Who is the greatest: Ian Botham or Jimmy Anderson?

With James Anderson closing in on Sir Ian Botham’s Test wicket record, the third man in England’s standings, Bob Wills, tells Jack Pitt-Brooke the former at his peak was quicker and more explosive but the Burnley boy has greater disguise

If Sir Ian Botham was quicker and more versatile, then Jimmy Anderson is fitter and subtler. Those are the verdicts on England’s two best ever bowlers, counting Test wickets taken, delivered by the third.

There cannot be a single observer better placed than Bob Willis to make this judgement. He bowled with Botham for England in the late 1970s and early 1980s before watching almost all of Anderson’s international career from the commentary box.

Ever since Anderson made his Test debut in 2003 he has been chasing down Botham’s record of 383 Test wickets. Last summer he claimed second place in the standings, overtaking Willis’ 325. Eight wickets in the fifth Test against India at The Oval – starting on Friday – would overhaul Botham’s record.

Willis thinks Anderson would be worthy of dethroning Botham, even if he is a bowler of a slightly different profile from “Beefy”.

“There are similarities between the two,” he told The Independent Monday. “They have natural away swing with the new ball and tremendous control of line and length.”

Botham, though, was faster and more spectacular, exploding onto the scene, taking his 200th wicket in just his 41st Test, and contributing brilliantly with the bat. Anderson’s mastery, however, has increased over time.

“At his peak, Beefy would have been a quicker bowler, but I think Jimmy has got better disguise,” said Willis. “I don’t ever recall Ian hiding the ball as he ran up to deceive a batsman as to which way the ball was going to swing.”

Anderson’s ability to move the ball in as well as away from the right-hander, almost entirely beyond the batsman’s detection, has been arguably his most dangerous weapon in the last few years. “I would concede that Jimmy probably has the better disguised, the more lethal in-swinger than Ian,” said Willis. “It probably moves later in its trajectory than Ian’s did.

“That is the great skill of the swing bowler, to make the batsman think the ball is going straight and then, in the last third of its travel, it veers off either way.” Anderson has also proven to be more adept at reverse-swing, which emerged towards the end of Botham’s career.

This is not to say, though, that Botham was not a thrilling swing bowler. Willis points to the summer of 1978 when Botham “bowled Pakistan and New Zealand out as an absolute past-time, with basic swing bowling”. Botham, aged just 22, took 37 wickets at 14.75 in six Tests that summer. Willis had to make do with 25 at 18.48.

As impressive as that summer was, Willis believes that Botham’s bowling was more versatile, more capable of flourishing in unhelpful conditions than Anderson’s has been so far. While Botham averaged 29.63 away from England – and 26.31 on the subcontinent – Anderson averages 36.14 abroad and 32.31 in Asia.

“If the ball doesn’t swing abroad Anderson is severely handicapped,” said Willis. “With the Kookaburra ball with its flat seam, you get precious little seam movement.  I think both of them were better bowlers in England than overseas, as most English bowlers are.”

Botham, in this sense, has the edge and Willis spoke of the Golden Jubilee Test in Bombay in 1980, when Botham took 6 for 58 and 7 for 48 – as well as scoring 114 – as England beat India by 10 wickets. “He bowled brilliantly in the Jubilee Test,” said Willis, “that was a tremendous performance on a spinning, dusty track. He could turn it on in most conditions.”

While some draw comparisons between the two personalities – Anderson’s occasional grumpiness and Botham’s pally exuberance – Willis suggests that those are the function, more than anything else, of different eras.

“Jimmy is a little bit like Glenn McGrath, motivating himself by chuntering to himself and to the opposition,” he said. “Clearly it is an important tool these days. Ian though was far more likely to take the mickey out of them afterwards over a beer or 10. Times have changed in that regard, it’s a more monitored professional atmosphere these days, I don’t think the teams mix anything like as much as they used to.”

Botham was famously good friends with Viv Richards, Dennis Lillee, Jeff Thomson and other players of his era. “That is part of the game that has disappeared,” admitted Willis. “In a more professional era when people are playing for very high salaries, that part of the game was bound to drift out of the window.”

If Anderson does not break Botham’s record at The Oval, he will have to wait almost nine months until England’s next Test match, in the West Indies next April. While Anderson has stayed remarkably fit, Willis thinks his workload should be managed if he is to push to 400 Test wickets and beyond.

“England have got a very, very hectic schedule,” he said. “Apart from the World Cup, England would do well to rest Jimmy from 50-over cricket, and keep him wrapped up for the big events, to prolong his Test match shelf life. It looks as if he will get past Ian,  and in fewer Test matches, which is a tremendous testimony to him.”

Sky Sports will broadcast its 200th live England Test this week: England v India 5th Test at The Oval from Friday 15 August

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing
The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower