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James Anderson’s Lean Summer

Ben Jones analyses the English veteran’s poor returns this summer.

Not usually something you have to say, this – but England need to be patient with James Anderson.

Their veteran seamer is not having a great summer. He’s averaging 41.16 with the ball, his worst average for any home season. 

Anderson has found 0.87° of swing in this Test and the West Indies series, the least he’s ever found in a home summer. He’s managing a broadly comparable amount of seam movement to what he’s achieved previously, but the point remains – his lateral movement is not currently at the levels we are used to.

His accuracy has actually improved, however. In the absence of movement, he’s upped the percentage of his deliveries on that good line and length, with 48% of all deliveries this season in that zone. He’s never bowled a higher proportion of balls on that length in England. Anderson, when faced with a challenge, will generally find a way around it.

The effect of that increased accuracy has been that he’s maintained his threat. Our Expected Wickets model – which looks at the ball-tracking data of deliveries – suggests that the balls Anderson has bowled this summer would typically average 24.7 if bowled to the average batsman. That’s the third lowest figure he’s ever managed in a home summer. Anderson may be struggling to find the swing that has classically defined him, but he has not lost his threat; he’s just not getting the luck.

Part of that has been the chances missed off his bowling. England have had just a 67% catch success rate off Anderson’s bowling this summer, well below the Test average of 80%. That doesn’t exactly help things like averages, or confidence in the men around you. However, we’ve seen Anderson flourish with this sort of support before; 2018, arguably his greatest home performance, saw only 65% of chances taken off his bowling.

Partly, this summer is a nightmare for Anderson. Not just the lack of saliva disrupting his meticulous preparation of the ball, but the necessary – and unavoidable – need for rotation. He has always pushed back against the idea of missing Tests when he’s fit and raring to go, and has spoken of the need for rhythm to find that top tier of his talent. It’s understandable, therefore, that a stop-start summer such as this might not be the best platform to see the best of him.

Equally, he’s had to play far more than usual at Old Trafford. He may have an end named after him, but it’s not actually a swing friendly ground. The average movement in Manchester over the last five years, 0.92°, is the second lowest for any venue in England or Wales, and the third lowest is the Rose Bowl. Being forced by circumstance to operate only at venues unsuited to his primary skill is a clear handicap. Combined with the fact that the schedule has deprived of him his greatest ally – the British weather in May and June – it’s fair to reflect on Anderson’s misfortune with sympathy.

When there are so many conflicting voices, opinions, facts, as there are in a discussion like this, everything basically comes back to one fundamental question.

What do you trust? 

Do you trust in the legend of James Anderson? Do you trust in the Lazarus-like ability of England’s greatest bowler to come back, time after time, from the effects of injury and fatigue – just as he has before now? Has he earned that?

Do you trust the hard, advanced data, that suggests there’s nothing to worry about?

Or do you trust the scorecard? The sense of something not quite being right? Do you back a hunch, in whichever direction?

Ultimately, Anderson isn’t going anywhere for now. He’s a genius bowler, who has found ways to be successful in all conditions – despite the meme artists and childish cynics – and his career evolution shows how he is more than just a pitch up swinger. The strange thing today was that a wonderful Test match is unfolding in Manchester, a bubbling cauldron of permutations and excitement – and it’s largely passing Anderson by. He might not be the enforcer in a traditional sense, but Anderson has been England’s attack leader for eight years, and has generally been at the forefront of the action. At home, games bend to his will. But not this one.

Anderson has earned the right for this to be considered a lean spell, not a terminal decline. His Expected Average suggests this is most likely something as basic as a run of bad luck, and nothing more. But when you’re 38, people talk. Suddenly, your grumpiness is not an example of your win-at-all costs desire for success, but your wearying patience with those around you. Your poor sessions aren’t down to skill or tactical direction, but physical capability. Whispers, spoken at once, can be rather loud.

England will back Anderson, and rightly so. However, for the first time in a while, it feels like England are looking after their veteran – and not the other way around.

Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.

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