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He’s undoubtedly England’s greatest ever bowler. Arguably, even, the country’s best-ever cricketer, full stop. So given all of the above, what is there left to achieve for one of the game’s most-talked-about, but quietest, top turns? A lot, it would appear.
Pitch Stories of Modern Sport
Writer: Andy Afford
Photography: Carl Sukonik
“I couldn’t really bat or bowl, but I was always a good fielder.”
“I wasn’t sure what you wanted me to wear,” he says. Responding to talk of us doing some accompanying photos at some point. Pictures were okayed via a WhatsApp message the previous evening, but taking in the ‘vision’ that is arguably England’s greatest ever cricketer, it’s hard to believe the thought crossed his mind, let alone the text conversation. He looks like, well, you can see what he looks like.
It’s about 20 minutes since watching the 39-year-old gesture, cajole and remonstrate his way through what needs describing as a ‘Conference-level’ game of football-tennis, played out on the outfield at Old Trafford.
From James Anderson’s position, stood in the very centre of the roughly marked court, Lancashire’s collective staff of what must be 25 players and coaches has been subjected to almost continuous ‘performance appraisal’.
Watching on from the press box, high up at the Brian Statham End of the ground, Anderson is the only player loosening up wearing brilliant-white shoes. His distinctive ‘ten-to-two’ gait exaggerated further by the tight fit of modern sportswear.
The warmup game stops. Is stopped, is probably more accurate. With the low-fi loosener now concluded, players disperse in pursuit of more individual training. “I was always a good fielder as a kid,” he says later. The head-tennis game being followed by some running and throwing at targets, in which his enthusiasm and skill levels remain evergreen. “I couldn’t really bat or bowl, but I was always a good fielder.”
He’s talking about the 10-year-old Anderson. The one that famously grew up in Burnley, worked in the football club shop, before going on to play, at time of writing, the small matter 169 Tests, and a total of 382 all-format games for his country.
That multi-colour-hair-sporting cove of 2003 is now a different sort of duotone. Flecks of grey having crept into the temple and beard, these being the only real indication of time having passed at all. And they’ve been good times, by and large. Extremely. Mostly.
As a backdrop, the Red Rose is playing Warwickshire. It’s Day 2 of the Division 1 County Championship match in early May and the home team has bowled the previous day and is still in the field, held up by former England opener Dominic Sibley. Anderson isn’t featuring as, he says, successfully managing workload now involves taking games off at the right time. But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t already got through his share of overs when in the team.
With his game management in mind, and having given it some thought, he describes his entire left leg as the subject for monitoring and constant physio attention. But not to the point where it stops him bowling. Ultimately, he’s as fit and well as is possible to be, given what he’s done for a living for coming up 20 years.
As far as his actual bowling goes, he’s in his third life. From tearaway, to sultan, to now a desert-dry give-nothing-away master of control and conditions. “The thinking came about after a conversation I had with Pete Moores,” he says, speaking of his mentality today, as well as the former England head coach’s advice. “The understanding was based around career-long strike rates. I take a wicket every 60-odd balls. So, if I concede 20 runs in that time - knowing that throughout the history of my career I’ve taken a wicket every ten overs - then the maths part does the rest.
“I try not to bowl balls that are easy to leave. And I try to challenge the batter’s forward-defense as often as I can. Hopefully asking the question one more time than they have an answer.”
And speaking of plans, Anderson (and Stuart Broad) having been left out of England’s planning this winter, proved quite the topic of conversation among cricket fans. With few of them appearing in agreement with ECB’s assessment of a need to look at options elsewhere.
The decision saw both of England’s greats stood down for what amounted to another series defeat, this time in West Indies. Them, alongside coach Chris Silverwood and supremo, Ashley Giles, the apparent fall guys for England’s four-nil defeat in Australia. Despite the opening pair finishing top and third of the tour bowling averages, respectively.
Broad is believed to have been sufficiently disaffected to explore his options outside the game. But Anderson; not so much. “I’ve been told by enough ex-players - enough times - to play for as long as I can. Saying to me that I’ll be a long time retired. And why wouldn’t I want to carry on?” He gestures in the direction of the window. “To play here. With a great bunch of lads. My mates. On a ground like this…”
A smile. It’s the ear-to-ear version. With Old Trafford undergoing further renovation at the moment, and with no permanent end to the ground to our left (it’s an open space, set aside for concert staging, and when needed a temporary stand) and foundations in the early stages of completion to our right, it looks more like the council is making way to put a road through it, rather than the vision of loveliness that Anderson is ‘seeing’. And he’s not content to leave it there. Doubling down on the joke. “They say it’ll fly up when the building is out of the ground...”
But the love is real. Joking aside. And evidently mutual. With the far end of the ground carrying his name, he’s as at home here as the transient nature of professional sport allows anyone to have the right to feel. However, “I preferred it when the ground was the other way round,” he admits. “It’s generally a cross wind now, when it used to blow behind you. It’s a harder place to bowl.”
And what of the famed James Anderson End? How does that sit? “It was supposed to be a painting in the pavilion long room,” he says, before elaborating. “The club broached the idea of an oil painting but ended up raising £50,000 towards it. On balance, myself and the chairman thought there might be better ways for the club to use the money than on a portrait of me. That’s where the idea of naming the end came up. To then justifiably put the money towards some cricket-based activity.” Another comedic pause follows. “As much as a fifty-grand painting of me would have been lovely, I’m sure…”
Timeless - James Anderson takes the wicket of Keshav Maharaj from his own bleedin' end. That's got to be as good as it gets.
