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It's impossible not to respect Jimmy Anderson


James_Anderson_England_cricket_JimmyWe’re eighteen balls into West Indies’ second innings in the third Test against England at Lord’s and James Anderson is about to do what James Anderson has done for fourteen years.

Lithe through the crease, Anderson pitched the brand new Dukes ball on a full length just outside Kraigg Brathwaite’s off stump but not before shaping it through the air in a beguiling arc that drew the opener forward, eager to punch it down the ground and assert some authority on the bowler.

It was all a trap. The ball angled in and nipped back appreciably off the seam to find the gap that had been created between bat and pad and clattered into the middle stump. It was the Lancastrian’s 500th Test wicket and put him in an elite club that has only five other members and just two other fast bowlers.

No sooner was Anderson off down the track, beaming a broad smile, had the knives come out on social media.

It was the usual Anderson bashing: he’s only good when the Duke swings, he is only a threat with helpful English conditions and he’s simply not as quick, accurate or likable as any of the other great seam bowlers.

I am inclined to agree. As a South African and therefore a fan of a nation that has produced its fair share of menacing quicks who could move the ball through the air, I was comfortably on the side of the trolls.

After all, if Dale Steyn had played as many as Anderson’s 128 Tests instead of his 85, he would have reached the milestone ages ago. Steyn is unquestionably the greatest fast bowler of a generation and would be a contender for the best of all time. One of the great cricket travesties is that the Phalaborwa Express will not play a century of Tests for his country.

But here’s the thing; Steyn couldn’t play that many Tests. His body would never have allowed it. And while South Africa plays nowhere near as many matches as England throughout the year (that is most definitely a travesty to world cricket), the fact is Steyn’s body would not have made it to 100 Tests.


Fast bowlers’ joints are pounded into brittle shards over the course of a long career and very few are equipped for the long haul. Only one other fast bowler on the top 100 wicket takers’ list has played more games than Anderson. Courtney Walsh ran out 132 times for the West Indies and has 18 more wickets but one less five wicket haul (23-22 in favour of the Englishman) with as many ten-fors.


So much of Anderson’s success in rooted in his longevity. Though he doesn’t have the imposing frame of Morne Morkel or the bulldozing approach of Mitchell Johnson, his action is simple and fluid through the crease, which has allowed his aging body to keep up with the game.

Anderson’s 7-42 against the West Indies at Lord’s (his best ever return) meant he became the second oldest fast bowler to claim 7 scalps in one innings. Imran Khan was 94 days older than Anderson was two weeks ago when he took 7-80 against the same opposition in Georgetown in 1988.

Anderson was forced to fight for his action early in his career and insisted on a tried and trusted method that naturally got the ball up to the batsman with a chance of it swinging through the air.

On his swing bowling, it is true that Anderson is most devastating when the ball is moving a bit. He’s been helped by the fact that he was born in a country that loves nothing more than seam up, full pitched bowling and surrounded by conditions that suit his craft.

Again, Steyn swings it, and quicker. But the fact that Steyn is known for swinging the ball and other South African greats like Shaun Pollock and Allan Donald are not, should only highlight just how difficult the act is.

Anderson is part of a very elite and dwindling subsect of Test bowlers who can induce and control a swinging cricket ball. It is one of the wonders of our sport and anyone who can make some of the best batsmen in the world play down a line from a different area code to the ball deserves respect.


The assumption that Anderson is merely a home ground bully also needs further investigation. Of all the bowlers to have taken more than 50 wickets in England, his average of 24.29 is the 26th best. He’s behind some legendary quicks including Glenn McGrath (19.34), Dennis Lillee (20.56) and a handful of great West Indians – Joel Garner (16.56), Malcom Marshall (18.7) and Curtly Ambrose (20.77).


However, Anderson’s average in his own back yard is better than all of Walsh (24.44), Sir Richard Hadlee (24.94) and Wasim Akram (28.73). Steyn, by comparison, has struggled in England, picking up 23 wickets from 5 matches at 31.65.  

Anderson has struggled in Asia, where he has taken 59 wickets at a gargantuan average of 30.00. But when one considers that the only foreign fast bowlers to have taken more wickets than Anderson on the continent are Steyn (90), Walsh (77), McGrath (72), Marshall (71), Hadlee (68) and Shaun Pollock (60), the unique challenge of adapting to pitches best suited to spin bowling becomes apparent.


We don’t (or at least, shouldn’t) judge Muttiah Muralitharan or Michael Holding for dominating batting units on home pitches helpful to their particular style of bowling, so why is this argument perennially rolled out when contemplating Anderson’s greatness?


The answer lies in his likability. For one, he is English, and in the game of cricket the Poms will always represent the established old enemy. Other teams might get under your skin like the Australians of the previous generation or Virat Kohli’s Indians, but your feelings about them directly correlate to their ability to beat your team on the field. The English could be as poor as Zimbabwe and they’d still be many peoples’ least favourite team.

Anderson is well known to be grumpy which does not endear him to the neutral. Fast bowlers are supposed to be menacing, intimidating and borderline psychotic with ball in hand but not grumpy.

When Steyn, Ambrose or Johnson scowl at batsmen the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. When Anderson does it he looks like an entitled curmudgeon who is being rude to his waiter.

All sports narratives need heroes and villains. Triumphs can only be measured against failures just as one player’s career can only be measured against his contemporaries.

Anderson is unquestionably a legend of the game. His numbers are astounding in any context and to hold any caveat against his name is a disservice to the sport.

In a world turning its back on the longest form of the game, the joys of watching a shiny red ball swing through the air, as if guided by magic, will become a rare sight. If we do indeed descend into chaos and abandon all Test cricket, we’ll yearn for the days of Anderson and his ilk. For now, let us not squabble over patriotism and bias and instead pay homage to one of the all-time greats.


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Daniel is a freelance sports journalist from Johannesburg who would always rather be watching Test ...

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