“Jamie, this kid’s got something. He’s going to play for England for a long time.”
My father Tom Alter knew his cricket well, having followed and played it since about the age of six, and looking across our Mumbai living room in January of 2003 to see him leaning forward in his favourite rocking chair, cup of tea and plate of toast in hand, I wondered precisely what it was about this young fast bowler on our TV screen that had prompted him to say that.
We were watching an ODI between England and hosts Australia at Adelaide Oval, during what used to be a staple part of the Australian cricket summer: the tri-series. England had been bowled out for 152 and Australia were destined to win. But this new kid, the young quick James Anderson, was not making it easy. Alongside his grumpy senior new-ball bowler, Andy Caddick, the rookie bowled his allotted overs on the trot for figures of 10-6-12-1. This included five consecutive maidens. England’s cheapest ten-over spell for 20 years, we were told by the commentators.
Anderson, at the age of 20 and with David Beckham-like died hair, had already impressed in his debut series with England, bowling fast and taking wickets, but it was his consistency and unwavering focus during those unbroken ten overs in that ODI which prompted my father to predict this kid for a long and successful future. Until he died in 2017, my father tracked Anderson’s success and would ring me up from some nondescript hotel in India, wherever he was filming a movie or documentary or performing a play, and ask me if I’d seen Anderson’s latest record-setting spell.
If he were around today, my old man would surely be sitting in that same rocking chair – grumbling and cursing under his breath, of course, about being confined to home for so long on account of this blasted pandemic – and watching Anderson, now 38, take the field against New Zealand on Wednesday at Lord’s to equal Alastair Cook’s England record of 161 Test caps. He would ring me up from the landline – how else? – and no doubt chuckle: “I told you, Jamie, I told you … look at Anderson … he hasn’t changed a bit since when we first saw him!”
161 Test matches. That is a quite remarkable achievement for a fast bowler. Anderson is already the most prolific seamer in Test cricket, with 614 wickets, and needs eight more to reach the 1,000 mark in his first-class career.
And, should he play all seven Tests that England have lined up this summer (two versus New Zealand, five against India), Anderson will move to third on the game’s all-time appearances list, behind Sachin Tendulkar (200) and Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting (both 168).
“For a bowler to play this amount of games, I don’t know what the word is, but it’s a bit mind-blowing to me,” said Anderson last week. “It does make me feel proud. I never imagined in a million years I’d get to this point. I don’t feel like I’ve played that many games. My body doesn’t feel old or tired.
“I just absolutely love Test cricket, I’ve got a huge passion for it. Growing up, all I wanted to do is play Test cricket for England and I’m honoured I’ve been able to do it for this long. Touch wood, I’ve not had career-threatening injuries. To get to 38 and be in that position makes me feel really privileged.”
From 20 to 38, playing in four doomed ODI World Cups and smashing Test record after Test record, and continuing to bowl for Lancashire in the Bob Willis Trophy, Anderson has continuously upended predictions about his longevity. My father would never have admitted it, but he would have been amazed to see Anderson taking the new ball at Lord’s this week.
I will be sitting on my couch watching Anderson run in to bowl, as grumpy as the New Zealand-twanged Caddick was, and thinking about my father and imagining his running commentary about a proper fast-bowling phenomenon.