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Monday, November 29, 2021

India vs England: How James Anderson changed bowling strategies at Lord’s

Jimmy Anderson’s bowling was all fingers & wrist in 1st innings. In second, amid relatively less helpful conditions, his brain took over.

Written by Sriram Veera | London |
Updated: August 15, 2018 10:33:03 am
james anderson James Anderson took nine wickets in the second England-India Test match at Lord’s. (Reuters Photo)

Michael Holding almost snorts in contempt when he talks about modern-day batsmen. He purrs in joy when he sees some good bowling. Sunday at Lord’s was a day to purr. Chris Woakes, Stuart Broad and, especially, James Anderson could have stirred romance in any cricket cynic. The greatest pity about watching Anderson bowl was the knowledge that it was going to end soon. If only the rules allowed five more batsmen; you didn’t want the show to get over.

Cold blustery winds blew across the ground, dragging in the occasional rain drops, and the ball initially didn’t swing as much as it did in the first innings.

“When it’s too cold, the ball won’t always swing,” Holding breaks it to you, gently. Sometimes it does swing in freezing conditions as well, but conventional wisdom says those aren’t ideal for swing. So what would Anderson do, then? Will he go for those nip-backers off the pitch? Holding smiles as if he is about to watch his grandkid take the first baby steps.

Even as you rushed to the seat after grabbing a cappuccino, the mind went back to a rhetorical query by Anderson’s coach Mike Watkinson on Friday morning. “Did you see he rarely bowled the inswinger at Edgbaston?” It was his plan to keep bending it away, especially to Kohli, and in three innings before Sunday, he didn’t have to revert to the nip-backer. It would come in a lot on Sunday.

The chilly breeze kept piercing the skin. Some Indian fans kept flicking the weather app on their phones. There was rain on the display screens but not above their heads. The ball wouldn’t tail away as memorably as it did in the first innings, but it would zip away from the right handers for a while. Not a lot, but the lines were so strangling that Cheteshwar Pujara and KL Rahul couldn’t do much.

The two Indians were already dealing with their own problems. Pujara was trying to stand upright in his stance as much as possible and trying to ensure his arms don’t betray him by pushing out too much. Rahul, who doesn’t have a meaningful forward stride, invariably ended up playing at the crease. Neither close enough to the ball to nullify the swing or back enough to play it late. In between. In a limbo. And so one waited for the one that would seam in.

***

The Dukes red ball is a thing of beauty that cricket boards across the world need to adopt if they are earnest about saving Test cricket. It helps swing and as R Ashwin has cried himself hoarse for at least two years now, it also helps spin. It’s believed that the Dukes starts to swing more once the lacquer goes off, about 8 or 9 overs into the game. In the past, Anderson has talked about how sometimes he has felt a 20-over ball swings more for him in England.

The sensation of the ball in his hand is something Anderson is very particular about, his coach says. It has to sit in a particular way in his fingers. Not too tight, not too loose, just about firm. His fingers don’t run on the seam as we would imagine when we send an imaginary ball curving along ahead of us. He spreads it out more, adjacent to the seam, especially for the one that comes in. The middle finger lifts off the ball the last as he pushes it wide of off stump, hoping for it to tail in later. Derek Pringle once asked Anderson if he could really control the lateness of swing and Anderson had a great reply. That he doesn’t know if he can, but that’s the feeling he gets when he pushes it out that way.

Those who have watched Imran Khan at his prime would get that. Or even the VHS cassettes from Pakistan Television that would chuck visuals of him dismantling Sunil Gavaskar and Mohinder Amarnath. Post that leap that would awe the kids across the border, he at times would push out the ball. Or so it would seem, as it would tilt out before it would crash in, cutting bewildering arcs. “Imran was a hugely under-rated bowler, he was rightly celebrated for his captaincy but man, he could bowl,” Holding says.

Back to Anderson. The thumb sits lightly under the ball on the seam, the index finger coming off last when it’s the outswinger and the middle finger to leave the leathery real estate the last when it’s the nip-backer. The seam too turns this way to the other. “If they say they can see which way the seam is angled, they have extremely good eyesight,” Anderson has said before. It’s easier to see when the ball has lost its shine and a contrast develops between two sides as the players keep shining one side, but it’s tough to pick it when it’s still new. He might not be as pacy as he used to be but it’s still rapid enough to be a blur. As a batsman what can you see: The seam? The fingers? Or you try to see the tilt in the air? But what if he gets it to move in or out late? Then what do you? Especially, when it hurls it fuller. You wait and wait for trouble to arrive. Like Rahul.

***

Without the forward stride, Rahul was stuck, and couldn’t do much but just be a witness as the ball nipped back off the pitch to trap him in front. Just before Rahul, he had taken out M Vijay with another screamer. To his credit, Vijay had even gone forward enough but couldn’t get much wood in the path of the curler. Just an itsy-bitsy teeny-weeny inside edge.

Anderson vs Pujara was even more salivating. At the start, he hurled the ball pretty full. Not much swing, and Pujara walked on the thin line, the bat pushing inside the corridor. Somehow, he managed not to let his hands push out. Then suddenly, every now and then, Anderson would get one a length. It gave Pujara more time, which isn’t always a good thing. The urge for the hands to betray was more now. The ball was coming in at him or leaving away and he could see the ball after landing for that bit more. Would his hands jerk at it. Would he leave a bat-pad-gap. He was pretty good, though. Of course he was beaten a few times. Who wouldn’t be? Now and then, the bat dangled at an angle when the ball came in. But he kept them out.

The same with Rahane. He has a curious way of playing some length deliveries on his stumps. His bat would tilt towards the off, almost cutting down the width of the bat to stop the ball. But it worked for him. The ball that sort of straightened, he would push out to the off. It was all too precarious living but the pair battled on and keep out Anderson, only to fall to Broad. It’s been two days but it’s still not clear what Pujara could have done better to keep out that ball from hell from Broad. It not only swung in a bit but then crashed in off the seam, off the pitch, leaving him stunned. But we shall look at Broad some other day. In the here and now, one can only raise a toast to Anderson.

His exploits in the first innings were more mesmerising: the arc of the swinging outswinger was gobsmacking but it was understandable. He is too good a bowler to have let those conditions go waste. If it was all wrists and fingers in the first, you could almost hear his brain crackling in the second. The last word should go to David Brown, the best man at his wedding and a former county cricketer, “Bowled brilliantly, didn’t he? No one better in those conditions. Almost unplayable.” Some of the Indians might find that adjective ‘almost’ rather unnecessary.

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