Updated: August 28, 2021 8:43:30 am
A twist of fate might have played a role in James Anderson’s least potent day of this series so far. Upon resumption after lunch, which was taken at the stroke of KL Rahul’s wicket, Joe Root reintroduced Anderson into the attack. A wise, if not straightforward, strategy considering the havoc he had wreaked on the Indian batting in general and Cheteshwar Pujara specifically. The only dilemma was the end he would bowl from.
In the first innings, in the swing-bowling schooling for the ages, Anderson had purred from the Football Stand End, up the slope. But Overton was bowling with splendid rhythm from that end, and hence it would have looked inappropriate if he were to switch ends.
Fast bowlers are notoriously picky about ends, though a virtuoso bowler like Anderson, in spellbinding rhythm, could adjust to any surface or slope, uphill or downhill. So, he glazed down the slope with characteristic zest, from the Kirkstall Lane End, the preferred end for Fred Trueman and Ian Botham, from where Stuart Broad pinched a hat-trick against Sri Lanka.
But it soon became apparent that something was amiss with Anderson. He turned grumpy — then he usually is. He preened and sneered. He seemed jarring, suddenly bereft of flow and cadence. He gifted a brace of freebies on Pujara’s pads, and the batsman obliged with a brace of boundaries. Anderson was looking to swing the ball back into Pujara, a trick he could summon with his eyes blindfolded.
But here, everything that he looked to pitch on off-stump or outside landed on middle-stump or beyond. Anderson could not control the direction, sacrilegious as it might sound. To make the angle straighter, he came closer to the stumps. Yet, his fabled accuracy, and the curve and curl, deserted him. It was just a day ago that his in-swinger was a piece of pure geometry, which he could draw and retrace whenever the whim and chance seized him, when he had consistently hit the ‘Headingley length’ of around six metres from the stumps
Here, he was struggling to land the ball on the desired part of the turf. Seven times in that spell Anderson attempted, and all seven times, it landed where he did not intend to. Twice it was gift-wrapped boundaries for Pujara, who might have been slightly bemused at the sight of the swing-bowling metronome erring in line, and so drastically. Anderson has rarely let India’s batsmen off the hook in this series. But Friday evening was an anomaly.
Only Anderson could explain the exact reason(s) for his rare bad day — maybe it was just an off-day like all sportsmen endure and often exaggerated when it happens to the finest; maybe he carried a niggle or his wrists and fingers were aching; maybe, he didn’t like the feel of that particular ball; maybe, it was the slope from the Kirkstall Lane End. The slope tends to throw the bowler into the crease as a natural phenomenon. To counter this, there is a tendency to lean back a fraction as one approaches the crease, which tampers with the action and sends the ball too straight, further to the leg- side with the tilt of the pitch. It’s beneficial for bowlers with an angled approach, but less so for Anderson who runs in straight. Running up the slope helps the bowler stay in control.
Let off the hook
His travails had a two-fold effect. It took out the fear of the in-swinger in Pujara’s mind. He just needed to be wary of the away-swinger or the wobble-seamer. Even with these tools alone, Anderson is a difficult proposition, but Pujara had wriggle room. And Anderson ignited his revival bid with boundary balls. More significantly, it disturbed and then disrupted him.
Later, he returned to his favourite end, but still could not regain the fluency of his action or the shape of the ball. In the process, he shortened his length a shade, over-compensated by bowling far more outside off-stump than he usually does, and intermittently fed Pujara with leg-side gifts. With Anderson off his usual gold standard, with his threat neutered, India were unshackled.
Strangely, Anderson has struggled for wickets at this ground than most other venues in England. He still averages 26.42 and strikes every 54th ball, but had to wait for 14 innings for his first five-for on this ground, and averaged 33 in his first seven games. Of the nine Test grounds he has showcased his art in England, Headingley has been his third least productive venue, after Cardiff and The Oval, despite the upturn since 2016 (23 wickets at 12.08 in four games since).
“I have hated this place for nine years,” he had said after his maiden five-for, against Sri Lanka in 2016, ironically from the Kirkstall Lane End. It’s even more of an irony that the best swing bowler in the world, arguably ever, has (relatively) struggled in what’s known as a seamer’s paradise. But on such small quirks of fate hinges the destiny of a match.
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