England have a rich tradition of fast bowlers, coupled with those who can make the ball swing in the air or move off the seam.
And in the last half-century since the legendary Fred Trueman-Brian Statham pairing called it a day - both played their last Tests in 1965 – the tradition has continued and England have been admirably served in this department.
With all the many names that one can think of – and bowlers like Angus Fraser, Darren Gough, Andy Caddick, Steve Harmisson and Mathew Hoggard come to mind – the two outstanding bowlers in the last 50 years have been John Snow and Bob Willis, discounting Ian Botham and Andrew Flintoff as all-rounders.
And by his deeds over the last decade and particularly in the last few years, there is little doubt that James Anderson is the best England fast bowler since the heyday of Willis more than 30 years ago.
His latest feat against Australia at Trent Bridge where his 10-wicket haul was the chief reason behind England’s narrow win and one that deservedly earned him the man of the match award, is the latest in the long line of similar achievements which has seen Anderson now third in the all-time highest wicket-takers for England behind Botham and Willis.
It is only a matter of time before he overhauls Willis, and it will not be a major surprise if he goes past Botham too in the next couple of years, and in the process become the first England bowler to take 400 wickets. Only eleven bowlers have accomplished the feat, so it will really be a select band of achievers that Anderson who completes 31 in a couple of week’s time, will be joining.
It has not always been smooth sailing for Anderson, and it is a tribute to his fighting qualities, his never-say-die attitude and his willingness to learn, that has made him the bowler that he is today. First with Hoggard, Harmisson, Simon Jones and Flintoff around he had to beat back stiff competition. Then he had to overcome injury problems.
The Lancashire bowler came into the side as a bit of a tearaway bowler relying more on pace rather than subtlety. A couple of months short of his 21st birthday, he made his Test debut against Zimbabwe in 2003 - a memorable one taking five for 73 in the first innings.
But that he gave away so many runs despite bowling only 16 overs did not go unnoticed. Against the stronger South Africans later that summer, he finished top of the heap with 15 wickets but these were obtained at almost 40 apiece – again underlining the positive and negative aspects of his bowling.
All this was put down to youthful exuberance but Anderson made little headway over the next few years, thanks to the factors already mentioned. In his first 44 Tests, he had taken 148 wickets at a rather high average of almost 35. His strike rate was almost 61, his economy rate nearly 3.50 and, he had yet to take a 10-wicket haul.
Till 2008, he was an inconsistent and irregular member of the England side. The turning point came when he demolished the New Zealand batting at Trent Bridge in 2008, taking the first six wickets to fall, finishing with his then Test best figures of seven for 43. Suddenly, it could be seen that there was a certain rhythm about Anderson’s bowling.
He was accurate and his late swing bothered the best of batsmen. By now, with the departure of Hoggard and Harmisson and being injury-free Anderson had deservedly become the pace spearhead - an exalted status he has enjoyed for five years now during which in the course of 39 Tests he has taken 169 wickets.
The difference in his bowling is best illustrated by figures for has taken these wickets at just over 25 apiece, a strike rate of 55 and an economy rate of 2.73. No more is he profligate. Indeed he is accuracy personified and batsmen taking liberties with him have made the supreme penalty.
The great thing about Anderson’s bowling is that he is able to take wickets anywhere. The surface and the conditions do not matter to him for he has mastered the art, science and craft of swing and seam bowling. For example, Trent Bridge is notorious as a batsman’s paradise, and yet he is the only bowler to take two 10-wicket hauls at this ground.
Besides, the 10 for 158 against Australia in the just-concluded match he has taken 11 for 71 against Pakistan three years ago. The track during the just-concluded first Test wasn’t exactly fast or bouncy, and yet Anderson was able to achieve his best-ever Ashes figures and his second 10-wicket haul.
The sub-continent is not exactly the best place for a fast bowler to excel but Anderson has taken wickets consistently in India and Sri Lanka and as only to be expected in South African conditions he has proved to be quite a handful even for that country’s star-studded batting line-up.
Anderson has worked hard on his bowling and this has been rewarded as can be evidenced by the figures. He is now just short of four wickets a Test – the hallmark of a great bowler – and his average is below 30.
Impressive as the stats are – 317 wickets from 83 matches with 15 five-wicket hauls to accompany the two 10-wicket hauls, the strike rate (57.7) and economy rate (fractionally over three) underline both his accuracy and the ability to take wickets at regular intervals.
Like all great bowlers he can make the initial breakthrough, rip through the tail and always give the impression that a wicket is imminent when the ball is in his hand.
He is a captain’s dream and little wonder that Alistair Cook was fulsome in his praise of Anderson at the end of the Trent Bridge Test. The manner in which he is improving it can safely be assumed that his best is yet to come.