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Six of the best: James Anderson’s top Test spells

Anderson's best spells
Ben Gardner by Ben Gardner 5 minute read

On the occasion of James Anderson’s 150th Test match, Ben Gardner picks out the right-arm seamer’s six defining spells in the longest format.

Bringing up a daddy hundred of Tests played is special enough in itself – before James Anderson brought up his 150 at Centurion against South Africa on Boxing Day 2019, only eight others had done so – but to do so as a fast bowler is quite extraordinary.

Among specialist bowlers, only Shane Warne, with 145, gets close, while Stuart Broad is the closest among quicks, but sill 15 caps behind. Across 16 years, starting as a hugely talented but wild tearaway before refining and redefining himself to become a master of his craft, Anderson has established himself as among the greatest Test cricketers England have ever produced, playing a key part in four Ashes wins and England’s rise to No.1 in the Test rankings in 2010/11.

With 27 five-wicket hauls to his name, picking out a select few James Anderson spells is a tough ask, but here are six bowling performances that go someway to telling the story of the most prolific seamer in Test history:

The dreamy debut

5-73 & 0-65
England v Zimbabwe
Lord’s, London, May 22-24, 2003

Frosted tips, faraway eyes, a snarly pout that became a coy half-smile whenever he struck, and, of course, swing for days – how could a nation not fall for Anderson when he made his debut aged just 20? Four of his five first-innings wickets were bowled, his trademark late away movement proving unplayable for a procession of Zimbabwe batsmen, and he came within a whisker of a hat-trick when Ray Price played and missed a pearler that even Don Bradman would have done well to nick.

The reemergence

7-43 & 2-55
England v New Zealand
Trent Bridge, Nottingham, June 5-8, 2008

“Will England make the ball swing?” asked Mark Nicholas as Anderson ran up to bowl his first ball and three balls later he had his answer, Aaron Redmond bowled off-stump trying to hit to mid-on. Nicholas’ bemused “Woah” as the slo-mo replay told the tale of the lavishness and the lateness of the movement, and Anderson would go on to dismiss all of New Zealand’s top seven, six of whom were bowled, lbw, or caught by the keeper.

It’s a question they haven’t had to ask often since; if there’s been any help at all on offer, it’s a given that Anderson will make the most of it. Up until this point however, he had just 80 wickets in a stop-start 24 Tests across five years at an average of 37. “That’s the Anderson that took the cricket world by storm, and it was some years ago now. If England get that back they’ll be more than thrilled,” Nicholas continued. Not even in their most fanciful fantasies could they have hoped he’d still be making the ball talk over 12 years later, with nearly 500 wickets in the interim.

Carving up Kolkata

3-89 & 3-38
India v England
Eden Gardens, Kolkata, December 5-9, 2012

While there’s no doubting Anderson’s done his best work in England, with a Dukes ball in hand and clouds up above, his over-reliance on it being overcast and not overseas has been overstated. He’s played a vital role in two of England’s greatest-ever away series win, in 2010/11 against Australia and 2012 against India, when beaten captain MS Dhoni rated Anderson the difference between the two sides. His key role came on a flat deck at Kolkata, where he nagged away for three wickets in each innings, dismissing Sachin Tendulkar and Virat Kohli in the first innings – the start of a hold that would persist until 2018 – and Yuvraj Singh and Dhoni himself in the second as England claimed a 2-1 lead they would hold onto at Nagpur.

Tireless to the last

5-85 & 5-73
England v Australia
Trent Bridge, Nottingham, July 10-14, 2013

The lasting images of one of the classic Ashes Test matches are Ashton Agar walking off with a fun-while-it-lasted shrug after stroking 98 from No.11 on Test debut, and Stuart Broad sheepishly walking up to Ian Bell after nicking it to first slip – off the keeper’s gloves, though Australians often seem to neglect that fact for some reason. But the defining performance came from a lionhearted Anderson. His five first-innings wickets reduced Australia to 117-9 before Agar’s renaissance, before bowling 13 overs on the bounce on the final morning, claiming three wickets as Australia edged close. Fittingly, he returned after lunch to induce the decisive inside-edge from Brad Haddin as England secured a 14-run win.

Another Ashes turned

6-47 & 1-15
England v Australia
Edgbaston, Birmingham, July 29-31, 2015

Australia came into the 2015 Ashes as favourites, and despite England’s rousing, if fortunate, win at Cardiff, a thumping at Lord’s seemed to confirm the tourists’ status. On a tricky Edgbaston surface, Australia battled through rain breaks and the loss of three early wickets to reach lunch still three down, with the old stagers Chris Rogers and Adam Voges showing all their experience. And then Anderson ripped their heart out, snaffling four wickets in seven overs between the resumption and the next delay. The course of the series had been decisively altered.

Indian summer

5-20 & 4-23
England v India
Lord’s, London, August 9-12, 2018

James Anderson at his untouchable peak, the incredible thing being that it came when he had just turned 36, when most quicks have hung up their long-worn-out boots. The pitch was green, the heavens darkened – Anderson was never not going to cause havoc. Still, the display was exceptional, a less-is-more masterclass of extracting just enough movement from that same spot. His economy rate in both innings was well under two, and only one of those spells from Stuart Broad stopped him from claiming  a fourth Test ten-for.


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