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Jimmy Anderson makes Sri Lanka his happy hunting ground, for a change

Andy Bull
·5-min read

Here he comes again then, running in from the Fort End, a flat and disobliging pitch underneath, and a new ball with which to work. This is Jimmy Anderson’s 19th year in Test cricket, and his 157th Test, not that any of that seems to make much difference. As his teammate Mark Wood said at the end of the day, Anderson seems to be bowling just as well as ever. This is his fifth tour of Sri Lanka. He came here when he was a kid in 2003, for his first Test overseas, and got carted around the SSC, again in 2007, a stray game at the end of his wilderness years, and in 2012, one of the world’s best bowlers now, and in 2018, when he played second fiddle to England’s spinners.

He knows a lot about the place by now, not least that Sri Lanka is an unforgiving place for his sort of bowling. Anderson’s record there is worse than it is anywhere. In all that time he has taken only 12 wickets at an average of 46 runs each, and at a strike rate of 88. His wickets here have been rare, and expensive. Given that, a lot of bowlers his age might have decided there would be easier, and more pleasurable, ways to spend a winter than flogging themselves through it all over again. With Anderson, though, you guess there is nothing else he’d rather do than try to set it right.

Related: Mark Wood relieved to finally get wicket before rest from England tour

So far this series, the Sri Lankan strategy for playing Anderson and Stuart Broad has been to bide time until they take a break, a nolo contendere approach, as if it’s simply not worth the risk of trying anything more ambitious. The pitiless conditions (even the locals spoke about how hot it was in Galle) mean they’ll only bowl short spells, and there will be easier pickings once they’re off. There were two runs from Anderson’s first 12 balls, and then Kusal Perera, a pugnacious little Popeye, decided enough was enough and he was going to try to launch Anderson down the ground for six over mid-on. Which, his batting coach Grant Flower admitted later, wasn’t the best decision to take early in the innings against a man with 600 Test wickets. He was caught at slip.

Four balls later, Anderson got Oshada Fernando too, with a ball that ricocheted off the inside edge of his dangling bat and crashed into his stumps. By the end of his first spell he had figures of five overs, two maidens, and two wickets for four runs. He was already working on his next wicket, too, laying the groundwork for the dismissal of Lahiru Thirimanne by bowling him a series of balls from around the wicket that came snaking in at the top of his off-stump. When he came back on after lunch, Anderson bowled him two more that held their line: Thirimanne reached out for the first and patted uneasily it to cover; he reached out again for the second and edged it through to Jos Buttler.

Anderson has been doing this to Thirimanne for the best part of a decade now. It’s amazing he is still falling for it. He has dismissed him eight times in 16 innings, five of them caught behind. In that time Thirimanne has scored exactly 35 runs off him, for an average of 4.3 per dismissal. The Sri Lankans have tried batting him at No 1, No 2, and numbers 4, 5 and 6. It never seems to make any difference. The 43 he made in this innings was his highest score in any Test in which Anderson has played. Last week he was lucky enough to face an English attack without Anderson for the first time in his life, and he made 111. How he must wish Anderson had retired already.

Anderson almost got Angelo Mathews in the next over too, after luring him into slashing at a ball that was passing well wide of his off-stump. But Mathews was just quick enough to pull away from it at the last second. Moments later he flicked an inswinger away through two men at short midwicket, and the ball ran away for four. Anderson swore to himself, irritated to have given away so many. It was one of two boundaries he conceded in the first 80 overs of the day, and the other was a thick outside edge. There were a couple more when he took the new ball (in between, he bowled another five-over spell with the old ball that cost just two runs) but he still ended up with figures of 19 overs, 10 maidens, three for 20.

Wood seemed genuinely awe-struck by it all. “They’re literally a class above,” he said, when he was asked how it had felt to bowl with Anderson and Broad this past fortnight. “They never miss a length, their skill level is through the roof, I couldn’t believe it at times, how good they are when you’re up close to them. They’re constantly communicating, constantly trying to help, constantly tinkering and trying to get people out, but at the same time they give them nothing. They’re just world-class aren’t they?”