by Jordan Crick
The ‘greatest of all time’ tag gets bandied around a lot these days. From a cricketing standpoint, you could probably think up a list of five candidates in your head before you’ve finished reading this sentence. But how many would include James Anderson?
While Anderson is by no means underrated in cricketing circles, he rarely figures in discussions on the game’s greatest fast bowlers. More and more these days commentators and journalists alike are stuck focusing on McGrath, Akram, Walsh, Pollock, Hadlee and other bowlers of their ilk, completely ignoring Anderson’s equally impressive record. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact many commentators have played against these individuals. Perhaps they overlook Anderson because he is still plying his trade – although this does little to explain the ongoing obsession with Steyn. In any case, Anderson should be at the forefront of any conversation around fast bowling now that he is the most prolific test fast bowler of all time.
The criticism constantly levelled at Anderson is that he struggles outside of England. Opposition fans label him ‘Jimmy Clouderson’, taunting him for his inability to swing the ball in dry conditions. There are figures to back these claims up. For instance, with the exception of the 2010/11 Ashes series, Anderson has rather failed to master Australian conditions. But the fact still remains that he has gone past the big name fast bowlers that so often usurp him on the list of cricket’s greatest players. Wickets aren’t the only sign of a good bowler though. Averages must also be considered. That being the case, Anderson’s average of 26.93 stands up against the best of the rest.
This season could well decide how Anderson is remembered in retirement. He has been a vital member of England’s Ashes triumphs, and this summer will be no exception. With two largely inexperienced batting line-ups facing off against each other, the bowlers could decide the series. That is not to say there is a shortage of experience in the batting departments of both sides; between Root, Buttler, Stokes, Smith and Warner (pending selection) there is plenty. But for every experienced player, there is a test newcomer or struggler to cancel them out.
There is plenty of cricket to be played ahead of the Ashes, though. Anderson lined up for Lancashire as they began their season against Middlesex at Lord’s, collecting six wickets in the match as the Red Rose won by seven-wickets. With the World Cup to take up a large chunk of the season during May, June and July, Anderson will likely play a significant role in Lancashire’s tilt at the Division Two crown - barring injury or forced rest for the Ashes.
The World Cup will also force a significant portion of County matches away from the major venues and onto the reserve grounds. Anderson bowling in Division Two is a tantalising prospect enough. But Anderson with the new ball on those wickets is a dream for lovers of swing and seam bowling.
With just 80 wickets to go until he passes the 1000 mark in first-class cricket, there are plenty of reasons to follow the Burnley Express this summer. He might not figure in conversations with the likes of Akram and McGrath yet, but once he has 1000 wickets under his belt, his GOAT status can be denied no longer.
Beyond statistics, Anderson has inspired a generation of young cricketers. It is such a shame the UK public has had limited access to cricket on terrestrial TV for over a decade. Had the game been readily accessible, he may have reached out to thousands more.
Anderson’s bowling action is poetry in motion and his swing and seam a thing of beauty. Much can be learned from his approach to the crease, gather and release for cricketers of any age and ability. Such skills are barely considered in the T20 trade where knuckleballs and cutters have replaced words like line and length. The art of swing and seam will be lost with the increasing saturation of T20 cricket. Anderson may be the last great exponent of the craft.
In an age where most retired cricketers are pursuing the riches of T20 franchise cricket, there is something special about watching Sri Lankan maestro Kumar Sangakkara weave his magic in county cricket. His twin tons against Middlesex this week were, like every Sangakkara innings, constructed with poise and as pleasing on the eye as they were frustrating for the opposition. Most other cricketers of his age have joined the globetrotting elite. A group of cricketers who were once at the top of their tree internationally, but are now chasing multi-million dollar contracts by offering their services to the numerous franchise sides around the world. While Sangakkara has thrown his hat in the ring and played in as many of these lucrative tournaments as the next man, his artistry is suited more to the intricacies of four-day cricket. An indication that, perhaps, he will be around the County scene for a few years to come.
It was fitting that, on the day of the IPL final, a tournament Sangakkara could well still be participating in, he raised his bat to acknowledge a small gathering of MCC members at a ground as far from Hyderabad as you can possibly get. There was nothing overly flashy about his celebrations beyond a customary waving of the willow and subtle nod of the head; a sight we have become accustomed to witnessing yet are still gracious to receive. Though there probably should have been given that his century in the second innings was his 6th in a season that is only two months old.
