Few players have married skill and longevity to quite such staggering effect as James Anderson, who stands to overtake Alastair Cook as England’s most-capped Test cricketer this week, if selected for his 162nd appearance against New Zealand in the second Test at Edgbaston.
But, as he reflected on his 18-year journey from a raw but successful debut against Zimbabwe at Lord’s in 2003, Anderson admitted that his initial reaction to the big stage was one of intense self-doubt, as he questioned his right to be there at all.
“I thought I wasn’t good enough,” Anderson said, as he recalled how his first over, from the Nursery End at Lord’s, was picked off by Zimbabwe’s openers for 17 runs, including two fours and a three for Dion Ebrahim as he strayed too close to the right-hander’s pads.
“I thought it was a huge step up from county cricket,” Anderson added. “I remember Nasser [Hussain] didn’t have a fine leg for me and I went for quite a few runs. My first ball was a no-ball as well so there were a lot of nerves there and I did feel like this was maybe a step too far for me at that point.”
Anderson soon settled into his spell, however, and after striking in his third over to bowl Mark Vermeulen through the gate for 1, he returned from the Pavilion End to pick off four quick wickets in the final 20 balls of the innings.
He left the field with figures of 5 for 73 to earn the first of his six entries on the Lord’s honours board, and begin his journey towards becoming the most successful fast bowler in history, with 616 wickets now to his name.
“I think I cleaned up the tail in that game,” he said. “Until you play against the best players in the world and you’ve got them out, only then do you feel like you can compete and belong there.”
That process, however, was not a swift one for Anderson, who slipped out of favour after a tough series against South Africa later that summer. He played a total of four Tests in 2004 and 2005 as England, under the new captaincy of Michael Vaughan, finetuned the four-pronged seam attack that would go on to reclaim the Ashes.
Throughout this period, Anderson cut a forlorn figure, often practising alone during lunch breaks at Test matches, and though he played an important role in a famous victory in Mumbai in 2005-06, his progress was further hampered by the diagnosis of a stress fracture in his back – an issue that was partially brought about by the ECB’s efforts to remodel his action, ironically to reduce the likelihood of injury.
“I’m proud of the fact that I’ve overcome little hurdles throughout my career and they’ve made me stronger,” he said. “The stress fracture was like hitting the re-set button I guess.
“I’d gone through a lot of changes in my action before that and that stress fracture was probably a Godsend. It made me go back to my old action and since then I’ve felt really comfortable and got more consistent. That’s really helped me and makes me feel proud I got stronger from that and never looked back.”
The pivotal moment, however, arguably came against Anderson’s current opponents, New Zealand, on England’s 2007-08 tour when – for the second Test at Wellington – he and Stuart Broad were thrust into the front line in place of Matthew Hoggard and Steve Harmison, to form a matchwinning partnership that has scarcely looked back since.
“We both look back on that Test with great fondness,” he said. “I think it was a proper starting point in our Test careers. The fact that Peter Moores, the coach at that time, showed that confidence in us, because he left out two senior bowlers who’d been extremely influential in the England side up until that point.
“He brought us in and gave us that responsibility, showed that faith in us. We still look back on that with great fondness and we’ve enjoyed every minute of it. Hopefully there will be a few more memories to come.”
Since that recall, Anderson has claimed 554 Test wickets at 25.17, compared to 62 at 39.20 in the first 20 matches of his career, spread across five years. He went on to play key roles in three consecutive Ashes victories from 2009 to 2013, and was also described as the “difference between the sides” by MS Dhoni when England won in India in 2012-13.
“It took a few years,” Anderson said. “I think it was about putting in some performances against the better sides in the world.
“No disrespect to Zimbabwe, but playing against teams like South Africa and Australia and India, once you put in performances against the top teams in the world, that’s when you can feel like you can actually perform at that level. So it did take a few years and a few tours around the world to make me think I could actually do it.”
Whether he can do it this week will depend on England’s approach to rest and rotation, given that Anderson turns 39 next month, and England are understandably keen not to over-bowl him with big series against India and Australia looming later in the year. His eagerness to get involved, however, has not diminished with age.
“I’m not sure on the team yet,” Anderson said. “Hopefully I’ve got the opportunity to do that on Thursday. It’s been an incredible 15 years really. Knowing how much Cooky played it makes me very proud I’ve actually got to this point.”
One player who could come into the reckoning is the Warwickshire fast bowler, Olly Stone, who made his Test comeback against India in Chennai this winter, after one previous appearance on home soil, against Ireland at Lord’s in 2019.
“I think Olly is a really impressive person,” Anderson said. “I like him a lot as a bloke. He works incredibly hard, he’s got pace and he’s got skills as well, he can swing the ball.
“He’s got character to play Test cricket, we saw that in India briefly. He’s someone I think is very exciting and has a decent Test career ahead of him. He’s got all the attributes to perform at this level and, I would say, the character.”
England could also be sweating on the fitness of James Bracey, who made his debut as wicketkeeper at Lord’s last week. He took a blow to the finger during a drills session on Tuesday, and was reportedly in some pain before resuming light training with strapping on his hand. He will be assessed again in the morning.
In the absence of Ben Foakes, who tore a hamstring in the Surrey dressing room earlier in the month, as well as Jos Buttler and Jonny Bairstow who have been rested after their IPL stints, the uncapped Sam Billings is England’s reserve keeper.