London: In a Test full of perfect scripts, James Anderson went past Glenn McGrath as the highest wicket-taking pace bowler with his 564th wicket when he bowled Mohammed Shami with the final ball of the series. Here are the milestones on his way to the top.
England’s brand-new fluffy-haired speedster had made quite the impression in the six months building up to his home international debut – first flying out to Australia to reinforce an ailing one-day squad, before making such an impact that he was fast-tracked into the World Cup squad. That first act ended ignominiously when Andy Bichel dumped him into the Port Elizabeth scoreboard (and dumped England out of the tournament) but the mesmerising shape that an on-song Anderson could impart on the ball left a lasting impression. Sure enough, he needed just 18 deliveries in his maiden Test at Lord’s before pinning Mark Vermeulen’s middle stump with a perfectly pitched offcutter.
Five years, and a world of pain later, and Anderson was finally ready to become the attack leader that he had always promised to be. His opportunities in the intervening years had been intermittent and largely miserable – reduced to a spare-part role on countless overseas tours, his life revolved around bowling at a solitary stump on practice strips during intervals, interspersed with the occasional emergency recall in venues as unforgiving as Johannesburg, Brisbane and Kandy. But then, with Peter Moores ushering in a new era on the tour of New Zealand in 2008, Anderson got the seniority that he had long craved. His place in the pecking order was further elevated when Kevin Pietersen took over as captain from Michael Vaughan for the final Test of that summer’s marquee series against South Africa. Anderson was unable to salvage the series, but in trapping the great Jacques Kallis lbw for 2, he set up a very cathartic six-wicket win.
Anyone who questions Anderson’s value to England in non-swinging conditions should study his impact on England’s tour of Australia in 2010-11, their first Ashes win Down Under in 24 years, and arguably Anderson’s crowning glory. Armed with a new wobble-seam delivery that he had learned from Pakistan’s Mohammad Asif the previous summer, he made parsimony the central plank of his methods, offering Australia absolutely no width to cut, and forcing them to negotiate the narrowest channel of opportunity on and around off stump. Backing up a mighty batting effort, his 24 wickets at 26.04 included four-wicket hauls in the first innings of each of England’s wins at Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney, and come the end-of-series celebrations at the SCG, his exertions had left him fast asleep in the dressing room. His double-century came up in the course of England’s solitary defeat at the WACA, a trademark outswinger to the tailender Peter Siddle.
Two-metre Peter was Anderson’s landmark 300th wicket – another outswinger, another edge to the slip cordon – to set up another five-wicket haul at Lord’s, his fourth honours-board appearance out of six in 23 appearances to date. He’d already done for Hamish Rutherford in his first over of the match, one of those Anderson magic balls that start on a leg stump line then hare across the batsman’s bows to square them up completely. Despite some stoic resistance from Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor, he then returned to extract both before ceding centre stage to his partner-in-crime, Stuart Broad, for New Zealand’s second innings. Bowling unchanged on a memorable Sunday afternoon, Broad wrapped up his then-Test-best figures of 7 for 44, as New Zealand were routed for 68 in 22.3 overs.
On so many levels, England’s first Test for eight long months was a massive anti-climax. Many of the players, Anderson included, were still smarting from their abject elimination at the World Cup a few weeks earlier, and despite dominating the key moments of the match, they were unable to force their way through the doughty defence of Jason Holder, whose maiden Test century from No.8 enabled his team to escape with a hard-fought draw. But prior to that rearguard, Anderson had enjoyed his own moment of glory. When Denesh Ramdin, West Indies’ captain, nicked a legcutter to first slip, Anderson ended Sir Ian Botham’s three-decade-long reign as England’s leading wicket-taker. Fittingly Botham himself was in the ground, as part of the Sky Sports commentary team, to pass on his personal congratulations.
Anderson versus New Zealand in early-season English conditions had been something of a turkey shoot on their previous two tours in 2008 and 2013. But he didn’t find the going quite as favourable when Brendon McCullum’s men arrived for a high-octane visit two years later. Nevertheless, his six wickets at 43.00 still included three top-three batsmen for ducks in the course of the two Tests at Lord’s and Headingley, as he showcased once again his ability to make the new ball talk from the get-go. England won a thrilling first Test but were turned over at Leeds a week later, but that seemed an unlikely prospect when New Zealand were reduced to 2 for 2 after 2.4 overs. Martin Guptill was the landmark scalp this time, snicking an off-stump inducker to Ian Bell at second slip, before Williamson nibbled at his second ball to become No.401 in the same over.
Expectation had been heightened at the mid-point of the preceding Test at Headingley, where Anderson had marched along to 497 Test wickets with yet another five-wicket haul, the 23rd of his career. But he drew a blank in stunning fashion second-time around, as West Indies squared the series with one match of the summer to come, by chasing down a remarkable target of 322. Anderson hit back by claiming both of West Indies’ batting heroes, Kraigg Brathwaite and Shai Hope, in his new-ball spell at Lord’s, but it was then Ben Stokes’ turn to postpone the party, as he swung his way through the rest of West Indies’ batting with figures of 6 for 22. But on the second day of the game, the floodgates finally reopened. Brathwaite was bowled by a massive inswinger to re-establish England’s dominance after a sub-par batting performance, and on the third morning, Anderson was unstoppable. Career-best figures of 7 for 42 in 20.1 overs proved beyond any reasonable doubt that, at the age of 35 and after 129 Test appearances, he was bowling better than ever.
Almost 12 years earlier at Sydney, Glenn McGrath had signed off a legendary career by claiming his 563rd and final wicket from the very last ball he would ever deliver in Test cricket. His victim was none other than Anderson, caught at midwicket as he mistimed a slower ball, leaving Australia a formality of a run-chase to wrap up a 5-0 Ashes whitewash. Few could have imagined that a player who finished that same Test with 46 wickets at 38.39 could ever come close to emulating the mighty McGrath, let alone one day surpass him as the most prolific fast bowler in Test history. And the moment could hardly have been scripted much better (except, perhaps, if it had been caught by Alastair Cook) as Anderson speared one through Mohammed Shami to wrap up The Oval Test and a 4-1 series victory.