When James Anderson dismissed Kraigg Brathwaite in the second innings of the last Test against the West Indies at Lord's, he became the first bowler from England to reach the milestone of 500 Test wickets. He also became the third fast bowler, after Glen McGrath (563 wickets) and Courtney Walsh (519) to achieve this coveted landmark. Presently he is placed at number six behind Mutttiah Muralitharan (800), Shane Warne (708), Anil Kumble (619) and the other two fast bowlers, in the total number of wickets captured in Test matches.
The record for the maximum number of wickets in Tests had stood in the name of Fred Truman of England for a long time. Truman, a fiery fast bowler, was the first to reach the magic number of 300 Test wickets. When he retired in 1965 he had dismissed 307 batsmen from 67 Tests. Lance Gibbs of the West Indies, an off spinner from the land renowned for fast bowlers, went past this record and ended his career immediately thereafter, with 309 wickets from 79 Tests. Dennis Lillee, probably the most colorful fast bowler of all time, broke this record in another three years. Lillee retired in 1984, with a tally of 355 wickets from 70 Tests.
Though Ian Botham overtook Lillee, it was Richard Hadlee of New Zealand who first broke the barrier of 400 Test wickets. A master of seam and swing bowling, Hadlee ended his career in 1990 with 431 wickets from 86 Tests. Kapil Dev of India went past this record in 1994, but like Gibbs, ended his career soon thereafter to finish with a tally of 434 Tests in 131 matches. Courtney Walsh of the West Indies scaled the next peak when he became the first bowler to scalp 500 wickets in Test matches in 2001.
If it were the fast bowlers who had taken the lead to reach these bowling milestones till the turn of the century, the situation changed soon afterwards. Warne would be remembered in cricket history for all times to come as one of the greatest leg spinners to play the game. He revived the almost forgotten art of leg spin bowling, giving it color and character, and ran through opposing sides with the ease of a knife cutting through butter. He became the first bowler to reach the landmarks of both 600 and 700 Tests, which he achieved in 2005 and 2006 respectively. In between, he finished the calendar year 2005 with 96 Test wickets,which is a record that would prove very difficult to beat. Warne ended his Test career in January, 2007, with a tally of 708 wickets from 145 Test matches. However, Muralitharan of Sri Lanka went past Warne in 2009 and he reached an all-time high of 800 Test wickets, from 133 matches, before hanging up his cricketing boots in 2010.
Test cricket offers the greatest challenge to any cricketer as his skills are subjected to the most intense scrutiny in this format of the game. The technique of all players are studied in detail, their strengths and weaknesses analyzed using the most modern methods and they are subjected to extreme pressure on a relentless basis, where only the best and the strongest can survive. Further one is required to play in different climatic conditions ranging from hot and humid to cold and freezing as well as on various types of pitches and grounds. In addition to all this, the players are subjected to tremendous physical and mental strain from having to play the game almost round the year with little periods of rest in between. All this makes playing cricket at the international level a highly demanding sport.
Favoring the batsmen
A relatively recent development in the game has been the slow but steady shift in the laws in favor of batsmen. Cricket is essentially a contest between bat and ball, where both are required to be placed on an even footing. However, traditionally batting has been the more glamorous of the two tasks and this aspect has been reinforced in recent times, where the focus is more on the viewers watching the game in the comforts of the living room through a television than the spectator who goes to the ground to see the action there. The administrators and sponsors of the game remain convinced that more runs and more scoring shots would bring in more eye balls to watch the action on the small screen. Even commentators, most of who are respected former players, have fallen prey to this syndrome and end up praising even bad shots, while forgetting to compliment the bowlers for their efforts. Simon Hughes has, in his much appreciated book “Who wants to be a Batsman”, pointed out that in county cricket while the batsmen got free kits and cars with logo of sponsors painted on it, the bowlers were given virtually nothing at all. The effect of this change is more profound in the limited overs version of the game where the rules are so much in favor of batsmen that bowlers are seriously handicapped. Thus Test cricket remains the last bastion where bowlers still have a chance of engaging batsmen on near equal terms.
Another facet which needs to be considered is the toll that playing various forms of cricket round the year takes on the body of the bowlers. Apart from lack of rest, the shorter duration matches bring a greater stress as bowlers are seldom able to get into their rhythm, given the restrictions placed on the number of overs one could bowl. Moreover, the emphasis in such matches is on containing batsmen rather than taking wickets and hence bowlers need to adapt and modify their bowling styles accordingly. Adopting three different styles of bowling for the three different formats of the game is bound to have an impact on the bowler and only those who are supremely gifted, physically fit and mentally alert would be able to stand up to this challenge.
But despite all these trials and tribulations, bowlers have not thrown in the towel. On the other hand, the last two decades have seen the development of many innovations that have made the contest between bat and ball a more lively one. The art of reverse swing, first developed in Pakistan, but later introduced into their armory by bowlers across the world, “doosra”, the wrong'un bowled by off spinners, and the many variations and subtleties introduced by Warne are some of the examples that readily come to one’s mind. The game of cricket has become richer as a result of these novel additions to the repertoire of bowlers.
The achievement of Anderson stands out in these circumstances as one deserving a huge round of applause. He showed his class on his Test debut in 2003 against Zimbabwe by picking up five wickets in an innings. But after that he was laid low by injury and indifferent form, and it was only in 2008 that he could come into his own as the lead bowler of England. There has been no looking back since then as he matured into the most complete swing and seam bowler in contemporary cricket. He became the leading wicket-taker for England in 2015 when he surpassed the record of 383 wickets held by Botham. He crossed the 400-wicket mark the same year and has now scaled yet another peak by breaking into the 500 Test wickets club.
There is an adage that bowlers win matches while batsmen can only help to prevent defeats. Anderson has played a pivotal role in two Ashes triumphs by England and he has contributed handsomely to his country winning Test matches, both at home and abroad. His success also indicates that after a decade-and-half when spinners were the leading wicket-takers, pace bowlers have again started to stamp their authority on the cricket field, the way they used to do during the period between 1960 and 1990. This positive development would bring lots of cheer to lovers of the game the world over as quality of cricket being played is bound to improve by leaps and bounds. This would also be a step towards ensuring that the game becomes more evenly poised between bat and ball where the respective skills of the players and the sides alone determine the results.
The rampant commercialization of the game has made cricket administrators ardent worshipers of the God of Mammon. While doing so, they have also rendered themselves guilty of ignoring and neglecting the breed of bowlers for too long. While congratulating Anderson on his achievement let us all take a collective bow and doff our cap to all bowlers who have toiled and kept the flag of the game flying high despite the hurdles placed in their path.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)