There are those who say James Anderson is close to being the greatest fast bowler in the world. Alec Stewart, for one. There are others who say James Anderson is worth less than the vapour the clouds in England are made of because he can’t function without them. The first club would put Anderson as a contender for an all-time XI, wherever it is picked. The second would hesitate to admit Anderson into even the ‘great’ category – forget all-time – unless he has successive away series where he takes wickets at an average of 10 and a strike-rate of 30.
So, will the real James Anderson please stand up?
Of course, he can’t because a) He’s not reading this piece and b) even if he was, he probably has better things to do. So let me debunk both arguments for him.
For those to whom Anderson does qualify as an all-time great, the 500th Test wicket provided further ammunition, if any was needed. The mere fact that only five bowlers before him had reached that figure shows it’s been incredibly tough to attain.
But does mere stacking of numbers make for greatness? To take an extreme example, that would mean Andrew Strauss (7037), Stephen Fleming (7172) and Sourav Ganguly (7212), among others, were better batsmen than Donald Bradman, who had 6996 runs.
There has to be context to the numbers. The first bit of context is provided by the bowling averages and strike-rates. After 129 Tests – playing so many is in itself no mean feat as we’ll get to later – Anderson has 506 wickets at 27.39, to go with a strike-rate of 55.85. These are numbers that verge on the outstanding for such a long career.
The second layer, the one every Anderson detractor points to, is the disparity between the home and away records. Considering all ‘neutral’ matches as away matches, here is how Anderson’s record breaks up:
|Away + Neutral||53||1898||5722||171||33.46||66.60||6/42||8/161||3.01|
As is obvious, Anderson gives up more runs per wicket, takes more deliveries to strike, and is even more expensive when travelling around the world than in England.
In itself, though, that is no terrible failing. Most bowlers the world over are expected to be more effective in conditions that they are familiar with. If you can be like Anderson – fantastic at home any which way you slice and dice the stats and adequate to good away (again, his away record is not abysmal at all), then you are already better than a huge majority of bowlers. Never mind the trumpetings of those who parrot ‘He can only bowl with the Duke in England under clouds and after putting on left sock first’.
Even here though, the snapshot stats hide more than they reveal. Anderson’s career graph is unique in that he is among the few bowlers who has largely moved only in one direction, upwards. You would expect most careers to follow some sort of bell curve, the initial rise, the peak and the tailing off. But Anderson has constantly risen, which is remarkable for a 35-year-old.
This is shown in both his conventional and away stats, looking at his career in broad sweeps.
|Debut till Dec ’07||20||648.3||2431||62||39.21||62.76||3.75|
|Mar ’08 till Jan ’14||72||2743.1||8091||281||28.79||58.57||2.95|
|Jun ’14 to present||37||1318.1||3338||163||20.48||48.52||2.53|
|AWAY + NEUTRAL|
|Debut till Dec ’07||7||221.1||893||15||59.53||88.47||4.04|
|Mar ’08 till Jan ’14||34||1252||3805||115||33.09||65.32||3.04|
|Jun ’14 to present||12||424.5||1024||41||24.98||62.17||2.41|
From his debut in 2003, Anderson was in and out of the side until he cemented his place on England’s tour of New Zealand in March 2008. From then till the 2013-14 Ashes, he established himself as the leader of England’s attack. After a horrendous start in away tours, series wins in India and Australia in 2010-11 and 2011-12 also went some way towards restoring some balance in his numbers.
After the Mitchell Johnson-induced Ashes nightmare though, Anderson has moved up a gear once again. It is remarkable to note how in sync his progression overall has been to his progression away from home. And if the ‘away’ Test sample seems small in the last phase, note that it includes trips to South Africa, India, the United Arab Emirates and the Caribbean, which means the only really ‘weak’ team Anderson faced away in that time is Windies, and even they were good enough to draw the series against England.
There is some nuance needed when discussing Anderson’s away record then. It looks average overall and it is, but it is also marked by a horrendous start and steady improvement since then. His next series, the 2017-18 Ashes, will give a fuller picture of whether he will remain a force away from home still, but even if he doesn’t, the fact that he has consistently improved is not to be sneered at.
What does cause sneering is the Alec Stewart type pronouncement. Anderson is a great bowler, he has fine mastery over swing, is amongst the best bowlers of his generation and could challenge for a spot in an England All-Time XI. But to call him the best of all time is taking it too far.
He’s not going to be in the rarefied category of the Malcolm Marshalls, Richard Hadlees, the Curtly Ambroses, the Glenn McGraths, the Wasim Akrams and the like. He’s not even the best bowler in his own generation. The only bowler who can lay claim to legitimate all-time great status in this generation is Dale Steyn. Indisputably, this has been an era of increasing batting averages, and higher scoring rates than ever before, which indirectly translates into it being the best age for batsmen and conversely the worst for bowlers.
In this era, Steyn has racked up numbers to match with those who have had historically the best ones. In this ear, Steyn has a career strike-rate of 41.45 which is frankly almost fictional. It is better than anyone in history who has played at least 20 Tests. Anyone, ever from the time Test cricket has been played. And Steyn has this figure after more than a decade’s long career which he is much closer to the end of. As he’s winding down the injuries have mounted, and yet everytime he has made a comeback he’s been effective. He has got wickets home, away, at the start of his career, at his peak, in his twilight. He has got them at significantly below sub-25 averages at unheard of strike-rates, in an age when the bat rules the ball more than ever.
If South Africa played as many Tests as England do, Steyn would have played a lot more in his prime when he was injury free. He would have likely been closing in, or crossed, 600 wickets.
Those are the sort of figures you need to stack up to be called ‘the best ever’ or in the inner circle of the select few who are all vying for the ‘best ever’ spot. Longevity alone doesn’t count for anything.
In summary then, James Anderson is not quite as great as some of his backers make him out to be. But while noting that, he is also nowhere near as pedestrian as his detractors wish to paint him. He is, quite simply, one of the outstanding bowlers in his generation and one of the greatest of his country. And nothing more, or less.