London: Glenn McGrath and James Anderson met only once in a Test series: the Ashes whitewash of 2006-07. McGrath towered over Anderson like a giraffe over an antelope: he claimed 21 wickets at 23.90 apiece, Anderson just five at 82.60. For McGrath the last of the lot — and the last of his 563 wickets in Test cricket — was Anderson, chipping the ball to midwicket.
To anyone who observed the two then, the notion that Anderson would one day usurp McGrath as the top wicket-taker of any fast bowler in Test history would have seemed fantastical. But just before 5.30pm on the final day at the Kia Oval, Anderson located an inswinger through the gap between Mohammad Shami’s bat and pad. At the end of an enthralling series and epic Test, Anderson’s 564th Test wicket was the perfect denouement.
McGrath said he has great respect for Anderson after the Englishman replaced him as the most prolific pace bowler in Test cricket.
“I was proud to hold it for as long as I did — for it to be beaten by somebody like Jimmy Anderson is great,” McGrath told BBC Radio 5 live.
“I have a lot of respect for Jimmy. He’s been an incredible bowler for a long time.
“To have played well over 140 Tests and just keep running in, day in, day out, and remain at the top of his game, yeah, I’m very proud Jimmy’s got there.”
The route to this moment had been longer than expected: 122 balls and over 24 hours after Anderson had taken two wickets in four balls and reduced India to one for two on Monday evening.
Yet, in a sense, bowling England to victory after a 14-over spell was apt. Anderson can create the illusion that fast bowling is easy.
He is so devastating when he has a new ball and overcast clouds in England — and yet, in its own way, his futile toil in Australia over the winter was even more admirable.
In the final Test at Sydney, England saw Australia amass 649 for seven declared; Anderson, impervious to the disintegration of the attack around him, took one for 56 from 34 overs. Australia had broken England, and yet Anderson’s parsimony, supreme skill and sheer force of will were such that they could not break him.
In a way he is appreciated best on days like that. For they embody Anderson’s remarkable journey from red-streaked tearaway to slightly surly metronome. The bowler, who left Australia after that ignominious Ashes tour in 2006-07, was conceding 3.81 an over in his career. In the last three years and 36 Tests he conceded only 2.35 an over: a 1960s throwback in the age of T20 run rates.
With Anderson, “each last ounce of unnecessary complication has been burned away”, Nathan Leamon, England’s team analyst, observed recently. The bowler we see today is less viscerally thrilling than the intoxicating sight English cricket met 15 years ago, who could reach 90mph, had red streaks in his hair and bowled booming outswingers. Anderson today bowls slower. He swings the ball less on average. Fewer balls swing prodigiously.
All this has been sacrificed in pursuit of becoming a bowler who gives batsmen nothing to hit, one who tests every sinew of the techniques and temperaments of the batsmen he confronts.
To gauge the bowler he has become, imagine the first seven years of Anderson as an elongated experimental phase, and Anderson in his current guise as being born on January 1, 2010. Since then he has taken 416 wickets at 23.99 apiece. These are numbers fit to compare with some of the very greatest fast bowlers of all time: Wasim Akram took 414 wickets at 23.62 and Dennis Lillee 355 at 23.92.
“He deserves it because of the skills he possesses and his keen eye for figuring out faults of the batsman,” said Virat Kohli, the India captain. “He can bowl all sorts of deliveries, which is a massive asset to have. He deserves what he achieved because he has been relentless and patient for so many years.”
Before Anderson, England never had a bowler who took more than 383 Test wickets. That Anderson has vaulted past this mark is not just a testament to his skills or the modern-day schedule; it is also a triumph for the strength and conditioning age. Anderson has been maintained and polished like a rare antique. Beyond his Test commitments, his schedule is micromanaged; every over he bowls is because sports science deems it the right thing to do.
Anderson is a self-managing athlete, someone who has an instinctive grasp of what he needs to do to maintain his excellence. “The work we do is Jimmy-led,” Phil Scott, England’s strength and conditioning coach, said last month. “He knows his body better than anyone.”
The question over Anderson has not so much been whether he can sustain his performances, or for how long. It has simply been whether — into his 37th year — he is actually getting better.