James Anderson has a confession to make. It is no great mea culpa, rather one that, as he embarks on a cricketing year that will make rare demands on the body of a 30-year-old fast bowler, suggests the enthusiasm and appetite for his game remains strong as ever, and it is one that should cause a tingle of excitement among England supporters.
This is Ashes year and an Ashes year like no other, five Tests in England followed by five more in Australia. It may not always be the ultimate series for the players but for those sitting outside the boundary it is forever and ever the one that counts. Never mind Chris Gayle and the gaudiness of the IPL, Test cricket remains the game in England and both series will be watched by sell-out, partisan audiences, up for a (metaphorical) scrap. Here is where the confession comes in.
“I can’t help it,” says Anderson. We are talking verbal scraps, part of the tapestry of the Ashes from Bradman and Jardine to Glenn McGrath’s tiresome pre-series whitewash predictions.
Anderson has a history of his own when it comes to vocal sparring. During England’s last tour Down Under three years ago, in which Anderson was the pivotal bowler, such were his on-going squabbles with Mitchell Johnson and the rest that Ricky Ponting, ever the sensitive soul, was moved to complain to Andrew Strauss about Anderson invading his batsmen’s personal space, let alone getting between their ears.
A sharp word from Anderson is not directed only to Australians – last summer Marlon Samuels and Anderson had their moments – but to the outsider it seems to ratchet up a level when the oldest foes are down the other end.
“If you’re trying to challenge people verbally it kind of just happens. It’s not really a pre-planned thing – most of the time,” he says. “I imagine there will be some passages of play that might involve verbals.”
He pauses for a second. “I just said we don’t really plan it, but I do try and pick or choose who I do it to. Some guys thrive on it – I never abused Straussy because it really fired him up. There are guys you don’t do it to – you try and pick and choose.”
Australia’s confidence will be brittle. This side – the squad was announced last night – does not inspire awe, rather a sympathetic ‘ahh’. It does not look on par with the tour parties that lost in 2005 and 2009, which is just where Anderson would like to stop you.
“They are a good team and they have some good players,” he says. “It’s very dangerous to write them off because we know what they are like, very competitive.”
He also insists he and his England team-mates pay no heed to talk of unrest within the team and fallings-out with coach Mickey Arthur.
“We are not going to take any real interest in what’s going on in their dressing room,” says Anderson, speaking at a Slazenger event. “It’s been well documented that we’ve had our own problems so we will get our own house in order first before anything else. It could be dangerous for us. They will always fight hard and come back strong. They will want to show people what they can do after a disappointing series in India.”
Steve Waugh has selected Anderson as England’s key player this summer. If he stays fit England will hang on to the little urn, believes Waugh. There were mumblings around Anderson’s fitness in New Zealand – he brushed them away and blamed the footholes. He believes, after 80 Tests and 167 one-day internationals, he is in as good a shape as ever.
His season begins today in very different surrounds to the sound and fury that awaits this summer. Anderson plays the first of two Championship matches for Lancashire – probably his only domestic duties of the campaign – against Kent. The series against New Zealand begins next month.
“I’m looking forward to it,” he says, having enjoyed some time back home. Anderson is a jetlag sufferer and his two young children delighted in peeling open his eyes when he dozed off, like a post-tea county supporter, mid-afternoon. “There is something about the start of the English summer that is very exciting. I feel the same as I did when I was 20.”
Anderson has missed only four Tests since his breakthrough year of 2008 when a career that had advanced in fits and starts transformed into one that had him as the leader of the attack. Only one of those missed Tests was through injury, the other three came when he was rested from the 2010 Bangladesh tour.
He has become an ardent supporter of England’s attempts at squad rotation and it will deliver him into a summer of two Tests against New Zealand, five against Australia and a plethora of one-day internationals, including the Champions Trophy, with mind and body refreshed.
“I maybe feel better than I have, well, ever. It still hurts at times, you get niggles but you learn to cope with it a bit better,” he says. “I get managed really well – we all do since this rotation thing started. They really do take care of us. Guys like Steven Finn, they took him out for strength and conditioning a couple of years ago and that’s done him the world of good. You can tell his body has changed shape and he is a lot stronger. Obviously it helps having the depth in the squad to be able to do it but it’s going to be crucial and it’s going to prolong players’ careers. It’s trying to get your best players fit for the big series.
“We do it brilliantly. The coach and medical team do a great job of recognising when people need a rest and trying to manage the workloads. The players have got to buy into it as well – it can be disappointing at times because when you are fit you want to play as much as possible.”
Anderson, who has delivered 4,390 overs for England in international cricket, plans to continue in both Test and one-day games until the 2015 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, the year in which he will turn 33, a ripe age for a fast bowler.
There is a reluctance, one common across sportsmen and women, to look too far beyond this summer’s first task against New Zealand. He may have confessed an inability to bite his tongue on the pitch but with that out of the way, half-volleyed questions on the Ashes are blocked with the resolution he displayed during that famous 19-over rearguard in Cardiff four years ago.
“What we do as a team – it sounds boring and the party line – is concentrate on the series in hand,” he says. “We were probably fortunate to get away with a draw [in New Zealand] and we were disappointed with the way we played. We want to improve – it’s crucial that we start better. We need to start what is a big year well.
“We played really well in India and then we were frustrating in New Zealand. We want to be as consistent as we possibly can be. We showed that we can be consistent throughout the period of time when we went to No 1 in the world so we want to get back to that.”
Winning in India ‘pips the Ashes’
In recent times few England players have been part of a side that has won series in Australia and India. James Anderson has, and it is the latter triumph that, for him, stands out as an achievement.
England return to Australia this winter for the away leg of back-to-back Ashes series and, while for supporters the match-up against Michael Clarke’s men remains the star attraction, players do not always see it that way.
“It just pips the Ashes in Australia,” says Anderson of the victory in India this winter. “We had not won in Australia for 20-odd years, the same in India. But in India we got written off – we can’t really play spin, we can’t take 20 wickets out there. People don’t go to India and win very often – I think they have lost two series at home in 30 years. That makes it special.”
Anderson’s international duties have led him to pass over the chance to play in the IPL, but he believes England players would like the opportunity to take part if the calendar can be tweaked.
“We always seem to play six or seven Tests a summer and I can’t see that changing. It’s something the players would like, to play in the IPL, it’s just trying to find the balance. At the minute it is quite a long way off the. It’s hard – when you are getting rested for series you can’t really go to the IPL. It doesn’t make sense.”
James Anderson uses the Slazenger V100 TAS Ultimate bat, part of the 2013 Slazenger cricket range, which is available for £375 from store.slazenger.com
Busy boys: England’s fixtures
Two Tests v New Zealand
Three ODIs v New Zealand
Three-to-five Champions Trophy ODIs
Two T20 v New Zealand
Five Tests v Australia
Two T20s v Australia
One ODI v Ireland (a)
Five ODIs v Australia
Three Tour warm-up matches
Five Tests v Australia
Three T20 v Australia
Five ODIs v Australia