“Jimmy Anderson was the most naturally gifted bowler I had seen. He was outstanding, a different league.”
The words of Anderson’s first England captain, Nasser Hussain, as, during a Sky Sports lockdown podcast earlier this year, he recalled handing Anderson his first international cap 17 years ago.
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David Saker too, in his role as England’s bowling coach, chose his words very carefully when, in 2013, he famously labelled Anderson “the most skilful bowler in the world”.
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Gifted, skilful, sure, but Anderson’s remarkable ascent to 600 Test wickets – the first fast bowler to reach such heights – is also a story of great perseverance.
A raw, genuinely quick bowler as a teen, Anderson, aged 20, was fast-tracked on to England’s 2002/03 tour of Australia following a spate of injuries – so hurried was his call-up, in fact, that there seemingly wasn’t time to even print his name and number on the back of his shirt.
He impressed enough that winter to earn a spot in England’s World Cup squad only three months and nine ODIs later and it there was there, in a win over Pakistan at Cape Town, that the legend of Anderson was truly born.
With Pakistan chasing 247 to win, he dismissed notorious England tormentors Inzamam-ul-Haq and Mohammad Yousuf – both for ducks – with consecutive deliveries, devastating deliveries, in his second over on his way to match-winning figures of 4-29.
Later that year, against the same opposition at The Oval, Anderson took the first-ever hat-trick by an England bowler in ODI cricket. But, there was an early setback in among scaling such heights, with Anderson memorably smashed for 10 runs in two balls by Andy Bichel in the penultimate over of a defeat to Australia that knocked them out of the World Cup.
It was a reminder that while Anderson was a precocious talent, he was also a fragile one.
Anderson made his Test debut in the summer of 2003 and similarly started with a bang, Zimbabwe’s Mark Vermeulen his first success on the road to 600 and figures of 5-73 his first of 29 Test five-fors. But, over the next five years, he’d play in only 19 of England’s next 63 Test matches due to loss of form, an attempted remodelling of his action and injury.
“For some people a setback is too much for them,” Hussain said after Anderson’s milestone moment on Tuesday afternoon. “For Jimmy, he was told to change his action because it would cause injury and, yet, by changing his action it caused injury.
“But he came back, he kept believing and now he is the best of them all.”
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Anderson was kept out of action in 2006 with a stress fracture but his perseverance paid off when, in March 2008, he was picked as part of a new-look England attack along with a certain Stuart Broad – playing in only his second Test – against New Zealand in Wellington.
Replacing the 2005 Ashes old guard of Matthew Hoggard and Steve Harmison, Anderson took 5-73 in the first innings of England’s 126-run win, sparking a 2-1 come-from-behind series win.
Sir Andrew Strauss, who played on that tour and would go on to captain Anderson, told Sky Sports: “There was a marked change; we had Andrew Flintoff, Harmison, Hoggard – the senior partners in the team – and I think once the three of them were gone, Anderson looked round the dressing room and went ‘I need to be the senior partner’.
“From that moment on, A) his bowling got better, but B) he engaged much more in the dressing room.
“He was much more interested in the tactical conversations about the opposition batsmen, he would have more conversations with the other bowlers in the team and, obviously, with Broad he struck up an incredible partnership that has endured for a long period of time.”
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There’s been no stopping Anderson since; later that summer, he took his 100th Test wicket, Jacques Kallis, two years later he had 200 to his name and by 2015 he had doubled that mark, passing Sir Ian Botham’s England record of 383 along the way.
During this period, Anderson also more than played his part in three-straight Ashes triumphs (2009-2013), including a first win in Australia for 24 years while, in 2011, England were crowned No 1 in the world Test rankings.
There is a fallacy, however, that says Anderson is only effective in English conditions, on helpful surfaces, with overhead conditions and a more encouraging Dukes ball to assist his skilful brand of swing bowling.
True, his record overseas – 216 wickets at an average of 32.05 – might not hit you between the eyes in quite the same way as his record at home – a staggering 384 wickets at 22.83 apiece – but Anderson has, on numerous occasions, proven to be a vital contributor away from home.
In two trips to the UAE – a notorious fast bowlers’ graveyard – Anderson claimed 22 wickets at an astonishing average of 20.54; spin would account for 130 of the other 195 wickets to fall on those 2012 and 2015 tours.
India captain in 2012, MS Dhoni, explained away their first home series defeat to England in 28 years by saying “the difference between the bowling sides was James Anderson,” after he finished as the leading seamer with 12 wickets at 30.25 a pop.
Australia hasn’t always been Anderson’s happiest of hunting grounds but, in England’s 2010/11 triumph, he finished as the leading wicket-taker for the series – 24 at 26.04 – to shut up Mitchell Johnson, and on the more fraught, most recent trip of 2017/18, he led the way for the tourists with 17 strikes at 27.82.
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Shane Warne, this week, floated the idea of Anderson possibly moving into a coaching role on overseas tours, with the hope of prolonging his career in England, but he is not yet entertaining such a notion.
“I still think I can bowl in all conditions,” Anderson told Sky Sports after reaching 600. “I feel I am fit enough to keep playing and I don’t think it’s fair to other guys in the team if I just rock up in England when conditions suit and send them to India and Sri Lanka to do the hard yards!
“We have strength in depth, and I realise there will be times I am left out for various reasons – resting, to have a look at someone else.
“I will just try and keep my game at as high a level as possible and be ready for when I am called upon.”
Rumours of retirement swirled following a forgettable first Test of the series against Pakistan, but the stats show Anderson has bowled as well as he ever has done this summer – just without luck at times, a point further emphasised as four catches went down off his bowling over the course of the past five, at times frustrating, days in Southampton.
In the last five years, Anderson has rattled through the records at pace, taking his 400th, Martin Guptill, his 500th, Kraigg Brathwaite – also Broad’s 500th victim earlier this summer – and 564th Test wicket, Mohammad Shami, to surpass Glenn McGrath’s previous record-best tally for a seamer.
A combination of rain, dropped catches and some determined Pakistan batting conspired to make him wait a little while longer for his 600th but, with that now ticked off, is 700 the next target?
Anderson answered simply, “why not?” The 38-year-old also mentioned he’s eyeing up another Ashes tour in 2021/22, adding: “(Joe) Rooty said he would like me to be in Australia. I don’t see any reason why I can’t be.”
Such responses are what we’ve come to expect from Anderson, with his renowned stubborn streak and seemingly insatiable competitive spirit to go with his undoubted natural talent.
“You know that he has those gifts, what you don’t know when you hand someone their first cap is what else do they have and can they give?” added Hussain.
“That stomach for the fight, that stuff about wanting to carry on and do it day in, day out; that wanting to learn and to improve every single time.
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