James Anderson’s sweet swing of success in India

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On the morning of his 157th appearance in Test cricket for England, James Anderson arrived a worried man at the ground in Galle. This, he would admit to BBC’s Test Match Special at the end of the first day, when his yet-incomplete innings figures read 19-10-24-3 (at one point, those numbers were 16 overs, 16 runs, 9 maidens, 3 wickets). “Pretty nervous, more so than usual,” were Anderson’s exact words.

Today, it’s hard to imagine what his fuss was about, based on the knowledge that Anderson went on to finish the innings with incredible figures of 6/40, which in turn made him the oldest fast bowler, at 38, to claim a Test five-for in Asia. But on that first morning, there were a couple of factors powerful enough to unnerve even someone as great as Anderson.

For one, he hadn’t played a competitive game since the previous August (when he claimed his 600th Test wicket against Pakistan). But rather more daunting was that Anderson had suffered a horrid time in the subcontinent, stretching all the way back to England’s tour of India in 2016. Since dismissing Cheteshwar Pujara in the second innings of the second Test of that series in Visakhapatnam, the greatest living fast bowler in the world had bowled 95 overs—across eight innings and over two countries—for just one more wicket in Asia, that of Dimuth Karunaratne—incidentally, also scalped in Galle on the previous tour in 2018.

What also could not have helped on the morning of January 22nd in Galle was the heat and humidity, coupled with England being asked to bowl on a flat track. “But what really helped was a couple of early wickets,” Anderson told TMS. “It was nice to get those… helped to settle the nerves.” That was enough to take his Test tally from 600 to 606; and, significantly, more than enough to bring up forward from the backdrop for the upcoming four-Test tour of India.

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Just in time and just as well, mainly because no other player in the world today has a better understanding of what it takes to beat India in India in Test cricket than Anderson. Why? Because he has featured in three wins in this country—the most by an active player. To lend context towards why that is such a big deal, it is important to understand that the mighty Australian cricket team has won just one Test in India in the last 15 years. In the same period, Anderson alone has seen as many victories on these shores as the Aussies and South Africa put together.

In a career spanning nearly two decades, in which he has taken the most wickets by a quick in Test cricket, there isn’t much credit that is still due for Anderson. Apart from possibly the role he played in England’s two wins in Mumbai, spread apart by six years, and the series-winning match in Kolkata.

In none of those matches was Anderson the central figure. That would be Andrew Flintoff in Mumbai (2006), Kevin Pietersen in Mumbai redux (2012) and Alastair Cook in Kolkata, backed by the supporting cast of England’s spinners in all of them. But in each of those games, Anderson did his share of chipping away at the whole, saddling his share of the burden.

MUMBAI RETURN

For a while there, Anderson too must’ve wondered what the fuss over winning in India was all about. In his first six Tests here, he had won half of them, including his very first back in 2006. Returning to Test cricket after nearly two years in the wilderness, a 23-year-old Anderson took to Mumbai, and India. His first two overs on Indian soil were maidens, the first to Wasim Jaffer and the second to Rahul Dravid.

Anderson’s fourth over at the Wankhede Stadium was a maiden too, this one bowled to the city’s favourite son, Sachin Tendulkar. When Anderson nicked Tendulkar off with the first ball of his following over, the impossible had happened—sections of the Wankhede booed Tendulkar as he walked back to the hut for a 21-ball 1. In the short silence that followed, Anderson collected his high-fives and then the wicket of Dravid, finishing with figures of 4/40—his best in India to date.

That win in Mumbai ensured England drew the series in 2006. The next time they won in the same city, England not only bounced back from a woeful start in Ahmedabad but also took a giant step towards doing what no other visiting team had since the turn of the century—win a Test series in India. In Mumbai 2012, Anderson took the only wicket that spinners Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar didn’t—that of Gautam Gambhir in the first innings. Yet, he later said: “This feels better than the win here in 2006… the three guys involved in both—me, Monty and Kev—all say it feels better.”

By the time England nosed ahead in the 2012 series in Kolkata, Anderson was back among the big wickets—scalping Tendulkar, Virat Kohli, MS Dhoni and Yuvraj Singh among his bouquet of six match wickets. His 12 wickets in the series don’t really stand out amid the spinners’ massive hauls (Swann and Pragyan Ojha took 20 each, Panesar 17 and Ashwin 14), but it does when you realise the next best tally for a fast bowler was four wickets.

“We had two great spinners in Swanny and Monty, who made the seamers’ job a lot easier,” Anderson recently said of the 2012 series win. “We didn’t have that quality when we went back there in 2016.”

They didn’t. Adil Rashid and Moeen Ali are fine spinners (Ali is nearing 200 Test wickets), but they aren’t quite Swann and Panesar—a big reason why England lost the last two Tests by an innings, despite their batsmen posting over 400 first innings runs on both occasions.

For his fifth, and possibly final, tour of India, Anderson will be joined by Ali, Jack Leach and Dom Bess—the latter two even more inexperienced than Ali and Rashid in 2016. But pacers Jofra Archer, Stuart Broad, Chris Woakes and Ben Stokes (and possibly Sam Curran for the third Test too) more than make up for the dearth in the spin department.

That is without a doubt the best fast bowling line-up Anderson has toured India with. And if they don’t assist Anderson in adding to his tally of wickets, and more importantly, tally of wins in India over the next four Tests, then surely no one else can.

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