Relentlessly, the English medium-fast bowler James Anderson is climbing the list of all-time wicket takers (in Test cricket). At the time of this writing, he’s placed fifth (with 544), a mere 19 wickets below the great Australian quick Glenn McGrath, and in sight of becoming the fast bowler who’s taken the most Test wickets. What’s more, Anderson’s body shows no signs of breaking down or his heart of losing interest, in spite of the fact that he just turned thirty-six and has been playing international cricket since 2003.
In fact, although the pace at which Anderson delivers the ball has slowed to the low- to mid-eighties (m.p.h.), he not only keeps on taking wickets, but keeps on improving. One lingering asterisk over his greatest-of-all-time status has been the number of runs he’s conceded per wickets taken. Anderson’s career got off to a very rocky start. Between his debut against Zimbabwe fifteen years ago and the last day of 2009, his average was an unremarkable wicket every 34.65 runs conceded—a consequence of tinkering with his action that caused him to slump in form and confidence. Between 2010 and today, however, his average has been a world-class 24.33 runs per wicket—an improvement of a full ten runs per wicket. The result is that Anderson is not only the most durable, reliable, and successful of England’s Test bowlers, but (with an aggregate average of 27.19) at the heavily policed border of unquestionable GOAT territory.
Anderson’s continued improvement is not only a testimony to his extraordinary fitness, intense enjoyment of the game, and fine cricketing brain, but also to the elegant and efficient mechanics of his bowling action and his remarkable control over the ball as it leaves his hand. Able to swing the ball both ways, he is now no longer reliant on England’s cloud-cover and cool temperatures to make the ball do enough through the air or off the pitch to fool the batsman—although he still remains more successful in English conditions. His best-ever figures (7 wickets for 42 runs) came last year (beating out his 7–43 of 2008). Not only did he average a miserly 17.58 runs per wicket in 2017, but he allayed the skeptics during the dismal England tour of Australia in 2017–18, when he was his team’s most successful bowler in harsh conditions. He is now a man for all pitches and climates, maintaining tight discipline over the line and length of his deliveries, and making scoring runs off him difficult.
The three bowlers above McGrath in the list—Anil Kumble (619 wickets), Shane Warne (708), and Muttiah Muralitharan (800)—were all spinners of the ball, an art and science with less wear-and-tear on the body than for those who run up to the wicket, ball after ball after ball. The spinners’ records, each a testament to their greatness, are unlikely to be beaten, although Kumble and Muralitharan were thirty-eight when they played their last Tests. It’s, therefore, conceivable that Anderson could play for another two years, and, if he maintains his current trajectory, would end up with an astonishing 626 wickets. Given England’s ongoing trouble with finding a frontline seam bowler to replace him, and Anderson’s ever-ripening skills, it’s not out of the question that he could take more wickets, even more rapidly, and go on even longer. Either way, it’s hard to imagine another fast bowler will ever catch him.