Across 20 years of Test cricket, James Anderson has endured and so far out-lived many different dressing-room regimes. He has served under six head coaches and eight Test captains, in a variety of combinations, all imposing their whims and ethos (or trying to at least) with varying degrees of success. So when he says there is something unique about the environment he is experiencing under Brendon McCullum and Ben Stokes, it’s probably worth taking him seriously.
We are only three matches into this era, albeit all wins, and McCullum has only been in the country for a month. And with India up next on Friday at Edgbaston in the re-arranged fifth Test of last year’s 2021 series, the visitors will be more than willing to burst the bubble as part of turning their 2-1 series lead into a 3-1 win. Yet after three successful chases, the most remarkable being their pursuit of 299 in just 50 overs at Trent Bridge, those involved feel they are at the start of something truly special. And that includes a 39-year-old who has seen it all. Or at least he thought he had.
“I have never been in a dressing-room before when we have chased 300 (299) on a pitch that is turning and everyone being so calm, believing we were going to chase them down,” said Anderson. “That for me, after 20 years of playing international cricket, I had never seen before.
“You always get a few jittery people but one to 11 and the staff included were just calm and believed. I think that belief can go such a long way, especially with the young players we have got. We’re trying to develop their confidence and experience, I think that will do wonders for them.”
Anderson played the first two Tests, taking 12 wickets before missing the third with a sore left ankle, though he admitted he would have pushed through the pain had the series been level. He is likely to return to the attack this week and took part in training on Wednesday along with Ben Foakes who was pulled out midway through the last Test after testing positive for Covid-19. The three quicks who featured at Headingley – Stuart Broad, Matthew Potts and Jamie Overton – did not bowl.
Anderson was in the home dressing-room to watch England seal their 3-0 series win in style. It was another final flourish, as they knocked off 296 with ease, with Jonny Bairstow the catalyst once more as he smashed 71 off 44 deliveries to end the game in a hurry, as part of a 111-run partnership with Joe Root (86 not out) off 14.3 overs. As entertaining as it was, Anderson admitted to feeling sorry for New Zealand’s attack.
James Anderson has credited Ben Stokes for the attacking nature of his fields•Getty Images
“‘I think it’s horrible,” he said, speaking from a bowler’s perspective. “I don’t want to think of someone coming at me like that. I thought New Zealand bowled really well to be honest, especially that spell when they got us 55 for 6, it was one of the best opening spells I’ve seen for a long time. But the confidence our batters have got at the moment – they’re fearless and we saw the way they all played. They just want to progress the game, I guess.”
Anderson did, however, suggest that England’s success so far has been largely down to the state of the pitches, and the 2022 edition of the red Dukes ball which goes softer earlier, resulting in several ball-changes in the series, some well before the usual 80 overs were up. He admitted to being “frustrated” watching the previous Test, as players on both sides regularly approached the umpire to check the shape of the ball.
“It was like, ‘get on with the game’! But that’s the real frustration, they go out of shape so quickly, they go so soft, they don’t really swing,” Anderson said. “There’s obviously something fundamentally wrong, something about the ball and it’s annoying to keep on changing it. I’m sure the umpires will be annoyed as well.”
The pitches against New Zealand were also flat, and while England were able to out-gun New Zealand, that may prove trickier against India. Though the tourists have had hampered preparations with just one warm-up match against Leicestershire and Covid issues that, among others, have left their captain Rohit Sharma as a selection doubt, they certainly have the players on paper to match England if they wanted to go shot-for-shot. And an attack that will have taken hints from the first four matches of this series, last summer.
“You have to just keep trusting yourself and tell yourself to bowl your best ball and hope they make a mistake, hope that one of the balls that goes in the air goes to hand, or they nick one or something,” Anderson said, when assessing how to manage with an unreliable ball and an all-too reliable batting surface.
One theory about the lack of movement seen over the last year or so has been the prohibition of saliva for shining the ball. It was initially a temporary measure to prevent the spread of Covid on the field, but it has since been brought in permanently. “Potentially it could be that,” Anderson said. “But I’m not sure it’s ever going to change, certainly in the foreseeable future, because of the Covid situation.” He revealed both sets of bowlers chatted after the last Test, and are very much in favour of bringing saliva back, but appreciated that that time may have gone.
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Nevertheless, playing attacking cricket is not limited to batting, and Stokes has been a key driver of a bolshier approach in the field, even at times when the game looks to be getting away. After taking ten wickets in the match at Leeds, Jack Leach credited Stokes with the stubbornness for not letting the left-arm spinner push his mid-on back to the boundary, and a uniform approach to field placings that was adopted for all the attack.
“He is always thinking and talking to the bowlers about different field settings and different ways of getting people out,” Anderson said. “We talk a lot about it in practice, away from the field as well. It is really enjoyable to think outside the box because I’m not that creative. I have always been three slips, gully, cover. Having someone that thinks outside the box like Stokesy and Brendon is really good.
“When it was swinging at Lord’s we had lots of slips in, we didn’t have a backward point. Just trying to get fielders in the eyeline of the batter to put them off and try to make them think of stuff. We have had leg slips in. It is constantly [about] looking for the wicket-taking option.”