A great artist at the height of his powers
In the wake of Jimmy Anderson’s record breaking 564 test wickets he was described by Alastair Cook as England’s greatest ever cricketer. We may doubt that in any case incommensurable comparison. To start with more test matches are played nowadays than used to be the case. Anderson must have bowled far more overs than any of his great predecessors. More significantly, with the advent of shorter forms of cricket, and particularly 20-20, the defensive skills of batsmen have declined. It is one of the more extraordinary aspects of this most extraordinary sport that long passages of play in which no wickets fall and few runs are scored can be so compellingly gripping. But Watson and Bailey at Lords in 1953 and Atherton’s snail pace 185 at Johannesburg in 1995 will never, most probably, ever happen again. How one sweated and gave thanks after very non-wicket taking dot ball. But nevermore quoth the raven. Few test batsmen now have an average of over 50, and there is no batsman in the world today, even Kohli, who dominates the stage in the manner of Hutton or Bradman, Viv Richards or Sobers, or, last of the gods, Lara. Anderson has been lucky in his batsmen. You wonder what havoc Bedser or Larwood or S.F. Barnes or Holding would have wreaked, if they had been faced with opposition so comparatively lacking in defensive capacities.
Yet there is one aspect of Anderson’s bowling, and surely the most important by far, in which we may reasonably doubt he has ever been bettered. It is the extreme pleasure one derives from seeing a great artist at the height of his powers. Even Holding, venomously beautiful as his action was and accurate as his deliveries were, did not have quite such skill. Glen McGrath? It was his metronomic accuracy that brought him all those wickets, rather than controlled grace and effortless command. Trueman and Tyson? Art sacrificed to terror. S.F.Barnes? Spofforth? But they belonged to the golden age, so it is a comparison we can never make. To witness Anderson is like watching Picasso draw a perfect circle freehand or having lunch with Matisse while he doodles on his napkin. Whence such awesome skill? Indeed, despite the many losses to the past and despite the declining gates, test cricket has never been in better heart than now. Think how many riveting low scoring close matches there are now compared with the frequent monumental draws on the featherbed pitches of the thirties, when both sides scored over six hundred runs in their first innings and the games never reached a fourth. Yes, great loss there has been. Oh my May and Cowdrey long ago, let alone the double century, straight off the Elgin marbles, that I saw Hutton score at Old Trafford in 1949. But watching Moeen Ali’s graceful sweeps and flowing drives, surely those of Gower come again, and Joe Root’s exquisite century at the Oval the other day, and the moral pleasure of seeing Ben Stokes curb his attacking instincts to play an innings of text book protective rectitude, well perhaps May and Cowdrey and Watson and Bailey and Hutton are looking down from their heavens and still enjoying a day at the cricket.