortunes? Selectors need luck as well as judgement.

At Adelaide in the VB Series, he bowled an enthralling 10-over spell for just 12 runs, the most economical by an England bowler since, well, since Botham 11 years previously. Australia couldn't lay a bat on him. At Cape Town in the World Cup, he bowled his away-swing beautifully, took for four for 29, produced one of the balls of the tournament, and salvaged England's hopes.

Back home, for Lancashire, Anderson took a hat-trick which included the England captain, Nasser Hussain. After what seemed like an age he made his Test debut against Zimbabwe, and took five wickets at Lord's in his first innings. Then came the events of Friday. When he roared in for his hat-trick ball there was an air of inevitability. You sensed that he could have delivered a wide long-hop and still accounted for Mohammad Sami.

At 20, Anderson is still nine months younger than Botham was when he made his first England appearance. None of this has changed him so far. He is shy and reserved, and his caterpillar eyebrows do him the great favour of being able to shield him from the spotlight, in which he does not appear to be at home. Fletcher said he had not changed at all, but would not be drawn on whether the attendant publicity was a good or bad thing. You could probably guess, however. "Some people in the side say he should open up a bit, but will that make him a better cricketer?" Fletcher observed.

Michael Vaughan, England's one-day captain, said: "I don't know what makes you a hat-trick bowler, but Jimmy just seems to have the knack for bowling the right delivery at the right time. So far, he's taken everything in his stride, and I don't think he'll change."

Anderson will not change. Upbringing and nature will combine to ensure that. "I might be a bit more chatty in the dressing room, but outside cricket I'm no different. The lads bring me back to earth, and so do my friends."

Never mind comparisons with Botham. It is easier to make them with Brian Statham, another Lancashire bowler who was called up by England in Australia when he was 20. Statham was a reserved man, too, who let his bowling do the talking, though good fortune was not an especially close ally.

Anderson's action was amended during his brief time at the Academy in Adelaide during the winter and it gave him more control. But perhaps a more decisive alteration was made two years ago. Mike Watkinson, then Lancashire's Second XI coach and now in charge of the first team, took him to one side and sorted out his grip and wrist position.

"I've always had a good seam position but I was just a bit inconsistent with the grip," said Anderson. "I didn't really know where it was going."

When he is not still pinching himself at what is happening, he is trying to build up some strength, but not add weight to his slender frame. He acquires his pace from a snappy action and a quick arm, and does not want to risk affecting it by getting bigger.

The hoopla of publicity will not fade yet, and English cricket does not want it to. The best thing will not be that the new opening bowler becomes cricket's Beckham but that he becomes great as Jimmy Anderson. The scriptwriters are probably scratching their heads about his next trick, the hat variety now being old hat, so to speak. The one certainty seems to be that there will be a next trick.