So who is the best fast bowler in the world – South Africa’s Dale Steyn or England’s Trent Bridge match- winner James Anderson? Statistically, it is a no contest. Whatever way you look at it Steyn’s figures are far superior to those of Anderson. But would Alastair Cook, the England captain, exchange his spearhead for any other fast bowler in the world? The answer would be a big, loud, resounding no.
It was clear at Nottingham that Anderson is Cook’s go-to man, the fast bowler he believes will produce a moment of inspiration or supreme skill when his team needs it most. Cook trusts Anderson implicitly. He knows he is the man who can make him look good as a supreme captain. Between the pair a field and plan are set, Anderson bowls to them and they produce results. It sounds easy but consistently bowling to a plan is a talent very few bowlers possess.
And this is why I couldn’t give a damn about the rankings and who people think is the best. The table is a bit of fun but the conclusions the mathematicians reach are largely irrelevant. I am sure in their calculation Anderson gained more points for knocking over New Zealand’s top order in seamer-friendly conditions at Lord’s in May than for dismissing Australia’s lower order at a steaming-hot, pressure cooker Trent Bridge on Sunday. We know what was more valuable and all that is important is that James Anderson is British and he continues to win games of cricket for England.
Of far greater interest is what actually makes Anderson the world-class performer he is. Fast bowlers need a number of assets and characteristics to compete in a game that is largely geared to favour batsmen. It is, for example, extremely advantageous for a fast bowler to be tall, fast and intimidating. Yet these are not the resources that stand out in Anderson’s profile. At 6ft 2in he is not small but many of England’s other bowlers – Stuart Broad, Steven Finn, Graham Onions, Chris Tremlett and Boyd Rankin – tower above the 30-year-old. Neither is he lethally quick. Anderson generally checks in at between 80 and 85 mph. He doesn’t snarl like Merv Hughes either.
Although Anderson is a wonderful athlete it is his personal rather than physical qualities that make him stand out. Cricket history states that the great Sydney Barnes was an unbelievably skilful bowler yet it is hard to believe he possessed greater qualities than Anderson.
Nowhere were Anderson’s skills highlighted more than during a Sky Sports Masterclass filmed last year. Now I thought I had pretty good control of a cricket ball but during this session Anderson was producing staggering precision – attention to detail I struggled to comprehend. The fact that he was able to control which way the new ball swung by a simple, last-minute movement of the wrist; that he could deliberately hit the seam of the ball on an intended side and also release the ball with the seam wobbling, a skill that means the ball could move either way, was breathtaking. It was fascinating and illuminating to watch a master showing and explaining his craft.
But a fast bowler would be ridiculed and hopelessly exposed if he did not have a big heart and an unbreakable desire. Bowling is an unbelievably tough job, especially in the climate the first Ashes Test was played in. Anderson will have pushed himself as hard as he did at Trent Bridge on numerous occasions in the past and had very little to show for his efforts. But the reason why you go through the tough, unrewarding days is because you believe that somewhere along the line you will get what you deserve, and Anderson received just that in Nottingham.
The lesson to be learnt for many aspiring young fast bowlers and coaches is that Anderson’s rise to the top has not happened overnight. I clearly remember him making his England debut in a one-day international against Australia at the MCG in December 2002. The Ashes were already lost and England were on the wrong end of a mauling from Adam Gilchrist and Ricky Ponting, who both scored hundreds in a total in excess of 300.
Anderson went for 46 in six overs but even then there seemed a spirit in him. He was not overawed by a huge crowd and great players. Gilchrist became his first international wicket when he bowled him for 124.
He then spent the next five years on the periphery of the Test side and with coaches trying to change his bowling action. I recall interviewing him at New Road, Worcester ,when he was at his most frustrated. We just sat talking bowling for an hour or so, and I take no credit for what has happened since.
At the time Anderson was obsessed with taking wickets and he chased them recklessly. To him they were all that counted. It was the only way he felt he would force his way in to the England side. I told him he was going about things the wrong way, and that what he should attempt to do was bowl consistently well and to trust the game. The number in the maiden column was just as important as the number in the wicket column. The aim should be to bowl with consistency so that even on a wicketless day he was still doing a job for the team. It is not a coincidence that Anderson now consistently concedes fewer than three runs per over, offering his captain control as well as a cutting edge.
As impressive as anything is his adaptability. As he proved this week he is a threat in any conditions and on any type of pitch. This is achieved through conventional or reverse swing, by subtle changes of pace and angles or by simple seam movement. Basically, he is the complete package.
The England team know what an asset they have and, when possible, will handle him like a Ming vase. Without him this Ashes series could take a different road to that many predicted.