Jimmy Anderson was described yesterday as the most skilful fast bowler in the world. If it is a verdict at odds with the official ratings, does not strictly tally with the bald statistics and would elicit howls of outrage from the supporters of at least two South Africans, it is also a proposition to be seriously considered.
It was delivered by England’s bowling coach, David Saker, after Anderson’s consummate display at Lord’s in the first Test against New Zealand.
Saker, it could be suggested, is bound to favour one of his charges but the evidence he had just witnessed would have persuaded many others.
“To me he is the most skilful fast bowler in the world,” said Saker. “I know Dale Steyn is an outstanding bowler but when you watch Jimmy he has more skills in his locker. Steyn may be a little bit quicker but when you watched Jimmy deliver those skills it is mind blowing.”
Although Stuart Broad made the most spectacular contribution by taking 7 for 44 as New Zealand were dismissed for 68 in their second innings on Sunday, he was aided and abetted by a riveting spell from Anderson at the other end. It is no idle stock phrase that fast bowlers hunt in pairs and on another day it could easily have been Anderson reaping the richer harvest.
His first innings figures of 5 for 42, during which he became only the fourth England bowler to take 300 Test wickets and when Broad was innocuous, emphasised Saker’s point. Anderson rarely bowls a poor spell.
The ICC ratings have Steyn at No 1, narrowly ahead of his compatriot Vernon Philander, with Anderson languishing in sixth place more than 100 ranking points behind. Anderson averages 30 a wicket, Steyn averages 21. Nor do the recent direct encounters between them serve Anderson especially well.
When South Africa scored 637 for 2 at The Oval last summer, Anderson struck early and then went wicketless for 40 overs while Steyn took five wickets in England’s second innings on a pitch that was still blameless. In an engaging manner, Steyn always makes it quite clear that he knows how good he is. When the captain wants a wicket, he has pointed out, he usually asks Steyn and is usually repaid.
But to see Anderson at Lord’s, the slope of the pitch in his favour, the Duke ball his to command and the cloud cover generally helping, was definitely to watch a maestro at work. He is an arch-manipulator of a cricket ball.
On a Tasmanian afternoon on England’s last tour of Australia, Anderson performed some party tricks for the English press. Saker explained that they were interested in only three lengths for the fast bowler, the good length, the yorker and the knock him in the head.
Anderson, on command, instantly produced perfect examples of all three. The length ball clipped the top off after swinging away late, the yorker hit the base of middle and the bouncer knocked the batsman’s block off (fortunately it was a mannequin). Anderson likes to be grumpy but he could not resist a virtuous smile then.
Saker said: “I remember watching him when I was supporting the Aussie team and he could swing the ball but you could always get a four off him now and then. Now as a batsman it is really hard to get runs off him. It is rare that he gets cut, he doesn’t bowl short balls except when it is a bouncer, he always tests the batsman out. He is a class bowler, simple as that.”
It was admirable of Broad to say that Anderson should have received the man-of-the-match award at Lord’s for his overall display. But equally, Broad’s own bowling was spellbinding stuff from beginning to end. What he has yet to achieve is Anderson’s regularity.
“We always want players to be consistent and that is what makes the greats stand out from the very good,” said Saker. “The greats are consistent and I think Stuart still has things to learn about bowling but he is getting better and learning a lot from sometimes having a down time.”
Saker also confirmed that Steve Finn has abandoned the short run he tried in New Zealand and that he as coach supported the decision. What Finn has, however, is the knack of taking wickets, something that, however unfair, occasionally eludes Anderson.
But there is no question who leads the England attack and none either about his intent and his durability. It is Anderson.
“To me he keeps getting better, I don’t know if his figures say that but he is the one player I have coached who is never satisfied with what he has got,” Saker said.
“For him it would be easy to be satisfied but he keeps working on different things in training – I have never met a guy as good as him who keeps wanting to get better and that is probably one of the reasons he is as good as he is.
“He has a body as well that I think will let him play for a lot longer so hopefully he will go past 400 wickets and become England’s greatest wicket-taker, that would be a great feat for him. He has had some injury problems and that always helps when you know exactly where you are going and what you want to do.
“We really hope he can stay on the park for another five or six years.”
How they compare
James Anderson versus Dale Steyn
30 Age 29
May 2003 Test debut Dec 2004
81 Test matches 65
149 Innings 122
696 Maidens 471
9,194 Runs conceded 7,523
305 Wickets 332
7-43 Best figures 7-51
30.14 Bowling average 22.65
3.08 Economy 3.30
58.5 Bowling strike rate 41.1
13 Five-wicket hauls 21
(Test match comparison)