Updated: August 27, 2020 4:14:27 pm
On Tuesday (August 25) evening, James Anderson became the first fast bowler to take 600 Test wickets. While there was never any doubt about the England swing bowler’s place in the pantheon of all-time greats, this glittering statistical achievement is a testament to his impeccable work ethic, longevity, and the devotion to his craft.
That Anderson has achieved this feat at 38, an age when most cricketers either turn coaches, cynics or recede to the confines of the commentary box, makes it even more commendable.
Who are the other bowlers in the 600 Club?
Three spinners have breached the 600-wicket barrier in Test cricket before Anderson. They are Muttiah Muralitharan (800), Shane Warne (708), and Anil Kumble (619).
Anderson was the second quickest of the four to this coveted landmark in terms of balls bowled. The last time a bowler got to 600 Test match wickets was in January 2008, when Kumble dismissed Andrew Symonds in Perth.
Spinners, more importantly world-class spinners, have generally enjoyed longer and more fruitful international careers than their pace counterparts, who have a tendency to suffer frequent breakdowns.
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Anderson too, has had his share of injuries. But they have never kept him away from the game for a considerable length of time. Since his international debut against Zimbabwe in May 2003, he has played in 156 Tests and clocked an astonishing 33,717 deliveries so far, the most by a pacer.
Former West Indies captain Courtney Walsh (1984-2001), with 30,019, comes second in the list of the most deliveries bowled by a fast bowler in Test cricket. In his 16-year, 131-Test career (1978-1994), India’s charismatic all-rounder Kapil Dev did not miss a single five-day game due to injury.
Was Anderson always seen as a world-class pacer?
No. Anderson didn’t quite have a roaring initiation into international cricket. Even though he made his debut in 2003, it would take him a full five years to establish himself in the Test squad.
Even then, he was not a finished product; he found it difficult to replicate his successes on the barren, batting-friendly featherbeds in the subcontinent. And in Australia, the absence of lateral movement and the less pronounced seam of the Kookaburra balls made things tougher for Anderson.
So looking back, what has worked for Anderson?
For starters, he is blessed with a languid and rhythmic run-up. During his early years, he was sharp, and could touch speeds in excess of 140 kmph regularly. However, just pace can’t get you wickets in international cricket.
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Over the years, as Anderson’s pace dropped, he focused on the art of getting batsmen out. He soon mastered the ball that troubles most batsmen – the one that jumps at them from a good length spot. Much can be attributed to those broad, sinewy shoulders, and the supple wrists that can produce both seam and swing.
It did help though, that he played most of his Tests at home?
Undoubtedly, Anderson is at his devastating best when there’s a cloud cover and a slight nip in the air. He has thrived in the cooler climes of England, where the shiny red Dukes ball has hooped around and obeyed his commands.
He has 384 home Test wickets, more than any other pacer in his backyard. Overall, Anderson averages an impressive 23.84 at home, while McGrath – who is just behind him with 563 career wickets in Tests – fares marginally better at 22.43.
Since 2014, Anderson has been averaging less than 22, thus making him an irresistible proposition in England. He is the highest wicket-taker for England in both Tests and ODIs. He has 103 wickets at Lord’s – no other international pacer has taken 100-plus wickets at any one venue.
And what about his performance elsewhere?
Learning and perfecting the subtle art of reverse swing was the first step in Anderson’s transformation from a prodigious swing bowler to an all-weather destroyer of batting line-ups.
He used the reverse swing during England’s famous win over India at Eden Gardens during the winter tour in 2012, knocking over a formidable batting line-up that boasted of Virender Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar, Virat Kohli, and Yuvraj Singh. Anderson’s three-wicket burst in the second innings proved to be the difference.
Years later, speaking to West Indies legend Brian Lara on his chat show on ‘100MB’ app, Tendulkar explained how Anderson had perfected the art of reverse swing through subtle changes in wrist positions.
“What I experienced with Anderson over a period of time is that he would hold the ball as if he was bowling an outswinger, but during the release point, he would try and bring the ball back in. A number of batters would look at the wrist position, and what he has actually done is that he’s shown you that he’s bowling inswing, but the imbalance between both sides of the ball would take the ball away from you,” Tendulkar said.
