It was rough and tumble initiation to cricket for Anderson, but one which has held in good stead, this week culminating in becoming only the fourth man into the 600-club, behind only Muttiah Muralitharan (800), Shane Warne (708) and Anil Kumble (619). He had already moved ahead of Glenn McGrath (563), and, aged 38, has publicly declared next year’s Ashes tour and 700 wickets could be within reach.
Plucked from the England academy under then coach Rod Marsh, Anderson’s international career took hold during a sizzling spell against Australia in a one-day international in Adelaide in 2002-03, and took off when he torpedoed Pakistan’s Mohammad Yousuf with a yorker in the 2003 World Cup. He made his Test debut against Zimbabwe later that year under then skipper Nasser Hussain, providing a glimpse of what was to come with a first-innings haul of five wickets.
He was in and out of the team because of form and injury, and even went through a “Kevin Pietersen stage” of having a streak of red in his hair. He missed the 2005 Ashes series triumph, and was sidelined through the northern 2006 summer because of back stress fractures. His technique had changed. Troy Cooley, the Australian bowling coach who had helped engineer the ’05 success, was blamed for Anderson’s struggles, one reporter claiming Anderson “went from boy wonder to boy blunder”.
Cooley and new England bowling coach Kevin Shine then recommended he revert to his old technique. He returned in time for the disastrous 2006-07 Ashes tour, when he had two wickets in the opening two Tests – defeats in Brisbane and Adelaide.
This was a stage when Anderson’s aggressive demeanour could boil over, an area he worked on although Saker, still a good mate, says he can still be a “grumpy bastard” when in team colours.
“He is a grumpy bastard on game days and training days but if you get him away from the game, he is one of the nicest guys you would ever want to meet. But on the field and around the ground and around the game, he can be unbearable,” Saker said.
“I think it’s a touch of nerves … [his] game face. He worked really hard on his temperament because when I was there, when he was having bad days, he could get too aggressive towards the opposition and go over the edge. He has worked really hard to ensure he keeps balanced. That’s worked really well for him.
“There were a couple of tours of Australia that he probably was a bit too aggressive. Once he gets in his zone, he probably is as good as there is. He has proven that.”
Former Australian paceman Ryan Harris, an opponent in several Ashes series, laughed when asked about the Australian attitude towards Anderson, who was infamously the subject of Michael Clarke’s “broken f—ing arm” sledge at the Gabba in 2013.
“I won’t tell you what we used to call him,” Harris said.
“He’s a good person, don’t get me wrong. In the heat of the battle, he would definitely say a bit. Some of the guys couldn’t understand what he was saying, because he talked so quickly with his accent. I know him and Shane Watson used to have a really good battle. Off the field it was always fine.”
There have been instances off the field when Anderson’s displeasure was clear. Former England teammate Graeme Swann has told the story when Anderson “blanked” him for three days on tour after Anderson had lost a game of FIFA to Tim Bresnan and Swann had started laughing at him.
Anderson has never relied upon pure pace because he was never that. It’s been his attention to detail that has been his calling card.
“We all knew the calibre of bowler he was. Probably more in English conditions, to be honest. I tried to replicate [him]. I think we were pretty similar in the end, we weren’t necessarily express but we hit the right area and would swing the ball. He obviously did it a bit more than me! I used to love watching him bowl,” Harris said.
The lion-hearted Australian paceman retired at 35 after his body could withstand no more, and is in awe of Anderson’s longevity.
“I’m jealous. I’d love to have had another two or three years,” he said.
Some say Anderson’s head movement is too pronounced towards the turf at the point of release but this, says Saker, is because of his “enormous shoulder rotation”, one which has allowed him to swing and seam both ways and maintain rigid line and length when required.
Saker also told the tale of how Pakistan seamer Mohammad Asif had troubled the Englishmen using a “wobbled seam” one northern summer. Saker and Anderson then worked on replicating this over the next six months and, said Saker, “it’s now probably one of his best” .
There was redemption in Australia with 24 wickets at 26.04 during the victorious Ashes tour of 2010-11, contributing to his strong overseas record of 194 wickets at 33.36. He has 104 Ashes wickets – 14th of all time – but has had to battle at times.
Former Australian opener Chris Rogers wrote in his autobiography that Anderson’s “technical perfection” worked in Rogers’ favour, because he got the seam in a great position “almost every time”, and his action – more side on for inswing to a left-hander and front on for away swing – presented “clues” he could quickly read. The key, said Rogers, was not to commit too early to a stroke.
Anderson had only 62 wickets in his first 20 Tests at an underwhelming average of 39.20 but by 2013 became only the fourth England bowler to pass 300 wickets. Having fellow great Stuart Broad at the other end has helped Anderson strangle opponents, much as Shane Warne and McGrath once did, and much how the Australian attack does now.
McGrath was full of praise for his pace comrade this week, telling BBC listeners that Anderson has set the bar for fast bowling like Sachin Tendulkar had done for batting.
Saker watched McGrath and Anderson develop into champions, leading to the inevitable question: Who is the better bowler?
“I would say Glenn McGrath is a better all-round bowler. I would probably have to say McGrath. I am very close with Jimmy and he will probably crack the shits but McGrath’s record, strike rate around the world, he is probably a better bowler,” he said.
“I have been misquoted a few times on Jimmy – I think he is the most skillful bowler but that doesn’t mean you are the best. McGrath is a better bowler but if you ask McGrath to do some of things Jimmy can do, there is no way he could.”
Jon Pierik is cricket writer for The Age. He also covers AFL and has won awards for his cricket and basketball writing.
Daniel is an Age sports reporter