The astonishing thing about these innings, in particular, is that they came against a quality bowling attack featuring the hero of last year’s title race, Toby Roland-Jones, and Steven Finn; who is still pushing to reclaim his spot in the English side after a number of failed attempts previously. Sangakkara, like the consummate professional he is, punished anything over-pitched; sweated on anything short; and didn’t let the calamity of a run-out temper his spirits. There was a lesson in his innings, as there always seems to be when he surpasses another milestone – if you remain patient and play to your strengths, the only way the bowler is a chance of dismissing you is if they deliver an unplayable delivery. All the rest will take care of itself.
Amazingly, Sangakkara, like a fine wine, appears to be getting better with age. Not long ago now we were marvelling at his brilliance during the 2015 World Cup, where he scored 4 consecutive hundreds and helped Sri Lanka qualify for the knock-out stages of the tournament. Now he is retired and the weight of the world is no longer on his shoulders. He is free to cash in on his talents, like many of the players he played with and against during his time on the international scene have done, but instead insists that he continues playing for the love of the game, not the extra coin. And what a choice it has proven to be both for Sangakkara and Surrey.
This season he has played a crucial role in Surrey’s rise to the upper echelons of the Championship table, scoring hundreds against Lancashire and Warwickshire in much the same fashion as the two he scored at Lord’s. Now they will be relying on him to take them all the way to a championship crown (again), just like overseas players in the IPL and BBL are relied upon to deliver their side a trophy and the accompanying prize money. Mitchell Johnson did it last night for Mumbai by taking three scalps, including the prized wicket of his fellow countryman Steve Smith, who was, at the time of his dismissal, steering the Supergiant towards victory. Kumar Sangakkara is doing the very same thing now for Surrey. Though, there will no doubt be a greater reward in winning a division one title, Surrey’s first since 2002, than there is in hoisting the IPL trophy after a few sleepless weeks of wall-to-wall cricket played on pitches manufactured to produce high scoring contests. Which would you rather? One is steeped in prestige and history or the other that is guaranteed to make you a millionaire overnight. These days cricketers opt for the latter, and it is hard to blame them given the lack of money circulating around some of the lowly ranked nations like the West Indies and Pakistan. But for players like Sangakkara, the dream is quite evidently to win a Division One title and mark yet another achievement off the cricketing bucket list; one that is shrinking with every game he plays.
Surrey have the list to fulfil this fairy tale. Stoneman, the classy left-hander who plays every innings without fear, and Borthwick, who has changed himself into a dependable top order batsman since making a rather inauspicious appearance at international level as a fresh-faced leg-spinner, are both sorely missed at Durham and there can be no greater compliment than this. They, alongside Curran brothers Sam and Tom, as well as ageless warrior Gareth Batty – who picked up valuable experience in Bangladesh and India last winter at the ripe old age of 39 – are the kind of players that can make or break a season. They offer plenty of potential, but, at times, fail to deliver. If they can all hit their straps at once, they will convert more draws into wins and, with Sangakkara steering the ship, this is a far less arduous task than it appears. That is the value of an experienced player. He mightn’t be getting paid a quarter of what Stokes received for his services in the IPL, yet he boasts one of the finest test and first class records the world has ever seen. On top of this, he has rubbed shoulders with history’s greatest cricketers and been coached by some of them too. These experiences and his expertise cannot be measured by any sum of money, because if they were, Sangakkara would be unaffordable. Yet, a player with half his experience, talent and knowledge nets a giant IPL contract worth in excess of a million pounds. This is one of cricket’s great injustices.
Day four promised to be a difficult day for the Rey with just a 96-run lead in the bank and with just six-wickets in hand they knew someone had to go big or support the legendary Sri Lankan in the Home of Cricket sunshine. As it was the visitors lost their talismanic run maker soon after the restart with Sangakkara falling for 120, adding only four to his overnight total. That left the task of adding vital runs to the in-form Ben Foakes and the lower order. Foakes struck an unbeaten 67 and he found able support from Sam Curran (51) and Tom Curran (22) as the Rey managed to bat the game away from the Championship holders. The Rey were eventually dismissed for 339 it left the hosts requiring an unlikely 242 to win with just 39-overs remaining. The hosts though lost two wickets early and the draw was agreed soon after tea with Middlesex on 92/2. Surrey drop to second in the Championship but will be the happier of the two sides in this pulsating London Derby at Lord's.
Our talented Australian writer pens his thoughts on the county game all the way from the other side of the world. You can follow Jordan on Twitter @Crickey_1997.