Ben Jones analyses the ebb and flow of luck between two masters of the game, Virat Kohli and James Anderson.
James Anderson’s rivalry with Virat Kohli is sublime. It has everything; two of the finest players of all time, fluctuating fortunes, and prolonged exposure over multiple series. We are lucky to have seen them trade blows.
Yet the nature of the rivalry has substantially changed in the last few weeks. What began as ball dominating bat, then vice versa, has now become a kind of performance art piece regarding the concept of luck in sport. As it stands, James Anderson has drawn 53 false shots in a row from Kohli, without one of them leading to a wicket.
Given that in Tests, roughly 14 false shots equates to a wicket, that is a remarkable streak. Anderson has almost quadrupled the standard number of false shots required to remove a batsman, and yet has come away with nothing. It’s a staggering run of poor fortune for the bowler, and the inverse is equally true; it is perfectly reasonable to say both that Kohli has played wonderfully well in this series, and that Kohli has been extraordinarily lucky against Anderson.
The Indian captain has earned that luck. On India’s last tour of England, eight false shots from Kohli against Anderson brought four wickets, and it’s only natural that the pendulum has swung back the other way. Fortune’s Wheel works in cycles of feast and famine, and in the end most things average out. Across their entire head-to-head rivalry in Tests, Kohli plays 14% false shots against Anderson. That’s the Test average.
However, Anderson may have cause to question that cycle, because despite his vast tally of wickets, he has suffered this fate a surprising number of times. Runs of this kind, of extended consecutive false shots without a wicket, have become an odd kind of speciality of the veteran seamer. Below is a list of the longest streaks of all time, and it is dominated by Anderson. More than most, he appears to suffer from prolonged lapses in fortune.
Johan Cruyff once said that when his side were winning handsomely – as they often were – he would purposely try and hit the bar, rather than score. He believed that the fans in the ground enjoyed this more than seeing the fifth goal in a 5-0 thrashing, that the quivering potential of the rocked crossbar was more enticing. The drama of the ‘almost’ was more intense than the real. In this way, James Anderson is involved in a kind of Cruyffian display.
Of course, it’s a flawed comparison – Anderson isn’t taking on this role willingly. This isn’t showboating, and none of the grimaces and shouts which follow yet another Kohli play-and-miss suggest that Jimmy is particularly enjoying the spectacle, relishing his part in this relentless back and forth. But there is certainly something to be said for the idea that these battles only add to Anderson’s mystique as a bowler.
Because he isn’t always at the bottom of the wheel. Shan Masood played 13 false shots against Anderson, and was dismissed six times. Lahiru Thirimanne played 14 false shots, and was dismissed five times. Yet aside from the odd mocking reference to Masood, these head-to-heads don’t linger in the memory, they don’t enhance Anderson’s reputation as a bowler. Sometimes, things happen all too much, all too quickly, to be truly appreciated.
The spectacle of something almost happening is often more gratifying than it actually happening. Some of the greatest spells of the modern era have not resulted in a wicket actually falling; Donald to Atherton. Morkel to Clarke, Wahab to Watson. In order for those spells to achieve their classic status, to fulfil their potential, they needed things to almost happen for a long time. The same is true of this rivalry between Kohli and Anderson.
The balance may well be restored in the final two Tests. A few quick wickets would return the ratio of false shots to wicket to something more normal, Kohli handing back a portion of his good fortune. Yet what is clear is that the longer these chances go unpunished, the longer they pass by with Kohli still at the crease, the grander the rivalry becomes. With every edge or miss, with every drop, the legend grows.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.