Ben Jones analyses one of the England legend’s finest spells.
James Anderson has bowled a lot of overs in Test cricket. Today, he may have bowled his finest.
The first ball – his first of the day – was the warning. Shape in, from slightly too straight, drifting onto Shubman Gill’s pad. The young opener was looking beautiful, as he invariably does, taking a particular liking to England’s spinners. For fans in the UK who had braved a fifth early alarm, the early reward of Cheteshwar Pujara’s wicket had settled a few nerves, briefly, but the ease with which Gill approaches his work does not inspire optimism. Virat Kohli was at the other end. England’s WinViz was at 42%. Things were tense.
The second ball wasn’t so polite. It hooped, late – that classic hallmark of reverse swing – from a fifth stump line to crash into off, dipping through the gate. The stumps wheeled away in celebration. Gill was four years old when Anderson bowled his first ball in Test cricket, and the Englishman brought every second of that gulf in experience to this moment. India were 92-3, and hopes were rising.
Replacing Gill at the crease was Ajinkya Rahane, a batsman of obdurate quality and enormous recent achievement, capable of partnering his captain through the storm. He was out, essentially, twice inside three balls. Anderson’s first go was was a wide ball which searched for the swing and offered nothing, but the follow-up – fuller, straighter – jagged back through the air and hit Rahane low on the pad. Not out on the field, England sent it upstairs and were denied by the most marginal of Umpire’s Calls. Out, if it had been given.
But no matter. For the second time in the over, Anderson pulled a once-in-a-lifetime ball out of the hat. The same remarkable shape, honing in on the precise same spot as he had to remove Gill. Anderson has, across his career reversed the ball away from the right-hander, around 15% of the time when he does find reverse, but today everything was coming back – the fun was that knowing the punch was coming didn’t make it easier to dodge. This particular ball kept a touch low, a welcome helping hand from a pitch which had until the last few sessions been an unwilling participant in the contest; very few would argue with the idea that a seamer operating in the first three days of this Test match deserved a touch of fortune in the last two. The skill on display was outrageous, reversing swinging the ball at 130kph, late movement giving the impression of another 10kph behind the ball. You’re not supposed to do this, James.
And yet do it he did. In a single over, with one wave of the wand, he’d taken England’s chances of victory from 42% to 76%.
0W00W. Oh wow, indeed.
There were other wickets, as there tend to be with Anderson. The wicket of Rishabh Pant was tamer than the others, the keeper leaning on one and miscuing to short cover. It was fitting though that this dismissal, this spell, saw Anderson’s bowling average in India drop below 30. Arbitrary markers don’t matter, really, but they’re markers which are often thrown at Anderson. A quiet win on a day of bigger ones. By the time his spell was done, the numbers told their own story. 5-3-6-3. A spell of control, matched with incision. It may not have won England the game on its own, and Leach was offering significant threat at the other end, but it was Anderson who ripped the hope out of India’s hands, and pinned it to his chest.
England’s recent burst of good form – six away wins on the bounce now – should not mask the achievement of winning even just one Test in these conditions, particularly when you consider India have lost only once at home since 2012. And yet, since Anderson debuted in Test cricket, India have lost 10 home Tests – and Anderson himself has played in four of them. That’s the measure of the man, that he has kept coming back, this victory coming 15 years since he first toured India.
It is testament to his fitness, of course, but also how he has evolved as a bowler. Peak-Anderson was famed for building pressure. For thinking batsmen out, for toying with their technique and subtly deconstructing it. The lack of a testosterone-fuelled destructive streak, the sort typically associated with high pace, or reverse swing, has generally been something held against him, and used to praise his great rival, Dale Steyn.
Well, one of those destructive weapons is no longer available to Anderson, through the sheer fact of age and miles in the legs. But the other is a skill that can be acquired, a case of technique, and a skill that he has had throughout his career. Late-Anderson does have that destructive streak. Yet Anderson’s spell was the eighth time he’d taken at least three wickets in a spell lasting five overs or less – and all eight of those instances have been since 2015. Late-Anderson has reverse-swung the ball in Asia, even if at times it’s been to limited effect on the wickets column. The fact that Anderson has averaged less than 20 in Test cricket for four years is passed over far too easily, by far too many, but his recent record in tough seam-bowling conditions is arguably as big a part of that as green pitches and cloudy skies. Since the start of 2015, he averages 21.75 in Asia, and while he’s gone poorly in India, that’s as much down to the quality of the opposition as much as anything else.
With regard to practical matters, England are going to be unbelievably tempted to pick Anderson in the second Test. The plan may have been for rest and rotation, for both him and Stuart Broad to play two Tests each and perhaps only overlap with the pink ball in hand, but the plan has changed. Suddenly, like it or not, the heist is on. England may have planned for damage limitation, to scrap across the series and to compete as often as possible, to sneak through an open door should the chance arise. The fact that they have won the first Test changes that, and offers the carrot of going all out to win the second Test, of putting everything on red. The temptation to pick Anderson and Broad, plus Archer, might simply be too great.
But such matters are for another time, away from the after-glow. For now, let’s celebrate the work of a swinging magician, pulling off perhaps his greatest trick.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.