It was 20 years ago today, Sgt Nasser asked this kid to play …
It is 15 December 2002: a muggy late afternoon at the Melbourne Cricket Ground and Jimmy Anderson is getting his first taste of international cricket. It’s thin gruel to begin with. Anderson – all willowy limbs, frosted tips and early noughties statement necklace – comes up against the gnarled brutality of Adam Gilchrist and Ricky Ponting. Both batsmen make bullish centuries and the Australians pound Nasser Hussain’s side by 89 runs. It’s the second match of the VB one-day series and in a punishing schedule quirk it is taking place between the third and fourth Tests of the 2002‑03 Ashes. A different time.
Anderson stands out despite his figures. Hussain knows what he’s doing, he’s holding his 20‑year‑old debutant’s feet to the flames to see how he copes, there’s an ODI World Cup on the horizon. Anderson’s first four overs are impressive, he is skiddy, aggressive and skilful. His fifth over gets clattered for 18 runs and Hussain whips him out of the attack and replaces him with Ronnie Irani.
Craig White then gets the nod to take over from Anderson’s fellow opening bowler, James Kirtley. The other England bowlers that day are Gareth Batty and Ian Blackwell. Michael Bevan is playing for Australia and Alec Stewart is behind the stumps. This is a different time. A pre-Iraq War Tony Blair at No 10, a post-Ulrika Sven-Göran Eriksson in charge of England’s footballers. Not convinced? The Nokia 7650, the first phone to have an in-built camera, went on sale in the UK just a few months earlier and the smoking ban in England is still five whole years from wafting into place. Anderson’s international career has spanned both the advent of TikTok and Twitter, seen off Concorde and Sars.
Not that the 40-year-old bowler wants you to keep banging on about it. In fact he is sick to the back molars of being asked about his age, how long he can keep going for, how he feels, what his exercise and vitamin regimen is. He doesn’t think it matters. To him age is just a number and it has no bearing on the game.
He could point one of those skilful, Test‑match tilting fingers towards his stats in order to back up his point. The fact that he’s just jumped to second spot in the International Cricket Council Test rankings, the old dog yapping at the young heels of Pat Cummins. If he plays and takes a bundle of wickets at Karachi he could even bound over Cummins to the top of the pile, a position he last reached in 2016.
He could direct you towards the numbers that make up his overall Test career – of which in the first decade he played 81 Tests and took 305 wickets at an average of one every 30.1 deliveries and a cost of 3.08 runs per over. He might then haughtily unfurl his second decade in an England Test shirt and implore you to have another look. Ten years – 96 Tests, 370 wickets at 22.82 and economy rate of 2.52.
He won’t do any of these things of course, he’ll just keep running in and bowling, letting his skills do the talking. And that is perhaps what sets him apart, his longevity is inspired, fuelled by, a desire to learn, adapt and improve. He is the old dog learning new tricks.
Take the “wobble seam” delivery he developed after seeing Pakistan’s Mohammad Asif do something similar in the summer of 2010. The “unpredictable” delivery helped to get more life out of the Kookaburra ball in benign conditions and Anderson used it to great effect during the 2010‑11 Ashes campaign. Anderson adapted and upgraded this delivery 10 years later to a ‘swinging wobble seam’ delivery, memorably prising out Virat Kohli with it last summer. It’s this ability to hone and innovate coupled with his longevity that truly separates him from the pack. Listening to Anderson talk about the process is fascinating, he is like a scientist searching for a cure, a mathematician grappling with an equation. Ottis Gibson, the former England bowling coach, once described Anderson as the artist and Stuart Broad as the scientist, but really, when it comes to bowling, Jimmy is both.
He is still at it. Rediscovering a penchant for bouncers in order to fulfil an enforcing role for Lancashire in the County Championship or just last week, on the dead dog of a pitch in Rawalpindi, sending down numerous off‑cutters in order to change things up on a surface made to grind bones.
Statistics, wickets and records hang off him like Spanish moss. He may as well have a whole database to himself but numbers can be cruel and kind. Emma Raducanu was born two days before his international debut in 2002 and Rehan Ahmed, his teammate on the current tour of Pakistan, was 20 months away from being born.
And yet, Anderson has the most Test wickets of anyone after the age of 30, his tally of 429 at home in England is more than the entire careers of Wasim Akram, Curtly Ambrose, Ian Botham, Malcolm Marshall, Shaun Pollock, Dennis Lillee, Allan Donald and Bob Willis.
He is still England’s leading ODI wicket‑taker by a distance, despite playing his last game in 2015, and is approaching 1,000 wickets in all international formats – he will be the first quick bowler to reach the milestone if he gets there.
Anderson took the first of his 962 scalps 20 years ago today, Gilchrist chopping a full ball on to his stumps to become the first wicket in Anderson’s international act – the one that, despite his protestations, we’ve now known for all these years.