CricViz Analysis: The Perfection of James Anderson

Ben Jones analyses the technical refinement and strategic intelligence which has James Anderson still bowling as effectively now as he was 10 years ago.

When a young athlete has their whole career ahead of them, they give off a certain manic energy. An eagerness to get out onto the field, into the game, at the opposition. They have time to run in all the wrong directions before finding the right one, before settling onto the right path. They are safe in the knowledge that they have time to waste.

Over time, that energy gives way. Through failure and fatigue, an ageing athlete takes to the field with ever more caution in their stride. An athlete at the end of their career treads a little more carefully – with limited steps left to take, they place them more carefully. He has no time to waste.

At 36 years old, James Anderson is getting better. He’s getting better at a profession which requires explosion, intensity, and power, a profession that is supposed to be a young man’s game. James Anderson is 11 wickets from becoming the most prolific Test seamer of all time. In the last two years, he has averaged 17.77 with the ball.

His longevity is remarkable; in the last 25 years, no seamer has bowled more. Yet now he is entering a period of uncertainty. At 36 years old, and with an inconsistent injury record in the past few years, Anderson’s body is now the main barrier to his success. In the last 20 years, there have been 17962 deliveries bowled by seamers who were 36+ years old at the start of the Test. On average, once seamers turn 36 they bowl roughly another 1’500 deliveries in their career, or 250 overs. Anderson’s in the red zone.

Yet still he remains effective. Even with all those miles in the legs, Anderson is still a World XI contender, just as he has been for a decade now. Of course, much of his longevity relates to his physical conditioning. An extraordinarily fit man, Anderson is arguably the most looked after player in cricketing history, his workload managed exquisitely. According to a few crude calculations, at the current rate, he will send down roughly 2’800 total deliveries in all cricket this calendar year. That would make his workload for 2018 his lightest since 2002. There is no question that Anderson is being wrapped in cotton wool – but that’s what you do with valuables.

He’s also settled into his action, after a traumatic start to his career in that regard. The constant reconstructions of his bowling action when he first burst onto the scene are the stuff of distressing legend, but his action has actually barely changed in the decade he’s been in the side. His average release height in 2018 is just 1.5cm lower than in 2008. As shown below, a slightly more braced front-leg may offer more control, but compared to the huge changes he underwent earlier in his career, these are tweaks.

However, the most important factor in Anderson’s longevity is his strategic intelligence. He has, over the course of the last decade, made numerous tactical choices, refining his approach so that now, 16 years into his Test career, his game consists of zero waste. Every delivery serves a purpose, not a single step taken in error. Across almost all aspects of his bowling, from his technical base and bowling strategy to his workload and role in the side, a common theme emerges. Less is more.

One might assume, seeing the fear in the batsmen’s eyes as Anderson runs in this summer, that he’s moving the ball more than ever. That isn’t the case. As shown in this graphic, barring the odd high or low, Anderson has generally found the same degree of swing throughout his career. The vast majority of his seasons have seen him find between 1.4° and 1.6° swing; he isn’t finding any more swing now than he has previously.

No, the weapon hasn’t changed, but rather the way it is wielded. When Anderson first broke into the Test team properly in 2008, he bowled big hooping inswingers and outswingers. He was an immensely attacking bowler, and was rightly feared, but he was mercurial, not for an intangible mental reason, but for a technical one. To accommodate for the huge amount of swing he was able to impart on a delivery, he would have to send the ball off on a very wide line for an in-swinger, or an extremely straight line for an outswinger. This meant that the batsman could pick him simply by clocking the line that the ball started out on, and select their stroke accordingly. There was fire and excitement in Anderson’s bowling, but little mystery.

A substantial turning point came in 2010. That summer, Mohammad Asif toured England, and in the two Test series against England and Australia, took 23 wickets at an average of 28.56. On the face of it, Anderson had a superior summer, taking 32 wickets at just 16.84, but the Lancastrian learnt a key lesson from the Pakistan man. The ‘wobble-seam’ delivery was a key weapon in Asif’s armoury, a ball where the deviation direction is unknown to both bowler and batsman. Seeing the trouble it caused the likes of Kevin Pietersen, Anderson was inspired to develop the delivery himself, as an extra tool for when the ball was not swinging.