He’s a much better talker than he’s given credit for. And far funnier. Especially so when relaxed. He misses nothing. He speaks slowly, but it’s a performance. His is a manner that’s all his own. He states the importance of the cricket-based podcast he does with BBC Radio 1 DJ Greg James and former Maccabees guitarist, Felix White. Now over 150 episodes and five years in, it’s the team’s love of the sport – Anderson describes all of the cast members involved in Tailenders as ‘cricket badgers’ - he says that their wide-eyed wonder when viewing the sport has given him a fresh perspective. “It’s easy to get cynical,” he adds. “I talk about the game a lot, about how to bowl at different batters, what fields need setting, the details of the sport, but being that deeply involved in something can mean you don’t always get to see the bigger picture. That being how great it is, as a game.”
Having seen Anderson touring the podcast over the course of the winter, the value of it to him is obvious. The show’s opening sequence – a musical piece – was his vision. That first scene casts him as one of the house band’s guitarists, holding down a ‘C’ chord for dear life, playing a red Fender Stratocaster. His face making him look like he’s batting out the last over of the day to save a Test. And doing so with his body half turned away from the audience, it’s definitively him. Shy, a bit reticent, but ultimately out of his comfort zone, playing a musical instrument in from of a thousand people. And the reaction of the audience to the show, particularly his place in it, is extraordinary. Even in Sheffield, the love for this most self-effacing Lancastrian is ‘all around’.
He says that he’s not looking forward to retirement. Least of all the prospect of adding a few pounds around the middle. Vanity, he says, will mean he works hard to keep the weight off, and he means it. And as far as ambitions go, he says he has none. He reckons that he just takes most things in his stride. But not everything. How does he feel about being right up there in the game’s all-time wicket-takers list? “Going past Glenn McGrath was the one that really hit me. And Courtney Walsh,” he says. “I’m sure when I meet people like that, as they’re shaking my hand they’re thinking, ‘I’m better than him’.”
Imposter syndrome, it may sound like, but statistics say otherwise. Not only the personal stats, but the team stats too. England’s tour to Australia in 2010/11 being a case in point. Anderson was utterly brilliant on that trip Down Under. As was the rest of them. Their peak reached, even. “It was a perfect alignment of talent and experience,” he says. “The top 7 had all played 50 Tests, and all averaged better than 40. It isn’t just about ability – talent will only get you so far - it’s about finding a way to do well and knowing your game. That side had Paul Collingwood at 6, averaging 40. We caught everything. Had the roll of the ball. It all came together.”
And on luck playing a part in sporting success, Anderson is quick to say that he’s had his share. A back injury at the start of his career, then a persistent calf problem more recently, but he’s generally been as fit as a flea. He makes the point about what happened to former team-mate, Simon Jones, his knee digging into the turf at Brisbane in a freak accident on an Ashes tour in 2002, meaning the 2005 Ashes winner accrued only a handful of the Tests that his talent warranted. By comparison, Anderson has been lucky.
But ultimately it’s a luck of his own making. High pace at the start of his career has enabled the 6’3’ pacemen to move down the gears and maintain effectiveness. If he’d played his first Test bowling 83mph away-swingers – however skillfully – he would have by now dropped below the pace tolerance for the type of surfaces Tests are generally played on, and the quality of the opposition faced.
Now, he operates effortlessly in the low 80s. Quick enough for edges to carry to the slips, and for the inswinger to find a pad rather than an inside feather. But does the speedgun create pressure? “I think it’s an easy thing to say on commentary about a bowler, if you’re watching them operate below their perceived top pace. Particularly if the pitch looks flat and nothing is happening. It does cause a bit of pressure. But it’s not about pace. It’s finding a way to be successful at any given time during the day. What you don’t want to see is a decline in pace over a day. That’s down to fitness levels. You want to see a bowler operating in peaks of activity, when the time is right, and an overall speed that indicates they’ve been putting in the effort.”
We are getting to the back end of our time. The lunch break is looming and no cricketer – in the team or not – likes missing lunch. But still, a fairly long conversation ensues around cricket sweaters. The glorious nature of Lancashire’s own ‘olden day’ version with navy, green and red bands. Not for the likes of Jack Simmonds (one for the kids), he says, are today’s modern uniforms. He speaks of his love of England versions of the past with lions and a single coronet. And also the disaster that was the England cable-knit with the red band. “I don’t think about what I’m wearing when I’m out there,” he says. “The jumpers used to be made by a company that only made jumpers (Kent & Cerwin). Now all of the kit sponsors provide their own version of an England jumper.” A pause, sigh and a bit of an eye roll follows. “But nothing looked better, did it?”
It’s further proof of their being room for specialism. And also of age being but a number. And a classic, remaining a classic. Forever.
We touch on his batting. How he’s now a nailed-on no.11. We speak about nicking a wide half-volley when on 81 against Australia at Trent Bridge. “My top-score before that was 49 not out, opening the batting when I was a kid. It took me 50 overs. I have no regrets about those last 19 runs. None at all.”
And that’s it. We did the photos. He got his lunch. And if you’re now not reading a footnote to the contrary, James. Jimmy. Oh, Jimmy Jimmy. Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy Jimmy Anderson. Is possibly even right now, back playing for England.
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