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News Analysis

The magician who became a puritan, James Anderson faces final curtain

Who could have conceived 20 years ago that England's Burnley firework would become a model of consistency and longevity?

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
12-May-2024
It was all Nasser Hussain's fault, though typically it took him the best part of two decades to own up to the fact.
"I gave him the wrong field," Hussain said of James Anderson's debut over in Test cricket, against Zimbabwe in 2003, which - for want of a fine leg, and an overambitious off-side ring - was picked off by Dion Ebrahim for 17 runs, mostly off his toes.
The admission came during a piece to Sky Sports' cameras in front of the Lord's pavilion, at the completion of yet another James Anderson landmark. There've been so many to choose from down the years, so it's hard to recall which particular achievement was being commemorated on that day - though the desire to rewind the narrative all the way back to where it began suggests it must have been a biggie.
His 500th Test wicket against West Indies in 2017, maybe? Or perhaps it was the occasion of his 40th birthday in 2022, or his 20 years as a Test cricketer the following summer? Or perhaps it was just a generic catch-up with England's rock of ages, who - as he himself put it after the news of his impending retirement broke this week - had already endured ten years of presumption that each summer would be his last. Who wouldn't want to talk to him at a venue with which he is synonymous, just in case those 28 Lord's Tests and counting were about, as we now know they will, to come to an end?
Of course, that opening over didn't remain the story for long - Anderson had not conceded another run when, with his 18th ball in Test cricket, he launched his maiden Test five-for by bamboozling Mark Vermeulen with a classic of his original genre, an apparent inswinger that somehow beat the outside edge to crash into middle stump. It was a passage of play that had Henry Olonga in the Channel 4 commentary box flummoxed as well - his verdict veered from "wonderful ball that may well have angled in and held its line" to "just a straight ball" in the time it took for the slow-motion replay to wash away the stardust.
Little did Anderson know it at the time, but that economy of magic would be the making of his game. At the outset of his career, with his frantic untamed run-up and a whang of the torso that evoked a mediaeval trebuchet rather than the scalpel of recent vintage, he was a deliverer of moments - huge, blockbusting deliveries such as the outswinging yorker that confounded Mohammad Yousuf at the 2003 World Cup, a ball that looked more likely to hare away through fine leg for five wides than bend back so wickedly to dip beneath his defences.
And it was Anderson's pursuit of such big-ticket items - and Hussain's failure, in that original instance, to mitigate against them - that offered less-heralded combatants such as Ebrahim the chance to take lumps out of his early analyses, let alone players of far greater gumption such as Graeme Smith and Matthew Hayden, who would be waiting to pick him off soon enough.
It's no secret - indeed, in some unforgiving quarters, it remains a stick with which to beat him - that Anderson's first four years of Test cricket were some way short of being even a qualified success. By the end of the 5-0 whitewash in the 2006-07 Ashes, he had 46 wickets in 16 Tests, at an average of 38.39 and an economy rate pushing four an over, which left even his moments of relative triumph - such as a starring role in England's famous win in Mumbai in March 2006 - feeling like happenstance rather than due reward for an inherently skilful display.
But by the time he had harnessed his powers, to make the elimination of error the bedrock of his methods, there was no stopping him - and suddenly those deliveries, like Vermeulen's, that did just enough to be devastating, became all the more admired precisely because he was now able to conceal the full sleight of hand that had gone into the set-up. It was telling that, in his own tribute in the Sunday Times, Anderson's old friend and former captain Alastair Cook focused almost exclusively on the "control" and "consistency" that his strike bowler had offered him, over and above any awe at his exploits.
From anyone else, that assessment might have come across as mealy-mouthed, but these were the twin architects of England's two greatest series wins of the past 15 years - the 2010-11 Ashes and the 2-1 win in India two winters later (for which MS Dhoni, no less, said Anderson was the difference between the teams). Cook knows better than anyone how vital parsimony was to the particular methods of the first great England team of which Anderson was an integral part. If Cook, with his six big hundreds across those two campaigns, was all about building England's positions slowly and methodically, then Anderson was the perfect man to apply the exact same patience and precision to the subsequent dismantling of their opponents.
