Over and over and over again: Jimmy Anderson keeps on running
This long essay on the most successful fast bowler of all time, the one bowler that no Indian batsman (barring perhaps Virat Kohli) has mastered, Jimmy Anderson, is a tribute to many of the skills we have paid homage to in “The Victory Project: Six Steps to Peak Potential”. These skills include deep specialisation, clutter reduction, creativity and collaboration.
Jimmy Anderson, the English fast bowler, has now collected more than 600 test wickets after bowling over 33,000 deliveries across nearly 160 test matches (the most for any fast bowler). This is a big deal because fast bowling is the most demanding discipline in cricket and perhaps one of the most demanding activities across any sport: “The legendary Frank Tyson, who bowled so quickly for England in the 1950s that he was nicknamed “Typhoon”, once explained to a journalist that fast bowling is “the most unnatural physical action you’ll ever see in your life”. The bowler pelts to the crease, the line at one end of the pitch from which he must deliver his ball, front-on, every step sending shockwaves through the knees. He reaches the crease and, still at full tilt, tries to turn sideways as he leaps into the air; the trunk rotates, the spine twists, the shoulders wrench away from the hips. For a split second the bowler is high above the ground, “hang time”, as Ian Pont, a coach, called it in “The Fast Bowler’s Bible”.
It’s a sight of terrible beauty. One of the best cricket photos of all time shows Imran Khan, a Pakistani fast bowler (now the country’s prime minister), floating over the turf, his shadow far below; his body is a weapon, primed and loaded. But the return to earth is a biomechanical nightmare. The back leg crash-lands first, knee and foot cocked at a strange angle; then the front foot takes a long and jarring stride ahead. The spine compresses, then grows hyper-extended. The bowling arm must come over so fast that its shoulder feels like it will burst out of its socket.”
So how does Anderson do it year after year? Thanks to his father he fell in love with cricket at the age of 11: ““My mum would take me down to watch my dad, and in the tea break, I’d go play a bit on the outfield,” Jimmy Anderson told me. “And I remember, when I was 11 or 12, being asked to keep score, and trying to keep a neat scorebook.” The school he attended offered no cricket; everyone played football, everyone wanted to be a footballer. Anderson did too, but he loved cricket more. “There was just more to it,” he said. “You could fail with the bat, but still win the game with the ball, or take an amazing catch in the field.””
Secondly, thanks to a great coach, Anderson learned early on that if he could swing the ball both ways – into the batsman and away from him – with no discernible change in his action then he could be unplayable: “Anderson couldn’t always swing the ball. For a time, when he first played for Lancashire, he’d just run in and bowl as fast as he could. “Occasionally he’d bowl an unplayable delivery, but his accuracy was not 100%,” Mike Watkinson, who coached the county’s second-string team, said. Then one morning, Watkinson and Anderson fell into discussion. Anderson had been reaching for consistent swing – angling the ball’s seam, directing it with his fingers – but at the point of release, his body fell away from the vertical and he lost control. Try to feel the ball at the tips of your first and second fingers for as long as possible, as you’re letting it go, Watkinson told him, and it’ll keep you more upright. That afternoon, when Anderson opened the bowling, he put the advice into practice, and straight away, the ball obeyed him. He’d need months more to perfect it, but that morning is etched onto Watkinson’s memory. “You have hundreds of conversations with players in your life and most just blow away in the breeze. When something lands, it’s a magical moment.””
And thirdly, Anderson worked with a team of coaches to simplify his run-up and his action so that he could sustain his career for longer: “During a tour of India in 2006, his back began to ache. The physios were quite old-school back then, and they thought I should do more sit-ups.” After he came home, he was so sore that he went to get a scan. It revealed a stress fracture.
That injury must have seemed like a death knell for his career. He had already been drifting in and out of the England team. When his back was crocked, it struck him that he might never break through – that he’d finish his playing days as a Lancashire bowler who’d once, years ago, represented his country. If he harboured any kind of despair, Watkinson said, “he kept a lot of those feelings to himself.” Instead, after he went through rehab, he worked with Watkinson and two other coaches to regain some of his old, natural rhythm. At first, he couldn’t do more than stand at the crease and roll his arm over. Then a two-step run-up, then four steps, then eight, as his mentors performed reconstructive surgery on his bowling action. “That injury”, Watkinson said, “probably came at a good time for him.”” When Anderson returned to cricket after this injury, he became almost unplayable says the Aussie legend, Michael Hussey.
By the way, if you like great writing, you should keep an eye on Samanth Subramanian, the author of this piece. He’s on his way to becoming the finest Indian non-fiction writer of his generation. This Wikipedia page will expand manifold in the years to come: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samanth_Subramanian