Anderson has dismissed Tendulkar a record nine times in Test matches. No other bowler had the number of the world’s most celebrated batsman like he did.
What else is special about Anderson’s bowling?
The wobbly seam.
The arrival of T20Is may have played a part in Anderson adding the wobbly seam-up delivery to his bowling arsenal. It helped him add a layer of intrigue, especially on unfavourable tracks abroad.
This was his weapon against arch-rivals Australia during the 2010 Boxing Day Test in Melbourne. A career-defining spell by Anderson, in which he snaffled four wickets in 31 deliveries, most of which were wobbly seamers, would prove to be instrumental in England retaining the Ashes.
Most aging pacers shorten their run-up. Not Anderson.
He realised during rehab recently that the only way to revive his legs and career would be to run more.
The focus on fitness and keeping his legs strong went a long way in him being effective as he approached 40. The longish run-up has served Anderson well through the rigours of this pandemic-induced home summer.
With analysts saying Anderson has run close to 600 km while bowling for England, he is clearly international cricket’s Marathon Man.
Fast bowlers are also thinking cricketers, with fine minds.
Like the other thinking pacer from the past, India’s Zaheer Khan, Anderson is known to deeply study rival batsmen. He is also a master of understanding the pitch and weather conditions.
Most importantly, over the years, the 38-year-old has understood his own bowling and his body.
The other significant factor in him getting a spate of wickets over the last few years is the introduction of the Decision Review System (DRS). With his precise swing and perfect length, Anderson’s battles with batsmen have been about fine margins. Without DRS, umpires wouldn’t have figured out how he had out-foxed the batsman with a few degrees of ball deviation.
Which other pacer can touch – or even close in on – Anderson’s Test match haul?
It looks difficult at the moment. But his new-ball partner Stuart Broad, with 514 Test wickets, stands a good chance. He is 34, but judging by the manner in which he bowled against Pakistan and West Indies this summer, it will not be much of a surprise to see him approaching this landmark in a couple of years. But it would still need a Herculean effort – and after Broad, there’s a huge gap.
Ishant Sharma has 297 Test scalps. At 31, Sharma too has matured into a fine Test bowler. But going by his current form, he will have to play in at least 80 more Tests in order to come even somewhat close to the 600-wicket mark. For that to happen, he would have to realistically play for another nine years, which looks improbable.
New Zealand’s new-ball bowlers Tim Southee and Trent Boult, with 284 and 267 wickets respectively, are next in line. Considering the limited number of Test matches that New Zealand play, it will be a tall order for both of them.
Over the last five years, Anderson (and Broad) have focused their energies only on Test cricket. It has helped them remain fresh, and also prolong their careers. Going forward, pacers will find it difficult to close in on Anderson’s Test-match haul. The proliferation of T20Is will make it difficult for this tribe to focus only on the game’s traditional format and remain relevant. The changing formats, constant travel, and the inevitable injuries are sure to take their toll. This will also make them recalibrate their career goals as well.
He has built up a very successful fast bowling partnership with Broad.
Many great bowlers of the past have hunted in pairs. Anderson and Broad have used different skill sets to prey on batsmen’s weaknesses.
If Anderson used his smooth action and wrists to swing the ball away, Broad pitched it fuller and kept it on the stumps. Anderson works over right-handers, while Broad prefers bowling to left-handers.
They have contrasting styles, but they are masters at building up pressure, and they read the conditions better than opposition batsmen. Since 2008, the duo have featured in 120 Tests together, and have accounted for 911 wickets.
What is Anderson’s next target: 700 wickets?
That cannot be ruled out. He may be 38 now, but he insists that he is not done yet. He has set his sights on the 2021-22 Ashes tour to Australia.
“I’ve chatted to Joe (Root) about this a little bit and he has said he would like me to be in Australia,” Anderson told Sky Sports. “I don’t see any reason why I can’t be. I’m working hard on my fitness all the time. I’m working hard on my game.
“I didn’t bowl as well as I’d have liked for the whole summer. But… I feel like I’ve still got stuff to offer for this team. As long as I still feel like that I think I’ll keep going. I don’t think I’ve won my last Test matches as an England cricketer yet.
“Can I reach 700? Why not?”
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