August 11, 2018
By lunch on the second day of the second Test at Lord’s 39 balls had been bowled. It was that kind of August Friday, a bruised, skittish kind of thing, pegged out around sudden sprinting incursions from men in shorts and the chug of the hover cover behind like a tank rearing up above the trench-line.
There was still time for a perfect little miniature from Jimmy Anderson. Anderson is 36, still reversing the usual rules of age and spring and snap and still in the grip of an astonishing late pomp. England, Anderson, the Duke ball: this feels less like a sporting event these days, more like a kind of residency – Elvis at Las Vegas, Sinatra at Caesar’s Palace, something so grooved and stellar you come along just to marvel at the well-seasoned certainty of it all.
Anderson bowled 21 of those 39 balls before the midday rain. Nineteen of his deliveries were on or just outside off-stump. Seventeen swung or seamed away. Seven of those were edged or beat the bat. By the end of which he had tipped this Test match, and indeed the series, a little bit more England’s way.
It has become a habit to wonder idly how long Anderson can keep on doing this. But why stop at all? His method is so settled, his action so easy, his management by England so sympathetic, the results are increasingly remarkable.
As of the second day of this second Test Anderson has 89 wickets at less than 15 runs apiece over the last three English summers, finishing the day with the 25th five wicket haul of his career as India were bowled out for 107. Has anyone ever performed so effectively in this country, taken so many wickets so cheaply over such an expanse of time? The young Ian Botham springs to mind. Beyond that you are looking back past uncovered pitches to George Lohmann, Sydney Barnes and assorted round-arm slingers. This is a phenomenon in its own light, a piece of theatre to be cherished.
The players had walked out at 10.56am, the flags cracking above the pavilion behind them. Anderson bowled first to Murali Vijay coming in off an urgent glide, the ball cradled lovingly in its release position, like a man fleeing a house fire with a duckling nest in one hand.His first ball was back of a length and nipping away. The next one was a tiny bit fuller but still hitting the deck hard. Conventional wisdom for your average swing bowler says pitch it up, get as many balls as possible up there and hope for a jaffa. Anderson has said he likes to use the really full ball almost as a surprise delivery.
But then he knows his away-swinger is so good, the execution so precise, that he can ration it, set the batsman up. They used to say Abdul Qadir had three googlies: the one he let you see; the other one he let you see; and the one that got you out. Anderson let Vijay see his first four balls, all of them a little shorter, all of them nipping away.
With his fifth he went straighter and fuller, the ball swinging late and pinging back Vijay’s off stump as he flicked across the line, a shot that got more terrible with every rain day replay. Vijay’s crime was perhaps simply to get out the wrong way, bowled playing across rather than edging playing straight.
Anderson leapt and punched the air as Vijay trudged back across the lime-green chequerboard. And so it went on, an examination by fine degrees of nip and swing. The four slips – Cook, Buttler, Jennings, Pope: the John Le Carre novel that never quite made it – crouched hungrily. Finally, after a series of near-perfect away-swingers, Anderson produced the perfect one, angling in down the slope towards KL Rahul’s stumps, forcing a shot, then leaping away enough to take a fine edge to Jonny Bairstow. It was in effect an unplayable ball, the batsman reduced to little more than a prop in a perfect little 21-ball play.
It seems an apt word. Cricket likes to talk a lot about play, from start of play to close of play, to shots played in between. And Anderson is playful. This is his strength. Deception, bluff, mystery deliveries: at times in England Anderson resembles something more like a leg-spinner than a quick, our own medium-fast Warne for the nibbly green pitch. By the end of that first spell he had 3.3-2-6-2 and a day of rain had produced something memorable through the clouds – not to mention another note in a rampant autumn bloom that shows no sign of fading.