The best bowlers in the world, judged by sheer weight of numbers, were Murali, Warne, Kumble, McGrath, Walsh and Kapil Dev. Since Murali spun himself into the test match sunset in July 2010 the bowlers who have taken the most wickets have been James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Nathan Lyon, Rangana Herath and Steyn. Of the 5, Steyn has played the fewest matches but made up for it with almost unceasing excellence, taking his wickets at lowest average and strike rate.
This article is not about Dale Steyn. He is a player who has attracted words of almost universal praise. Except for his facial hair. The awful goatee thing on his face makes him look like he couldn’t even be trusted to sell knock-off pornography to drunks in a Norwood public house.
This is about the man who leads the post Murali pack in numbers, if not by other metrics.
James Anderson has 433 test wickets. More than any other England player ever. Indeed, only 6 players have taken more wickets in their careers and Anderson will likely overhaul Kapil Dev in the upcoming series against Sri Lanka. Of course, Kapil has 8 more test centuries to his name than Anderson could ever hope to hit. And a World Cup. And that catch off Viv Richards. Kapil wasn’t just a man apart in the 80s stable of fast bowling all-rounders; he helped to change how cricket is played, broadcast and sold forever.
And that is kind of Anderson’s problem. He was a young tearaway on debut, then he was tinkered with until the English management almost broke him entirely. He returned permanently in 2008 and since then has been England’s go to guy in the field. Stuart Broad’s bowling thrice dethroned the world’s number one cricket teams (the Oval in 2009, Trent Bridge in 2011 and Johannesburg 2016). Graeme Swann took 2 wickets in his first over of test cricket. Flintoff was an Ashes legend, along with Jones, Hoggard and Harmison.
Anderson? He kept on keeping on. He learnt from his first Ashes drubbing by helping England to 3 innings victories. He kept himself fit so that it is only now, as he approaches his mid-thirties that the miles are starting to show. And he has been exceptional in Asia, particularly in the 2012 jaunt to India. Want to know how impressive that was? Ask Australia and South Africa what happened on their last visits. From 2 separate tours, Mitchell Johnson and Dale Steyn between them took no wickets from 1 test apiece, conceding 90 runs between them. The man who would be England’s bete noir just a few months later and the greatest of his generation contributed literally nothing, even as their teams listed beneath the waves.
By contrast, on England’s last test tour there Anderson took 12 wickets at an average of just over 30. This was done on turning pitches, designed to almost completely neuter England’s pace advantage and he just kept coming at them. Cook, Panesar, Swann and He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named (aka The Dark Lord, aka You-Know-Who) took the plaudits but MS Dhoni acknowledged that Jimmy was the major difference between the sides.
In his time leading England’s attack, he has won all over the world. Even in their defeats, rare has the root cause been England’s bowling. England’s matches at Headingley and Lord’s in 2014 spring to mind. The failure to break through at Antigua ultimately cost them the series after England’s 2nd innings brain-fade in Barbados. Their all round crapness in the tests against Pakistan last Autumn stemmed in part from an inability to stem runs in the 2nd innings (as well as their usual problems with playing spin bowling).
Contrast those with the Ashes in 2010/11. Cook, Trott and Pietersen may kept Australia at bay unceasingly but Anderson led an attack that always made sure there was enough in the kitty to finish matches. And that was with a Kookaburra ball, the “biggest danger to cricket”, as Giles Clarke would almost certainly say. Give him a Duke ball and put him on a pitch with a touch of green on it and he enters a class of his own. Just ask Australia’s top order from Edgbaston in 2015. Given how little time they spent batting in that match, they’ll have plenty of time to talk to you.
If matters keep coming back to the Ashes, that’s because cricket in Australia and England can’t drop that particular obsession. Mitchell Johnson is a legend because he bowled at speeds that would make Captain Kirk proud and took 37 Ashes wickets in a series (which is 37 more than he took in his previous test series: see above). Glenn McGrath took Mike Atherton’s wicket 19 times at an average that needs careful study of microscopy to truly appreciate. Shane Warne bowled the ball of the century. Stuart Broad is a shit bloke. Headingley 1981. Adelaide 2006. The entire of 2013/14. Seriously, how did England manage to have only a single good day in the entire series? Actually, how did England manage to have a single good day in the entire series?
James Anderson has seen so much with England. The highs and the lows, but for the last 6 years or so he has been a crucial component for there being more of the former than the latter. He is not better than Dale Steyn. The only person who can say to you that he is without being crazy, stupid or mendacious is his mother, and even then she would probably tell you Dale Steyn is the best bowler in the world. She’s from Lancashire so it’s how she rolls.
Jimmy Anderson: Not overrated. Unless we’re talking about ODIs, in which case the vein on the side of my head will start throbbing. I mean, who seriously thought he should be in England’s first XI in the last World Cup? If you want to make a case for a player being overrated then by all means use his world cup performances against him.
England is not by tradition a mediocre ODI side. It is a tardy, mediocre ODI side. The management threw its Ashes cycle out the window so it could make space to prepare for the World Cup. By playing a series against Sri Lanka, losing badly, sacking their captain, playing worse and being knocked out by Bangladesh. They tried to win in 2015 by catching up to 2011 and even then they were mediocre.
World Cups matter. The ECB finally got this last year. Bilateral ODI series are good for television money and seeing how young players do on a bigger stage but they’re still confections. Ever eat chocolate until it loses its flavour? That’s what most bilateral ODI series feel like. Your knowledge of them dribbles out your ears as they go.
Anderson at World Cups somehow makes the rest of his team’s mediocrity look like staggering overachievement.
4 World Cups, and 27 wickets at an average of nearly 40 and England never looked good enough to do more than claw their way out of the group stages.
By comparison the eternal benchmark has 23 wickets at 23 across 2 tournaments and his team was only one good heimliching away from getting to a world cup final.
Somehow, as Anderson became a better test player he managed to go backwards as an ODI one.
Maybe it was the more sensible hair, maybe being in charge of the attack affected him. More likely the world moved on without him. Modern ODIs reward extremes. Big bats, big batting, extreme pace, more turn, and lightning reflexes in the field. Jimmy’s virtues are in many ways more classical, bringing rewards for swing, seam, economy and patience. He’s not alone though. Just ask Alastair Cook.
It’s hard to feel sad at this change of affairs. Like I said earlier, there is a vein on the side of my head that throbs when I think about his appearances in the World Cup. The big occasion came calling but only found the answer service and England persevered with him seemingly as much out of a fear that there was nobody else rather than genuinely believe in the remaining pool of talent.
You can make the argument that James Anderson is overrated and a sign of England’s mediocrity. But only in ODIs because for too long the team itself was overrated, where every sign of progress was shown to be stagnation. In tests, he is rightly lauded for being England’s most successful ever bowler, if almost certainly not the best.