James Anderson is forty. It is nineteen years since he played his first Test and on 17 August he will — Deo volente — be back at Lord’s opening the bowling, red ball in hand, for England versus South Africa. He has taken more Test wickets than any other pace bowler, and he has played 170 Tests which is more than the combined number played by the great English fast bowlers of the 1950s, Fred Trueman and Brian Statham, put together.
Comparisons are interesting, although they prove nothing. Anderson now plays little but Test match cricket, only a handful of matches for Lancashire early in the season. Trueman and Statham would come straight from a three-day County match to a Test, and then straight from a Test to a county game. They regularly took, and were expected to take, a hundred wickets in an English summer. Statham did so thirteen times, Trueman twelve. In their first-class career, each took more than 2,300 wickets. Anderson has taken 1,065, but then, in his long career, he has played only 105 first-class matches other than Tests. Trueman and Statham each ended their Test career in their mid-thirties, although they continued to play county cricket for Yorkshire and Lancashire respectively for another three or four seasons.
Trueman was the first bowler of any kind to take 300 Test wickets. Statham took 252. Trueman’s record was surpassed by Bob Willis, the greatest England fast bowler between Trueman/Statham and Anderson. His match-winning 8 for 30 against Australia at Headingley in 1981 was arguably the most remarkable performance by any English fast bowler. Unlike Trueman and Statham, Willis was rarely a great bowler for Warwickshire in the County Championship.
Comparisons may, as often said, be odious. We all make them, however, even while we recognize that circumstances and conditions change over the years and generations. As often I find myself recalling the old caddy at St Andrew’s, almost a hundred years ago. Asked which was the greater golfer, Bobby Jones or Young Tom Morris, he replied “bait of them played perfect golf”.
I picture all four of these bowlers easily and with pleasure. Fred Trueman, 5 ft 10, stockily built, broad-shouldered and big-bottomed, didn’t look like an athlete until, ball in hand, he started his run. Then it was poetry in motion: the arched back, the great leap, the perfect side-on action, the great sweep of his right arm, the long follow-through.
Statham was less dramatic, a high action, bowling close to the stumps, a bit chest-on. Trueman was menacing, Statham matter-of-fact. “If they miss,” he said of batsmen, “I hit”. Both their actions seemed entirely natural, uncoached; and the same is true of James Anderson, whose career stalled when he was young and England’s coaches tried to change it. Happily, he had the good sense and courage to revert to what came naturally. I suppose he is the most beautiful and classical of fast or, now, fast-medium bowlers; the perfect model for an essay on the Art of Bowling.
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Nobody could have called Bob Willis that. If the others, especially Trueman and Anderson, seemed to bowl as if it was the most natural thing in the world, what they were born and formed to do, Willis bowled fast by sheer determination and willpower. His run was inordinately long — hard work even to get to the wicket at the right moment. It was almost as if he bowled fast — and on good days he was very fast indeed — in defiance of nature.
Willis can, like Anderson, be recaptured in colour, Trueman and Statham only in grainy black-and-white.
None of the four was the fastest England bowler I have seen. That was Frank Tyson. His career was brief as a meteor. I saw him only once: The Oval in 1956. That’s to say I saw Tyson bowl, but never the ball. In his first or second over, the Australian opener Colin McDonald struck the ball off his legs. One could hear the sound even if the ball was invisible. Then he was walking ruefully to the pavilion and caught Tony Lock at short-leg, perhaps ten yards from the bat.
Nowadays you could see it all, repeated time and again, just as you can have the pleasure of assembling a portfolio of James Anderson’s greatest wickets. But the real pleasure is watching Anderson ball by ball, seeking out a batsman’s weakness. This may be the last summer for him, but he will surely have one more Ashes series when Australia are here next.
Eventually, however, he will leave the field and, like Trueman, Statham, Willis and indeed Tyson and Botham, survive in memory, and cricket-lovers young today will bore and irritate their children and grandchildren by looking at their new heroes, shaking the head and muttering, “ah, but you should have seen Jimmy Anderson. Now that was as close as bowling can come to perfection…”