James Anderson scales Mount 600 in Test cricket

Never a fire-spewing fast bowler like a Brett Lee or Shoaib Akhtar, Anderson’s unerring accuracy and swing (both conventional and reverse) made it extremely difficult for batsmen to practise abstinence outside the off-stump.

At 38, Anderson's body has endured tremendous stress, and at varying points when his torso screamed “give up,” he puckered his face and willed himself to become England’s leading wicket-taker ahead of a legend like Ian Botham (383) or his bowling partner and buddy Stuart Broad (514 and counting).   -  REUTERS

Fast bowling is much akin to self-flagellation. Yet, it bequeaths a considerable high to its practitioners notwithstanding the odd arthritic knee or creaky ankle suffered in the twilight years when a rocking chair and nostalgia beckon. In its glory, bowling at full tilt blends adrenaline, mayhem and supreme musculature, and seasons it with the microsecond art of seduction outside the off-stump.

The body is subjected to enormous strain commencing with the sprint gaining acceleration followed by the sudden turn to a side-on position in most cases. With some, it involves a leap too when gravity is defied and then one arm circles above, the other follows suit and the ball is hurled towards the waiting batsman. It doesn’t end with that as the physics of ‘moment of inertia’ means that the spearhead has to continue running before he glides to a halt. But cricket has its holy spots and the area just in front of the non-striker’s end cannot be tampered by frenzied boots. The projector of fiery deliveries, has to contort sideways and ensure that his follow-through veers away from the stumps. It is never easy.

Breakdowns, fractures, torn ligaments, aching shoulders, trips to the surgeon’s table, endless hours of physiotherapy and moments of self-doubt are all intrinsic to the vulnerabilities that shadow a cricketer once he or she opt to become a peddler of speed. Seen in that light, James Anderson’s ascent to ‘Mount 600’ in Tests is staggering. At 38, his body has endured tremendous stress, and at varying points when his torso screamed “give up,” he puckered his face and willed himself to become England’s leading wicket-taker ahead of a legend like Ian Botham (383) or his bowling partner and buddy Stuart Broad (514 and counting).

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The heady troika of spinners – Muttiah Muralitharan (800), Shane Warne (708) and Anil Kumble (619), remains the benchmarks while the man from Burnley, an industrial town known for manufacturing and ancient coal mines, leads the pace zone, beyond Glenn McGrath (563) and Courtney Walsh (519). But it has been a tough ride since his debut at Lord’s in 2003. When England popped the champagne at its home Ashes in 2005, Anderson was an afterthought while the quartet of Andrew Flintoff, Steve Harmison, Matthew Hoggard and Simon Jones led the bowling charts. Anderson bided his time, learnt from his peers, added craft to speed, burnished muscle with grey cells and soon he peaked and also found an ally in Broad.

There was Ashes glory and anxiety too as the road progressed with fresh landmarks. The best purveyors of the willow were humbled as Anderson reigned supreme. Never a fire-spewing fast bowler like a Brett Lee or Shoaib Akhtar but more of a ‘I-will-choke-you-till-rigor-mortis-sets-in’ purveyor, much akin to the McGrath school of bowling, Anderson’s unerring accuracy and swing (both conventional and reverse) made it extremely difficult for batsmen to practise abstinence outside the off-stump or guard their citadel. Subtle variations drew the edge, rapped pads, disturbed stumps, and Anderson was on his way, a clenched fist punching the air.

Reality check: Virat Kohli averaged 13.40 in the five Tests on the English tour in 2014.   -  AP

 

Off the field, he was a man of the half-smile and the mild word even if his reputation was tarred a bit with an alleged run-in with India’s Ravindra Jadeja in the 2014 Test series at home. But once past the ropes and onto the cut grass and the 22 yards at its core, Anderson found his soul. He kept asking questions, like how Walsh did. It was relentless and batsmen struggled for answers. In the same series during which he and Jadeja got into a skirmish close to the change rooms, Anderson made Virat Kohli his bunny. The batsman in turn hoped to brave those initial spells and then tuck into Moeen Ali’s spin. It never transpired. Being the class act he is, Virat did turn the corner against Anderson when India toured England in 2018 even if the visitor lost the series.

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As the summers slipped by, Anderson firmed his place on a glorious pedestal. It may be an edifice largely built upon home-baked bricks as his 384 wickets in England would testify, but there is no doubting his greatness. Over the last few years, as the workload extracted its dues from a tiring body, Anderson persevered. During the 2019 World Cup in Old Blighty, Anderson was battling the physical horrors. Injury was his cumbersome second skin, but he never gave up hope. In his mind, handing over his sweater and cap to the umpire and whispering “right-arm over” was always possible. He juggled his role as a commentator while his mates were headed towards an eternal sunshine headlined by the indomitable Ben Stokes.

In a lift, Anderson bumped into the former toe-crusher Waqar Younis. During those few minutes when an impromptu fast bowlers’ club took shape while the doors shut and the capsule hurtled up, the Pakistani great enquired about Anderson’s fitness. There was empathy and understanding in the air and the latter said that in a fortnight he would be ready again. It is that self-belief that has lent a sheen to his armour.

Anderson’s days in cricket may be closer to the finish line, but he will savour this moment – his 600th Test scalp Azhar Ali at Southampton’s Ageas Bowl in a Test against Pakistan. Outside the venue, a road snakes past with its name paying respects to the late Malcolm Marshall. Speed is surely in the air and what better place to achieve a record while a beer awaits in the dressing room even in these times of a pandemic and the resultant collective pause in our lives. Fast bowling and career longevity may seem strange bedfellows, but Anderson has shown that the twain can meet.

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