SOONER OR later Jimmy Anderson was going to show Australian cricket fans why he is the most successful Test bowler, of any sort, England has ever produced – and now he has in a most eventful manner, writes RON REED:
JIMMY ANDERSON might have done much more than tick an elusive statistical box with his first five-wicket haul in four Ashes visits to Australia. The veteran English pace bowler has put an unexpected dent in Australia’s confidence, provided proof that Steven Smith is not as invincible as he looked in Brisbane, may have consigned one batsman, Peter Handscomb, to a spell on the sidelines and, most importantly of all, given his own captain and team-mates a sniff of what might easily have been – and what might yet be.
In short, he has reinvigorated a contest that had one foot in the grave only a day earlier, when Australia led by more than 200 on the first innings and looked unstoppable in pursuit of a second successive victory by big margins. From 0-2 down, only one team in the long history of Ashes cricket has recovered to win the series, and that team, Australia in 1936-37, had the handy advantage of a batsman (and captain) named Bradman. With a day to play and the target of 354 still well in the distance, it seems certain that England will now be confronted with a task of the same daunting magnitude. And they most certainly do not have a Bradmanesque force with which to tackle it. But they do have a refreshment of morale and hope. Anderson is not the only reason for that – the younger bowlers Chris Woakes and Craig Overton have backed him up well – but he is the closest thing to an X-factor that rookie captain Joe Root has at his disposal.
Kevin Pietersen caught the prevailing change of mood when he tweeted: “Even if Eng lose this Test the Ashes isn’t over. Pitch the ball up to this Aus line-up and you can bowl them out cheaply. England’s issue – BATTING.” Actually, it might now be both teams’ issue. There was always a suspicion pre-series that Australia’s batting was suspect with one opening slot up for grabs, Usman Khawaja not a fixture, Handscomb unconvincing since his bright start a year ago and the “position vacant” sign up for a wicketkeeper able to contribute meaningful runs. Suddenly some of those question marks are back on the agenda just a day or two after a first innings score of 8-442 had seemed to put them all to bed. Bowled out for 138, not one player passed 20. In cricket, it is amazing how quickly things can turn around.
Anderson’s 5-43 was a brilliant performance, showcasing his signature skill – making the ball swing – to perfection, especially on Monday night under the lights where he was more or less unplayable, or would have been if he had made the batsmen attempt to play a little more. He had found the correct length that had eluded him and his cohorts on the first day, thus condemning Root’s optimistic decision to field first to failure. He was still very dangerous in bright sunlight the next morning, when he operated unchanged for the first hour, adding two more wickets to the two he had overnight.
He admitted he had surprised himself by the degree to which he was making the pink pill talk. Realising this, he adopted the unusual strategy of bowling around the wicket to Smith and immediately had him given out lbw. The decision review system overturned the verdict – one of five such misfortunes to befall Anderson across both innings – but it was a virtual victory in one battle of which will be a series-long war with the prolific Australian captain, who now has something extra to think about.
Anderson also had to defeat Handscomb twice, having him given out caught behind on 3 only to be reprieved, then picking him up in slips shortly afterwards for 12. In pursuit of the elusive five-for, he sprinted the length of the pitch for a skied caught and bowled chance off Mitchell Starc only to spill it from both hands as he tumbled over in the attempt, crashing into the stumps and ripping his pants. After briefly leaving the field for running repairs, he returned to outplay Starc for the second time, too, caught off another skied mishit. It was the 25th five-for of the most successful bowling career in English history – he now has 618 wickets — and given how hard he has found this to achieve in Australia, it would be close to the most satisfying. It certainly generated a full-voice version of the Jimmy Anderson song from the Barmy Army, who did their best to convince the rest of the crowd to join in a standing ovation, which plenty did then and there and again when he left the field at the innings break.
Anderson derived extra enjoyment from banging in a few bouncers at the Australian bowlers, a tactic now being freely employed by both sides. Anderson isn’t fast enough to be as scary as the Australians are – he averaged 133.3kph and just once touched 140, the default speed for Starc, Cummins and Hazlewood, but he employs the bouncer with plenty of aggressive intent.
Anderson appears to have Handscomb’s measure, having dismissed him twice in three attempts and prompting him to continually fidget with his already unorthodox technique, a strange thing for a Test-class batsman to be doing in the middle of an innings. Handscomb is now averaging 20 for the series and has only two half-centuries in his last 15 Test knocks and within minutes of his dismissal he was trending on Twitter, with an overwhelming number of fans calling for him to be replaced by Victorian team-mate Glenn Maxwell, who has struck some rich form with a big hundred and then 96 in the last two Shield matches. He needs Australia to win the match so that selectors are not suddenly spooked.
RON REED has spent more than 50 years as a sportswriter or sports editor, mainly at The Herald and Herald Sun. He has covered just about every sport at local, national and international level, including multiple assignments at the Olympic and Commonwealth games, cricket tours, the Tour de France, America’s Cup yachting, tennis and golf majors and world title fights.