Years past his official sell-by date, James Anderson, keeps on improving and thereby sets an example to everybody, not only elite sportsmen.
Most pace bowlers are finished by the time they reach 30, or are clinging on to their place while clutching their back and knees. Anderson, at 38 years and 177 days, defies Anno Domini — and not a few critics — by continuing to break records for all pace bowlers from every Test-playing country.
On day one of the second Test in Galle, Anderson was classified as the “second oldest” pace bowler to take a Test wicket in Asia. If not a fast bowler’s graveyard, it can be their crematorium, as they tend to be burned to a crisp after a day of bowling flat out.
But India’s Lala Amarnath, who was rated the oldest “pace bowler” to take a wicket in Asia at 41 years of age, was nothing like Anderson, nor any other modern pace bowler as we define the term. Amarnath by then, whatever his pace before the Second World War, ambled in off a few paces and bowled inswingers at about the same speed as England’s spinners.
On day two at Galle Anderson became the oldest pace bowler to take a five-wicket Test haul in Asia. He overtook Sir Richard Hadlee, the New Zealander, who of anyone in all the annals comes closest to Anderson both in method and in durability — except that Hadlee did not have a central contract and had to deliver thousands of overs for Nottinghamshire in addition to taking 431 Test wickets for New Zealand.
Anderson, like Hadlee in his day, works on a theme of total accuracy. Any variations are based on this never-ending adherence to line and length, except for the occasional bouncer. If only England’s spinners had been able to hit the same spot on a length time after time after time, as Anderson did, England would not be chasing the game in this second Test.
So whatever luck Anderson was deemed to have enjoyed was, in another light, the appropriate reward for his labour, starting with Kusal Perera. Sri Lanka’s opener has played one of the all-time great Test innings, in South Africa, and might have thought about giving “Grandad” a hurry-up, but two balls from Anderson were enough to dismiss Perera for his arrogant slog.
Anderson has had a few rabbits in his time: Shan Masood, Pakistan’s opener, has been a prime example — Anderson has dismissed him eight times in the six Tests they have encountered each other — while even Sachin Tendulkar was not immune, not in England: Anderson dismissed India’s master nine times in their 14 Tests together.
Sri Lanka’s opener Lahiru Thirimanne is another bunny, snared by Anderson bringing the ball back into the left-hander before lunch then drawing him into nibbling at one going the opposite way straight after the interval: variations on this eternal theme. In between, Anderson dismissed Oshada Fernando, who chopped on against a short ball that lifted surprisingly for Galle. The scorer could have been forgiven for entering his name as O Fernando!
The first of Anderson’s three wickets on day two owed a little to luck, or maybe his reputation, when Angelo Mathews was given caught behind by the third umpire. If Suranga Lakmal, held at gully, was straightforward, Anderson’s dismissal of Niroshan Dickwella was a masterclass in how a pace bowler can take wickets on the slowest of pitches: Anderson angled across, and angled across, on the same theme of unrelenting accuracy, until the lefthander lost patience and drove at one not quite in the slot.
What an improvement! On England’s last tour of Sri Lanka, Anderson was omitted after two of the three Tests without having taken a wicket. He said at the time he did not have anything to work with: no swing or reverse-swing, no pace or bounce, no seam-movement or anything. But he went away, worked, thought, came back to his last frontier — the one country where he had not succeeded — and ultimately triumphed.
If only England’s selectors had followed this strategy last summer, by rotating Anderson and Stuart Broad, not playing both together. Both of them played five of the six Tests: as soon as one was dropped or looked like being, he stated his case very publicly, and the selectors backed down. Thereby Jofra Archer was denied the new ball; thereby Craig Overton was denied further experience; thereby Ollie Robinson was denied a Test debut; thereby England’s preparations for the next Ashes series were shelved for the summer.
If Anderson and Broad are rotated however, and other England pace bowlers are allowed to grow, they may yet have a role in Australia in November. Covid has made Test cricket even more of a squad game — India won in Australia with 20 players, the most ever by a touring side to win a Test series — and England will be well-equipped if they arrive in Brisbane with a fully-firing and experienced battery of Chris Woakes, Olly Stone, Mark Wood, Archer, Overton and Robinson, marshalled by Anderson or Broad.