However, in order to bowl it, you have to be prepared for the ball to go either way – as such, the telegraphed wide line of attack was put to bed. Anderson began to relentlessly target the channel outside off-stump, a line of attack which meant that regardless of whether the ball jagged in or out, the batsman was threatened. In this respect, he has transformed, now bowling more deliveries than not (55%) in the channel outside off-stump. From that position, the batsman is unable to read the variation purely on the line, so is inherently in two minds.

With that uncertainty planted, the actual need for his variations is lessened, something we can see in Anderson’s variation pattern to left-handers, which has changed radically over the last decade. In 2008, he was as almost as likely to bring the ball back into the left-hander as he was to take it away. Yet his plan has been reduced to almost exclusively bowling outswingers, with the ball moving back in just an occasional change up. In the last three years, only Wahab Riaz and Trent Boult vary their swing direction less against left-handers than Anderson. 

This reduction in variation has hugely increased the actual effectiveness of those variations. In 2008, Anderson’s inswinger averaged 26.66 against left-handers; since the start of 2017, it’s averaging 7.5. Less is more.

To right-handers, the story is similar; Anderson has significantly reduced how often he bowls the inswinger to the right-handed batsman. Pleasingly, the pattern of reduced variation bringing improved results comes to the fore again. In 2008, Anderson’s in-swinger to the right-hander averaged 60.50; since the start of 2017, it averages 8.80.

The same relationship applies to Anderson’s length. The bedrock of Anderson Mk II’s success has been his ability to hit that good line and length, attacking that dangerous in-between zone where the batsman is unsure whether to play forward or back. Up to the start of 2016, 39% of his deliveries were on a good length. Since then that’s risen sharply to 48%. He bowls that length more than almost everyone in the world.

However, he hasn’t become one-dimensional. As with his use of swing variations, his change-ups in length have become more pointed, more precise, and more effective.

He’s certainly bowling fewer bouncers. Anderson used to bowl 35% balls short of a good length, but since 2016 that’s dropped to 26%. Yet with with a reduction in frequency has come an increase in accuracy. As shown in these heatmaps, Anderson’s bouncers have been far more precise and aimed at a much smaller area.

It’s borne fruit. Before 2016, he averaged 40.02 with the short ball; since then, his average has dropped to 30.92. He’s bowled fewer short balls, but has had more success.

Yet again, less has proven to be more.

As well a reduction in pace, the variance in his pace has also decreased in recent seasons. The difference between his fastest delivery and slowest delivery of 2018 is 29kph; that’s the smallest difference for any calendar year. Anderson is bowling fewer effort balls, and fewer slower balls. His changes of pace are more subtle, within a tighter band of available speeds, similar in nature to those of a spinner.

Indeed, the comparisons with spin don’t stop there. Like the slower bowlers that follow his opening spells, Anderson’s primary weapon has become the deviation he gets off the pitch. This year has seen Anderson average more seam movement than he ever has done before in an English season. Given that the pitches up and down the county are hardly lush green seamers, and considering that Anderson is such a supremely skilled bowler, we can assume this is a deliberate shift in strategy.

The late lateral movement means that Anderson’s decline in pace is less of an issue, and maximises the effect of his accuracy. It also means he’s no less effective with an old ball than he is with a new one. Whilst a pure swing bowler is at the mercy of the cycle from lacquer-driven uncontrollable swing, to conventional swing, to little movement and then through to reverse-swing, the Dukes ball offers broadly similar movement off the seam across the innings. It allows Anderson to be an ever-present threat.  He can’t afford to disregard 30 overs of a Test innings. He hasn’t got time.

And perhaps that’s why his current success feels that bit more thrilling than it has done previously. Our relationship with Jimmy is different now that the spectre of his own cricketing mortality is so close by, as we appreciate every perfectly placed outswinger like it might be the last. Who knows how long Anderson will continue – some have suggested four more years, others to the end of the summer – but when he does walk off for the final time, he can do so knowing he did everything to squeeze out every last drop of bowling he had in him.

Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.

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