By Peter Hayter
Hearing Geoffrey Boycott and AB de Villiers imply recently that James Anderson might be in terminal decline brought to mind one of the more spectacular examples of the sporting phenomenon known as ‘foot in mouth’.
It took place on April 9, 2004, when, during a Press conference on the eve of England’s fourth Test against West Indies in Antigua, Brian Lara was asked if, in view of his shaky form and the trouble Steve Harmison’s pace had caused him in the series so far, he was concerned that his great genius might be on the wane.
Any fears, Brian, that, at 34, the eyes are not as sharp as they used to be… or the reactions no longer as fast? That sort of thing.
Three days later, on the ground where, ten years previously, he had scored 375 against England to set a new record for the highest Test innings, Lara declared West Indies’ first innings closed at 751-5, of which he had made 400 not out.
He had batted for 778 minutes, faced 582 balls, hit 43 fours and four sixes and if this were a timeless Test he might still be batting today.
Not only that, but in the 25 more Tests Lara played before retiring in 2006, he scored a further 2,296 runs at 51.00, including innings of 120, 196, 176, 130, 153, 226, 120, 122 and 216, and five more scores of fifty plus.
Off hand, I cannot recall the name of the reporter dumb enough to pose the best batsman of his generation such a cosmically stupid question. Suffice to say that, as several colleagues in the Press box pointed out to me at the time, when it comes to that kind of instinctive cricket judgment concerned, you’ve either got it or you haven’t.
Neither Boycott, nor De Villiers, went quite so far as to suggest Anderson should be dumped on the next cart to the knacker’s yard, but the tone of their comments was unmistakable; England’s leading Test wicket-taker is bowling on borrowed time. Down in pace, lacking zip, the beginning of the end.
It goes without saying that they and others who expressed a similar view are perfectly entitled to their opinion, but Anderson had heard all of this before, and every time he has responded, not in anger, nor in name-calling, but with more wickets, at last count 433 of them.
And I have no doubt that is exactly what he has in store for us now as he makes his way inexorably up the order of Test wicket-takers, with two required to overtake Kapil Dev into the No.6 position and 500 well in his sights.
Granted, when he dismissed De Villiers for his second duck of the final Test of England’s 2-1 series victory at Centurion Park, Anderson did allow himself a moment or two longer in the batsman’s face than was strictly necessary.
And afterwards, reflecting on his best bowling of the tour, a spell of 2-7 in six overs, he also declined to resist the temptation to ram home the point with a few words of his own about what De Villiers had said earlier.
“It was mentioned when he got a pair today,” admitted Anderson. “You have to be careful what you say because it can bite you on the backside.”
Many reasons have been put forward to explain why Anderson, by his standards, had such a quiet series. Perhaps he was not quite at peak match fitness at the start of the tour.
Perhaps, as sometimes happens when he feels the ball simply will not obey his command to swing, he did pull back his length for fear of being driven, thus reducing the chance of inducing the nicks on which he thrives.
Certainly, as he concedes, he is more comfortable with the Duke ball in his hand than the Kookaburra.
The key, of course, lies in the phrase “by his own standards” for when great cricketers fall below those, it is almost always the signal for professional observers, analysts, commentators and twits like me to start the race to be the first to say “he’s cooked”, then go to extraordinary lengths (charts, diagrams, stats, stats, tea leaves and more stats) to prove it.
It is an occupational hazard of the truly gifted.
One day, as Anderson is only too aware, he will no longer be the bowler he once was. But knowing just how severe he has always been on his own form, I am inclined to put more faith in his assessment of why he suddenly looked more like the real thing.
“I feel like the ball’s coming out all right,” he said. “You go through lean spells as a player whether with the bat or ball. You’ve just got to accept it, keep doing the right things, and keep doing the basics well.”
Anderson has never settled for just that, hence, for example, his work on the wobble-seam ball he developed to give him a cutting edge on the 2010-11 Ashes tour.
As he says: “The way the game is going at the moment, you need as many skills as possible. No matter how old you are, you still need to learn.”
He has never, ever, taken his place in the side for granted, starting every season as though it is his last. And he has been through too much in his career, with injury, confusion over the remodelling of his action and countless soul-destroying hours bowling at a single stump during Test match tea-breaks all over the world, and he loves taking wickets for England far too much not to redouble his efforts to carry on doing so for as long as possible.
He will not mind one little bit that people judge him harshly because he has no harsher judge than himself. But, surely, as he approaches his 14th season in international cricket, he has earned the right to have off-days, off-matches and maybe even the occasional off-series. He has the skins on the wall.
What is more, no-one should have the slightest concern that Anderson will drag his career out just for the sake of it, because, as with the very best, it all means too much to him to let that happen.
James Anderson finished, spent, in decline? Just like Brian Lara was the day before he made history. And just like Lara, maybe we should let him tell us when it’s true.
This piece originally featured in The Cricket Paper, Friday February 5 2016