Dasun Shakana is not a man who often struggles to hit a cricket ball. In January, he scored 123 off 46 balls in a domestic Twenty20 match, striking sixteen sixes. In his T20 career, he’s hit 58 sixes in 35 games. He had made a hundred against a callow Leicestershire attack a week before this innings. But this was different. This was his first Test innings, at Headingley, against England. His captain and his team’s outstanding batsman, Angelo Mathews, had been dismissed off the previous ball, so disorientated by the ball’s movement that he declined the review that would have reprieved him.
Shanaka was facing James Anderson, a man who, with Mathews’ wicket, had moved to sixth in the list of Test wicket takers. Anderson, perhaps the bowler more suited than any in the world to bowling on a seaming wicket in the murk of a Yorkshire spring. Anderson, who manipulates a cricket ball like few others, bending it with and to his will. Shanaka did well to hit his first delivery, a classical outswinger, luring the drive and snaking away. Unfortunately, the contact he managed was a healthy outside edge, the fatal snick that Anderson has induced from so many.
Shanaka did the same thing the next day. There’s no shame in that. Anderson is deservedly England’s highest Test wicket taker, with a happy knack of dismissing the very best repeatedly. His success against Sachin Tendulkar is well known; similarly, he has often had the better of Michael Clarke in the innumerable recent Ashes. Anderson is regarded as a “skilful” bowler, often as faint praise. That is, he makes the ball do pretty things without always getting the rewards, and struggles on pitches and in climates that don’t help him. In reality, it is his skill that allows him to succeed in a range of conditions. He was superb during England’s win in Australia in 2010-11, showing his control and mastery of reverse swing through the series. His dismissal of Michael Clarke in Sydney, on the penultimate afternoon of the series was one of the finest spells of bowling, reversing the ball both ways before luring Clarke into one of those characteristic nicks.
Similarly, he has been exceptional on England’s recent tours to Asia, notably during England’s win in India in 2012-13. Again, his exemplary control and use of reverse swing transcended difficult conditions. He has been excellent in the UAE on England’s last two visits as well. Despite this, he is often regarded as somewhat overrated, to the extent to which his excellence needs repeating. If anything, he is underrated, to an extent that might not become apparent until England need to replace him. That he has not matched Dale Steyn for pace and potency is understandable – few from the history of the game can. To paraphrase Shane Warne on Tendulkar, Steyn is first, daylight second, Anderson third. Anderson has probably suffered from the paucity of quality fast bowling over the last decade or so. He is not part of an epoch, but instead faces constant comparison with Steyn, his only real rival.
Like Steyn, Anderson has been at his best with a red ball, but he didn’t start out like that. He was plucked from obscurity to play in an ODI tri-series in Australia in 2002-3, where he bowled a spell of 10-6-12-1 in Adelaide, and made a memorable impression at the 2003 World Cup, including four wickets against Pakistan. His swinging yorker to dismiss Yousuf Youhana, as he then was, hinted at what was to come. A Test debut against Zimbabwe, marked with a five-for, followed, before several years in the wilderness. Michael Vaughan never seemed to fully trust him, and he was eclipsed by the rise of Simon Jones and Steve Harmison. Anderson also suffered with injury, and as a result, England’s bowling coaches, first Troy Cooley and then Kevin Shine, tinkered with his action. Anderson seemed to play little cricket, bowling endlessly at cones, trying to remove any idiosyncrasies.
He came through the process, emerging as England’s main fast bowler in 2007. Whether the tinkering helped, what is most noticeable now about Anderson is the smoothness of his action. It is fine-tuned but natural, repeatable but allowing for subtle changes of position on the crease and in the wrist. If you are lucky enough to see him bowl live, watch the follow through. It is short, controlled, measured to help the delivery but not to exhaust the bowler. It is an action grooved to perfection, able to propel the ball at pace but with remarkable ease.
Anderson’s current action gives a clue to his success. He is the great survivor, the man who has come out of Andy Flower’s regime intact. One criticism of Anderson is that he has only taken so many wickets because England play so many tests. This ignores the fact that he has had to stay fit and selectable through that time. He has bowled a staggering number of deliveries in a short space of time, a workload that few fast bowlers have had to manage in test matches. Coupled with the intensity of Flower’s coaching – undoubtedly successful, if hard to maintain – and regularly being part of a four man attack, Anderson has coped with an enormous strain. Being able to stay fit and in form through the last six or seven years has allowed him to take a large number of wickets. That he was able to is remarkable.
Anderson is also worth celebrating for more than his longevity. He is a beautiful bowler to watch. His action is not only admirable for its efficiency. Look at a picture of Anderson in his coil, winding up to bowl. It is a moment of pure sporting aesthetics, like an Ian Bell cover drive, what CLR James called the “perfection of form”. When I wrote about swing bowling for Cricinfo, I compared it to Natalia Goncharova’s Cyclist, an image of motion and potential energy. Jarrod Kimber also looked to art when describing Anderson recently, writing that “that ball is making shapes that HR Giger or Zaha Hadid would kill for. His bowling trajectories should be hanging in some modern art museum or spray-painted on walls”. For his grumpy demeanour and fondness for a sledge, Anderson remains in touch with the aesthetics of sport. It may not be as consciously honed as the impeccable technique of a textbook batsman, but the sinuous paths of his deliveries, the taut energy of his action, elevate his bowling in the memory.
This art has survived the attentions of the bowling coaches, but their tinkering has another side. Easy as it is to bemoan the attempts to change Anderson, it is important to recognise he has had advantages that few other bowlers have had. He has survived so well in part because he has been kept medicated, remunerated, nourished and protected as well as any cricketer ever. He is a very modern cricketer in the sense that he is a genuine athlete, benefitting from a twenty-first century attitude and twenty-first century treatment. But, whilst he may have dyed his hair red at the beginning of his career, Anderson has never been a revolutionary. What all the training, all the tuning, all those advantages, have created is an old fashioned English fast bowler. He undoubtedly belongs in the tradition of Larwood, Trueman, Statham and others. He looks over his left shoulder and moves the ball away. He has a Northern abrasiveness, an action like a bolt of silk unfurling, swing, seam, accuracy. It is appropriate that he is England’s leading Test wicket taker because he ties a history together. He is the modern athlete and also successor to a tradition. He was built by coaches, not summoned from the mine, but he embodies a heritage and keeps old skills alive.