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Leading the pack

  • Published at 05:23 pm September 12th, 2018
Cricket
Swinging his way into the history books REUTERS

James Anderson writes his name into the record books

Swing, seam, control, and stability -- words James Anderson has always been associated with. 

With a characteristic full-pitched delivery swinging into the batsman, by just the right amount, Anderson bowled Mohammad Shami, and took the final wicket to bring to a close a riveting Test series between England and India. In doing so, he overtook Australian great Glenn McGrath to become the leading wicket taker in Test cricket amongst fast bowlers. 

Affectionately called Jimmy, Anderson burst onto the international scene in 2002, and has amassed statistics which certify him to the status of a legend. In addition to his recent achievement, Anderson is England’s highest wicket-taker in ODI Cricket and his country’s all-time highest international wicket taker across all 3 formats of the game. Nevertheless, the Jimmy of 2002 is widely different from the calm, serene, and dependable Anderson of today.

At the age of 20, Anderson made his debut against Australia, and showed early promise. Regarded as a flamboyant fast bowler, he was in and out of the side in both formats of the game, and remained in the shadows of other pacers. His injuries and inconsistency was visible to cricketing analysts, with former England cricketer Bob Willis in 2003, suggesting that Anderson would be able to play five more years with his bowling action. 

Yet, Anderson demonstrated his signature grit and persistence in a period where England was going through a drastic transition in its bowling lineup -- with then coach Peter Moores giving him the responsibility of leading the attack following injuries to regulars Harmison and Flintoff in 2007. Against an Indian side featuring batting stars like Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, and Rahul Dravid in the summer of 2007 -- Anderson won the Man of the Series Award in the Test Series, and followed that by being the highest wicket taker in a contested ODI Series. This became a turning point in his illustrious career, and Jimmy has not looked back since then. 

If one looks at Anderson’s statistics, it is startling to see the improvements he has made over the past 10 years. Once widely regarded as a bowler who would only get wickets in swinging conditions such as those in England, his performance in India against India in 2012 showcased the difference he made, a point Indian captain MS Dhoni categorically suggested, in a series which saw England achieve an unthinkable 2-1 victory over the sub-continental giants in Indian conditions. 

Even in failure, we saw the best of Anderson. In a tough series against Pakistan in 2015 -- Anderson took 13 wickets at 16.61 a piece, at a miserly economy-rate of 1.87 an over. When England were thrashed in the 2017-18 Ashes Series in Australia, he took 27 wickets -- receiving plaudits from both sides of the aisle. 

Yet today, the world remains in awe of not just his skills, but the vast developments he has made to become a giant of the game. Over time, he has focussed less on pace, putting emphasis rather on his variations, and integrated his knowledge of the game. As such, he remains a testament to how and why hard work and focussing on one’s strengths, remains crucial in order to achieve success. 

Glenn McGrath, Wasim Akram, Courtney Walsh, Kapil Dev, Richard Hadlee -- all of these legends were once the highest wicket-taking pace bowlers. There remains little to no doubt of their place in cricket. Yet, Anderson has played in an era where cricket has become increasingly batting friendly -- smaller boundaries, bigger bats, and friendlier rules in favour of batsmen, all have acted as barriers for bowlers to showcase their skills. 

Ironically, in a sport invented by the English, Anderson’s record is the only record across all three formats of the game, where an Englishman leads the charge, and the holder of the record could not be someone more deserving. Perhaps, it is because he maintains his body and fitness like he does, or because he avoids immersing himself into the commercial enterprises of playing global T20 tournaments, that he remains not only the best bowler in the modern game, but a tenacious night-watchman when his team needs it, a superb fielder and a streamlined athlete.  

Perhaps, England’s leading run-scorer in Test Cricket summed up Anderson’s place in history in the best of terms. In a tribute to his colleague, the retiring Alastair Cook suggested that “James Anderson is the best cricketer England has ever produced. He’s a freak.” To play 140 Test Matches as a fast bowler, with more to come, and remain consistently fit, takes otherworldly mental and physical strength. 

Even at 36, Anderson was the highest wicket-taker in the recently concluded Test Series against India. He does not play ODI or T20 Cricket anymore, but if he did, let there be no doubt that he would still be a force to reckon with. Even the prolific Glenn McGrath suggested that it is unlikely that anyone else will break Anderson’s record when it comes to fast bowlers in Test Cricket -- and he may be right. 

The likes of South African pacer Kagiso Rabada are performing outstandingly, but whether he can sustain his performance, and play with the longevity that Anderson has shown, is doubtful. Even beyond this, let us also recognize that James Anderson is not done yet -- McGrath has challenged Anderson to target the elusive 600 wicket mark, and there will be no surprises, if he reaches that tally and goes beyond. 

Jimmy Anderson is, in a way, like refined wine -- better with time and age. But what is important for young cricketers to remember, is that if one gives time to their body and fitness, if one accepts their strengths for what they are and work on their weaknesses, and if one remains focused on developing mental strength simultaneously with their physical routines, they will improve and they will perform. 

Kudos to Anderson for pulling off an amazing feat -- defying his sceptics was not a matter of joke, but we can safely say that he has made his country and the cricketing world very proud.

Mir Aftabuddin Ahmed is a graduate of Economics and International Relations from the University of Toronto.