Whether that approach is quite so relevant in the Bazball era is clearly an issue that came to a head at Anderson's most recent appraisal, although it should be acknowledged that - even in the wake of a distinctly poor Ashes performance last summer - he's still claimed claimed 60 wickets at 25.91 since the start of Brendon McCullum's tenure in June 2022, which measures up perfectly adequately to the haul of 67 at 26.67 provided by Stuart Broad, arguably Bazball's most iconic bowler, prior to his own retirement at The Oval last summer.
Either way, those returns were ample justification for McCullum's decision - albeit at Ben Stokes' insistence - that both Anderson and Broad deserved to be rescued from the scrapheap onto which they were placed in the wake of the 2021-22 Ashes. And even if Andrew Strauss, the man who made that call, was correct in his assessment that the 2025-26 campaign would be beyond both men, and therefore, the future ought not to be made to wait, then Anderson - armed with a Dukes ball, at Lord's, and days from his 42nd birthday - has put in the groundwork to ensure he will stride out for one last time in July as England's rightful and indisputable attack leader.
"Anderson bowled magic balls, but his calling-card was a dot. He was at times a deeply grumpy competitor, but loves the game so absolutely that he cannot quite concede that he won't keep chugging away for Lancashire"
It still beggars belief that we've got to this point, however. When you think back to the stripling who took the field at Lord's in 2003 (alongside his fellow debutant, Essex's long-term coach Anthony McGrath), there were many things you might have expected from Anderson's Test career, but puritanical values and jaw-dropping longevity were not among them.
How many ways do you want to dice the pre-conceptions that accompanied that first outing? Remarkably, even at the age of 20, he had one hell of a backstory already - the boy from Burnley who exploded like a firework, in every conceivable sense, during England's gruelling winter of 2002-03 - first as an extraordinary add-on to a toiling one-day side in Australia, then as the fall-guy in a devastating World Cup defeat to the same opponents at Port Elizabeth three months later, only days after he had touched the sun with that aforementioned filleting of Pakistan.
The drama of that narrative arc was replicated over the course of his first England summer, in which the fripperies of his youthful existence - most notably the red go-faster stripe that soon appeared in his hair, and the trendy threads that accompanied his cover-star turn for the inaugural Wisden Cricketer magazine - all added up to a sense of style over substance. That, and the ECB's unbridled horror at the exertions of his action, which would soon have him, as with so many other promising quicks of his vintage, bundled into a corrective course of biomechanics at Loughborough.
That meddling contributed to the struggles that would follow, and also resulted in a stress fracture of Anderson's lower back - one of only a handful of significant injuries in an extraordinarily robust career. But it is telling that he was one of the very few young bowlers to survive this appliance of science, largely through his pig-headed insistence that he'd go back to the methods that had served him just fine. Perhaps we should have recognised that defining stubborn streak sooner. Maybe we would have done had it not been for the enormous wealth of personalities in that post-2005 dressing-room, which seemed to force a naturally taciturn man such as Anderson ever more deeply into his shell.
And yet, here we are, some two decades later, with the final curtain approaching, and faced with a cricketer so stripped back from those early pre-conceptions, it's hard even to know how he'd like to be remembered. Yes, he bowled magic balls, but his calling-card was a dot. Yes, he was at times a deeply grumpy competitor, but he loves the game so absolutely that he cannot, even now, quite concede that he won't keep chugging away for Lancashire for several years to come.
And while he loves the stage, he hates the limelight - as shown so poignantly last summer, when Broad attempted to usher him through the guard of honour that the Australians had lined up for him on the boundary's edge at The Oval. All of which could turn this summer's Lord's farewell into a Curb Your Enthusiasm-style farce.
But perhaps the tributes, gushing as they are sure to be, won't simply be for Anderson and his untrammelled magnificence. We'll be saluting something more profound when the greatest competitor in fast-bowling history hoists his mainsail for that one final spell. The end of an epoch is approaching, it only remains to be seen what else departs in his wake.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket

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