As he celebrates his 37th birthday, James Anderson again carries a nation’s hopes into an Ashes series. After a long wait to reach maturity as a bowler, he was a Wisden Cricketer of the Year in 2009.
For a year that was to see James Anderson make the leap from a frustratingly inconsistent and irregular member of England’s Test attack to a permanent and much more reliable presence, it was not an auspicious start. Omitted from the first Test against New Zealand, as he had been from the last two Tests against Sri Lanka before Christmas, he was so depressed by the prospect of reverting to twelfth man that he asked permission to play for Auckland against Wellington. Several months later, after a run of 11 consecutive Tests in which he collected 46 wickets, Anderson considers it a turning point in his career.
“I bowled 38 overs, got two for 90-something, so it wasn’t fantastic figures,” he explains. “But I think it was a big statement from me that I asked to play in that game. I’d missed out on the last warm-up and I was going home the week after if I wasn’t in the second Test.” Instead, England dropped Steve Harmison and Matthew Hoggard after their heavy defeat at Hamilton, and called up Anderson and Stuart Broad. The Lancastrian dismissed New Zealand’s top five in a series-levelling win at Wellington. “I’m not sure they would have picked me if I hadn’t played for Auckland.”
Not that he had completely cracked it yet. He suffered a pasting in Napier (7-1-54-0 in the first innings, 17-2-99-1 in the second). “It was a classic case for me of it swinging in Wellington for a reasonable length of time, but only for five or six overs in Napier,” Anderson adds. “So I struggled when it didn’t swing. That was the big change in the summer – when it didn’t swing, I managed to find something, and I haven’t gone for as many runs as I used to.”
An early-season outing against Durham, with match figures of nine for 77, had him in the groove for the home series against New Zealand – reinforcing the belief that Anderson had suffered, given his lack of first-class experience, from the previous England regime’s inclination to wrap players in cotton wool. He ended with five in the drawn first Test and another five in England’s win back at Old Trafford, then enjoyed the match of his life at swing-friendly Trent Bridge: a Test-best seven for 43 in the first innings – including a candidate for Ball of the Season, when his wide-of the-crease outswinger ripped out Aaron Redmond – and nine for 98 in all.
Yet it was the second half of the summer, and England’s series defeat by South Africa, that gave Anderson more personal satisfaction. “All year I’d been working on finding the length that is hard to drive but still full enough to get the edge,” he explains. “When it’s swinging, people say pitch it up, but where is pitched up? It’s about finding where your length is. Since Ottis Gibson came in as bowling coach, we’ve tried to look at it in a bit more detail. The software now is amazing, ridiculous really, but it does help you as a bowler.”
It is a contrast with the straightforward advice Anderson was given by Lancashire’s wicketkeeper-captain Warren Hegg when he made his debut as a 19-year-old – in a one-day game at Derby in September 2001. “I remember Warren behind the stumps just saying bowl as fast as you can. Not hit this length, or bowl short, or whatever. And that’s pretty much what I did the next year when I played a bit more.” After 11 Championship appearances in 2002, he earned a place at the England Academy in Australia, and was plucked from there first to bowl in the nets, then in the triangular one-day international series. Figures of 10-6-12-1 in his seventh game, against Australia at Adelaide, represent England’s most economical ten-over spell in the 21st century. By February he was in the World Cup, dismissing Yousuf Youhana (as he was) with a spectacular outswinging yorker at Newlands.
Yet the Burnley Express had been late out of the sidings. James Michael Anderson was born on July 30, 1982. He attended St Theodore High School, and was an unremarkable seam-bowling all-rounder who acted as scorer for the Burnley second team captained by his father, until a growth spurt in his mid-to-late teens. “That’s when I started to bowl fast and broke into Burnley first team,” he recalls. He was recommended to Lancashire by team-mate David Brown, later best man at his wedding and now at Gloucestershire. Anderson quickly made the county Under-17s, accepting a contract at Old Trafford a year later. Lancashire stalwart Glen Chapple watched his development from close quarters. “Right from the start, even though he was a really quiet lad – he still is – you could tell there was determination and a real self-belief.” Older Lancashire members told him he had a whippiness reminiscent of Brian Statham.
Anderson gives county cricket manager Mike Watkinson most credit for discovering his natural ability to swing the ball. “Since that growth spurt I’d just been running up and bowling as fast as I could. It was only when I started with Lancashire that Winker started teaching me how to swing it.” Yet he generated that swing with an unusual action. England’s fast-bowling coach Troy Cooley decided it had to change, to prevent injury and improve accuracy – a strategy Anderson found doubly counterproductive.
“As soon as I got the stress fracture in my back in 2006, Kevin Shine and Winker agreed I should get back to what’s natural to me. I can go out now and not be bothered about my action. The last thing you want is, if your first couple of overs don’t go well, you start wondering. Now I know if anything goes wrong it’s not that, and that frees up your mind a bit.”
That business of staring at the ground rather than down the pitch on releasing the ball was never an issue, he insists. “I remember when I was growing up, watching Shaun Pollock, and he never looked at the pitch when he bowled quick.” But if Anderson’s bowling technique is “pretty much back where I started”, he has undergone a mental transformation since 2003. “The first six to 12 months I didn’t really speak at all in the dressing-room. I do feel more confident now, and settled, and that does help my game.”
In India before Christmas he succeeded Ryan Sidebottom as the selector of new balls to be used by England. He has also learned to go a little easier on himself. “I’ve always been a bit of a perfectionist in anything that I do. Whether it’s cricket or, I don’t know, wallpapering a room at home. If it’s not absolutely perfect I just keep ripping it off the wall – that’s what drives my wife insane. I think I’ve learned not to be so hard on myself and my bowling.”