Anderson sitting alone on top of pace heap

Anderson sitting alone on top of pace heap

England's James Anderson celebrates after taking the wicket of Pakistan's Azhar Ali, his 600th in Test cricket. AFP

The most significant moment of James Anderson’s storied career couldn’t have come under more underwhelming circumstances.

In normal times, there would have been thousands of spectators wildly celebrating his unique feat, gallons of Guinness would have been consumed and the Barmy Army would have been singing, “Jimmy, Jimmy give us a wicket or 2. We’re half crazy to make a breakthrough…” But then, these are not normal times.

In the pandemic-hit world where even public events are becoming private affairs, Anderson celebrated his entry into 600 Test wickets club in isolation (no pun intended) by hugging his team-mates hesitantly and flashing the special ball towards the dressing room as an empty Rose Bowl silently saluted England’s finest paceman.

However, in the twilight of his career, it’s unlikely that Anderson would have dwelled too much on the scenes beyond the fence. He may have been denied the physical appreciation every sportsman craves, but not his place in history. As doughty Pakistani batsmen and the English weather threatened to spoil the Lancastrian’s party, he finally forced Azhar Ali to edge to slip. That made him first paceman to 600 Test wickets, and only the fourth bowler to reach that milestone in the longest format.

Think of Andy Sandham posting the first Test triple-ton, Sunil Gavaskar reaching 10,000 Test runs before anyone else, or Sachin Tendulkar scoring the maiden double-ton in men’s One-Day Internationals. Anderson’s achievement is as significant as, if not more than, this trio’s. After all, each of them has first conquered a peak once perceived as the much coveted but out-of-reach Holy Grail.

In that context, how long will it be before someone matches or even raises the bar Anderson has set? Is it even possible for another paceman to reach the heights that Anderson has, given the amount of cricket being played these days, the lure of multiple formats and the decreasing shelf-lives of players? While that’s a topic for another debate, two aspects stand out in Anderson’s march to rarefied territory -- his longevity and his unparalleled supremacy at home.

At 38, when most pacers are happily retired, he is still England’s most reliable bowler in Tests. While injuries in recent times may have restricted Anderson’s appearances, his will be the first name on the team sheet when he is fit. Never an express fast bowler, Anderson is no military-medium trundler either. He still consistently clocks in the mid-130 kmph range, a tribute to his fitness levels. A couple of hard decisions – whether it was his choice or not -- also have helped Anderson extend his career and stay effective with the red ball. He last played an ODI for England about five and half years ago, while the last of his 19 T20Is was in 2009. In a culture where Test feats are still remembered and respected, Anderson wouldn’t have missed the thrill of a T20 affair over the ebb and flow that the longer format offers. If anything, he has only got better with advancing age.

His supreme stranglehold on batsmen in English conditions is another factor that has contributed to his greatness. Like any other cricketer, Anderson too relishes home conditions, but no pacer has exploited familiar environs like he has. No bowler other than Muttiah Muralitharan, who claimed 493 wickets in Sri Lanka, has taken more wickets (384 in 89 matches) than Anderson on home pitches. That means almost two-thirds of his 600 wickets have come at home. And unlike in the sub-continent, he is celebrated for being such a powerful force on home turf. As the Barmy Army has done with: "... He swings it to the left, He swings it to the right, So flex those guns and stop those runs, Give the batsman an early night."