Valerie Brown is a quiet lady, not prone to much emotional bursts. Certainly, she wasn’t the type, her son says, to call a cricket talent scout on a whim, especially to speak about a young teenaged fast bowler. She had two cricketing kids of her own but that day in 1999, she dialled out John Stanworth, head of Lancashire’s cricket academy, with a sheepish request about James Anderson.
“Hope you don’t mind me ringing, but there is a talented kid worth looking. You haven’t called him for trials.”
Her two sons Michael and David were involved with junior cricket and were impressed by how well their friend Anderson had turned around the game from the previous season. Mrs Brown’s call made an impact, Anderson was called for the trials, and hasn’t looked back since.
“Until then, Anderson was a decent bowler. He could swing the ball but would bowl a lot of bad balls. He could have become a tidy little county bowler, I would have said then. That day in the nets, we all just went wow: he was quick, he was bending the ball, and he was deadly. Dramatic change in a season,” says Michael, who is now the president of Burnley cricket club, where Anderson played in his formative years. A year later, Anderson ran into Mike Watkinson, who was coaching the bowlers of Lancashire’s second team. One morning, not at Old Trafford but at one of the county grounds, Watkinson was talking about swing bowling. “About finger positions and the sensation of the ball on fingers. That seemed to click with Jimmy. He tried it in the game that day and it really worked for him.”
The two got together to have more frequent chats on swing bowling. The sensation of the ball, Watkinson says, is something most important for Anderson. How it sits in the fingers, how it feels when the fingers run over, and how it propels out of the hands. “He was a raw fast bowler who had that whip in the action. He had the outswing, already, I must say.” Young Jimmy had found a bowling mentor that he would keep coming back and one who would years later help him recover from a stress fracture that threatened his career.
Burnley is a town which had seen better days in the past. It used to be the biggest cotton town in the world but the mills and industries had faded away from the landscape. The town has changed but its folks haven’t, says Michael.
“It’s a working-class town. It’s a ‘call a spade a spade town’. It’s very honest but a tough area to grow up; you are not mollycoddled. It was work hard, get on, and try to improve your situation. But it’s also a town where people’s roots matter. To give you an idea, the football club here is the best supported premier league team per population in the country. You look out for your own – That’s the philosophy of the town.”
It’s here that Anderson grew up, shy and reserved. It’s here where a mother of his friends made the most important call of his career. It’s why he keeps coming back to give to the town and to Burnley club now. It’s where he got his northern England sense of dry and sarcastic humour that is often misinterpreted says David, brother of Michael and the best man at Anderson’s wedding.
“He is quite a straight talker, he doesn’t suffer fools. He has a good sense of fun about him although at times he can be a bit grumpy! He is very competitive, whether that’s on the golf course or on the cricket field. He is a keen golfer, quite a good player actually, plays off a single-figure handicap. His competitive side comes out on the golf course and if he isn’t playing he might try to put you off your game or might sulk a bit,” David says. Sulk at golf? Michael gives an example.
“Let’s say you give him a bit of a advice about a shot to take or about the course. And he tries that, and if it doesn’t go well and he thinks you gave him a bad advice, he can stop talking to you for five holes! Then suddenly, it would disappear and he would be back to his old self!”
Anderson and the Brown brothers still meet up now and then, as often as their busy lives allow, for a pint or two at a pub in Manchester or at the cricket club at Burnley. “He has always maintained an interest in our club and makes an effort to see his friends from home. He has always helped us raise funds as we are a community club staffed by volunteers, which talks about his grasp on his roots,” David says.
David has caddied for Anderson in the pro-am golf tournament last year.
For the last five to six years, Anderson has supported the junior cricket at Burnley. “He gives money out of his own pocket,” Michael says. He turns up for annual game that the club holds and makes an effort. “Last year, I had Tremlett and him opening the bowling, and he ran off 8 to 10 paces, he just didn’t turn up and roll his arms. He knew people had come to watch; and wanted to put in an effort. He cares. He is like that.”
“Did you see how he rarely bowled the inswinger to Kohli in the Edgbaston Test?” Watkinson asks. “He said he had decided he was just going to bowl outswingers at him.” The cricketing world has seen how well he plans and prepares but it’s not a recent trait, says Watkinson.
“He would never walk on to a cricket field unless he is 100% prepared. Even if county cricket, if he finds there is a young batsman or something that he hasn’t seen or doesn’t know, he will ask around. If the team too isn’t too aware, he will seek out someone in junior cricket who has seen that batsman and will find out his style of play. Then he will plan. So if that’s how its for county cricket, imagine how he would be at international cricket. He is a thorough professional and these things excites him as a bowler.”
In other words, Anderson isn’t just going to turn up and turn in those little outswingers, and think that’s enough. “No, he won’t. It might still be outswingers of course but you can detect his plan in the different lengths he bowls. In his set-up. In the lines he bowls. It’s all in his head already,” Watkinson says.
Anderson didn’t have the inswinger at the start. “We focussed a lot on his outswinger at the start and he later developed the inswinger. He is a self-made cricketer, very aware about his art and what to do, and what not to do.”
A few years into international cricket, he suffered a major setback: a stress fracture to his back. It was suspected that it was because he had tinkered with his action. He had wanted to take out bit of rotations from his action. “His was an unconventional action and when he tried to tidy it up a bit, he had a stress fracture,” Watkinson says. Anderson came to his old coach and went to work along with Kevin Shine, ECB’s fast bowling coach then. “It involved going back to some of the older components of his action. We started off by bowling off one pace. Just get the action drilled in again.” Slowly, he started to bowl off fuller run-up and it all began to come back.
In his best friend David’s telling, it all came down to his resilient nature.
“I’ve always admired the way he has come back from setbacks. His longevity in the game is testament to that. It doesn’t always go your way and he had some setbacks earlier in his career but he had the strength of character and determination to match with his undoubted talent and skill to come back and be as successful as he has been. I would say that talent only gets you so far in life, particularly sport, and the resilience and dedication he possesses is why he is so successful. He is quite a balanced guy, I don’t think you ever see him getting too carried away at success or failure.”
Last year, as the president of Burnley club Michael decided to recognise all its former capped players. “We had 80 to 90 cricketers come, and Anderson presented caps to them. For an hour and half, taking photographs with everyone. Everyone respects him here, and also treat him like one of us. There was drinks and laughter at old stories when we were all younger.” The function was held in the room named after James Anderson.
Michael has one further wish that he is sure will get done when Anderson retires. Make it two. A statue of Jimmy Anderson at the Burnley club and a road named after him. “Just imagine, people would say, “Just go down the James Anderson way and turn left.” A bit like his bowling, then. It shimmies down the pitch and turns left towards the slips.