Jimmy Anderson: Do not write off England bowler but a fairy-tale ending is far from guaranteed

Jimmy Anderson was calm. Bullish, but calm.

There was not the same barely contained anger we saw from Stuart Broad last month, there was no ranting and raving, no righteous indignation.

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Even with 590 Test wickets to his name, at 38, Anderson is well aware speculation over his retirement is par for the course.

So when his usual impeccable standards slip to the point where he has averaged 41.16 in his three Test matches this summer, those “whispers” are inevitable.

Just as inevitable is that one day the rumours will be proven true – even the great Jimmy Anderson will have to succumb to the tests of time eventually – but the assumption had been it would be on his own terms, that he would go out in a blaze of glory similar to that of his great friend Alastair Cook.

A flurry of wickets, stumps cartwheeling, drives enticed, and edges found – one final performance to dazzle the masses before England’s swing bowling magician was held aloft by his team-mates and carried off into the sunset.

That may all still come to pass, of course, but what the past few weeks, even past 18 months, have shown is the possibility of an altogether slower, sadder ending to the Anderson story. The man himself is under no illusions on that front.

“If I keep bowling the way I did this week, the opportunity to retire will be taken out of my hands,” he told reporters on Monday.

To see the career of perhaps England’s greatest ever bowler come to an end with a short statement released to the press or even a tearful press conference over Zoom, his powers diminished to the extent he has missed out on selection for an overseas tour or such like would be a travesty.

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But after 18 months blighted by injury, with competition for fast bowling spots as fierce as it has ever been and Anderson’s first significant loss of form for years, that may yet become the sad reality.

The question facing Anderson then is this: is this merely a blip, a bad game or two as he shakes off the rust after months without cricket on the back of an injury-interrupted year? Or, as he begins his 39th year, has time finally caught up with him and is this decline the beginning of the end for him in international cricket?

As far as Anderson is concerned, the answer is a simple one.

“It’s one bad game, everyone has a bad game,” he said.

“I’m still hungry to play the game. I think the frustration for me this week is that after just one bad game, whispers go around, and I don’t think that is really fair.”

Anderson has certainly earned the right to more leeway than he seems to have received from some quarters. More and more it seems that it does not matter how many good days you have had previously; it only takes one bad one for questions to be asked – something Jofra Archer has learnt very quickly in his brief international career to date.

The accusations facing Anderson are that he has lacked the same zip he once had, that he just does not look as dangerous and, quite simply, he is not taking wickets.

Anderson referenced a lack of rhythm and letting his emotions get the better of him when explaining where he felt he had come up short in Manchester but perhaps it is one other critical ingredient that he has lacked this summer: luck.

The Lancastrian has averaged 41.16 this summer, as already mentioned, but CricViz have his Expected Average at 24.70 – his third best home summer by that metric, behind only 2017 and 2018.

What is xAve?

Expected bowling average is cricket’s answer to xG in football. Using ball tracking data the CricViz model evaluates the likelihood of any given delivery taking a wicket or going for runs by assessing how an average batsman would generally fare against deliveries containing similar characteristics. By aggregating ball by ball data across periods we can produce an expected bowling average.

Simply put, since 2007, the data suggests Anderson has actually bowled better this summer than in all but two of the previous 13 years. He just has not had the rewards.

The clearest example of that came in the second innings at Emirates Old Trafford last week when a classic Anderson out-swinger found Abid Ali’s edge, only for Ben Stokes to dive in front of Joe Root and drop the catch.

CricViz: James Anderson bowling in England

Go back a couple of days earlier and Anderson produced an opening spell up there with any we have seen this summer. Time and again Shan Masood and Abid played and missed but the edge never came.

Of course, there were bad spells too, not least after lunch on that first day, and when the wickets do not come during the good spells, it is the bad that we remember when you see match figures of 1-97. Luck, both good and bad, is a part of sport whether or not we choose to admit it.

Broad is a prime example. It is not all that long ago that he was being written off as past his best, not as potent as previously and should he really be given the new ball anymore? All the while, stats were doing the rounds about the record number of dropped catches off his bowling.

These things can change very quickly. Maybe Anderson just needs to find his David Warner? If not, Broad will certainly be among the first he talks to as tries to identify the little details that might help to change his fortunes.

It could just be the desire to stay above his long-time new-ball partner in the wicket-taking charts that does the trick.

“We’ve inspired each other throughout our career together,” Anderson said. “We’ve pushed each other and supported each other. Certainly, I don’t think either of us would have got the wickets we have without the other one.

“We’ve got a lot to be thankful to each other for and I’ll continue to help Broady as much as I can throughout the rest of his career and I’m sure he’s the same.”

England fans will be willing Anderson to get back to his magnificent best and it is worth noting it was just a few short months ago he was averaging 19.88 for his nine wickets in South Africa before injury cut his tour short.

Perhaps England’s all-time leading wicket-taker is just at the stage of his career where, more so than usual, the numbers show you what you want to see. For some it might be 38 and 41.16, others will pick 590 or even 24.70.

It might not always be the case, but as it stands, the opinion that matters belongs to the man with 154 Test caps.

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