It was entirely fitting that James Anderson took the match-winning wicket at Trent Bridge. Never has England’s reliance on him been so painfully exposed. Over recent months, England have leant on him like an elderly person might a zimmer frame, or like an alcoholic in search of a drink.
Perhaps that is the better simile, for England’s over-reliance upon Anderson is not healthy. The burden upon him, not just in Test cricket, but in ODIs as well, has become immense. While his colleagues lose form, fitness and confidence, Anderson has been consistently excellent for several years, leading his captain to coax just one more over, one more spell from him time after time. England go to the well so often that fears are growing it may run dry.
It looked for a while on the last day as if England had reached that moment. After an immense opening spell of 13 overs that took his tally for game above 50 in unusual heat, Anderson was forced off the pitch with what the England camp insist – an insistence perhaps tinged with hope – was an attack of cramp.
At that stage he might have presumed his work was done. Australia were 80 runs from their target when the ninth wicket fell; his colleagues should have been able to take it from there.
Instead, Anderson was obliged to take on plenty of fluids at the lunch break and found himself forced into service once more after it became painfully obvious that England had no replacement capable of sustaining his match-clinching burst. It took him only two overs to finish the game off and clinch not just his second five-wicket haul of the match but the second ten-wicket haul of his career. His statistics, dented by premature exposure to international cricket, may never show it but his bowling over the last three years has touched a level of greatness to which very few England bowlers have ventured.
Anderson was magnificent in this game. It is not just his skill, but his fitness and reliability that render him such a valuable player. MS Dhoni rated him the difference between the sides after England’s Test series victory in India and it was no exaggeration. It is the same in this series: if Anderson were injured, this England attack would hold little fear for Australia.
This surface offered him little. There was just a little conventional swing and seam and minimal pace or bounce. Conditions were much more akin to Ahmedabad or Kolkata than to stereotypical English pitches. But Anderson, with his nagging control and ability to reverse-swing the ball into and away from the batsmen from a well-disguised action, rose above such obstacles to remain a potent force. It was a performance of which Zaheer Khan or Mohammad Asif would have been proud.
He deserved better support, though. While Stuart Broad may be worryingly fragile, he had an increasingly impressive Test, but a couple of other England players would have slipped away from Trent Bridge amid the celebrations, feeling low as result of their personal contributions.
Certainly Steven Finn, cutting a diffident figure for a man capable of such brutish spells, endured a horrible final day. Not only did he miss a tough chance at deep-backward square leg to reprieve Brad Haddin on 62, but he failed to sustain the pressure created by Anderson when he relieved him in the attack. The contrast was unflattering: while Anderson delivered three wicket maidens in the session and conceded only 29 runs in a 13-over spell, Finn was plundered for 15 in his first over and five in his second. He was then removed from the attack and is far from certain to play at Lord’s.
James Anderson’s post-match press conference
Finn is too young and full of potential to be written off but there is a concern about his lack of progress. He was dropped after the Perth Test in 2010 for conceding four an over but conceded 4.68 an over here. While he bowled one decent spell on the first day and another on the fourth, his lack of control has routinely released the pressure on the opposition in recent months. Again, England insist he is fully fit but the suspicion remains that the shin soreness that troubled him in earlier in the summer has robbed him of some confidence and rhythm.
Had England lost this game, it might have been remembered as one of the lowest moments of Graeme Swann’s career, too. He has endured disappointing games before – Cardiff and Edgbaston in 2009 spring to mind, as does Brisbane in 2010 and The Oval 2012 – but rarely when so much has been expected of him in conditions so apparently favourable. England had originally planned not to take the new ball on the final day but so unthreatening was Swann they had to, with Alastair Cook admitting that “it wasn’t doing a lot for Swanny, so we changed tactics”.
Perhaps expectations were unrealistically high. With England bowling last on such a dry pitch and Swann playing on his home ground, events seemed to have been set-up for Swann to strike the crucial blows. But the pitch turned less than had been anticipated and Swann, who has never taken a five-wicket haul in a first-class game on the ground and had not taken a Test wicket here until 2012, was rarely threatening.
He did, however, produce one good spell, late on the penultimate day, that perhaps suggested there was enough in the pitch to help had he bowled with the bite and turn that we have come to expect.
The miles on the clock may be starting to show. Swann has suffered from back and calf injuries in the last few weeks and underwent a second operation on his right elbow earlier this year. While the sluggish pace of the pitch did little for him, that can be no excuse for the surfeit of full tosses he delivered.
That is more of a worry than Finn’s loss of form. Swann’s prowess had been considered a key factor in the gap between the sides before this series and a succession of dry pitches are anticipated to aid his spin. If he is struggling for form or fitness, England will become even more reliant on Anderson. Monty Panesar remains the second-best spinner in England but has not been at his best in recent months – he was dropped from the Sussex side a few weeks ago – while James Tredwell, in favour with the selectors but out of form with the ball, has an eye-watering first-class bowling average of 428 this season.
It was somehow typical that Ian Bell’s immense contribution to this result was overshadowed by the performances of others. He will be consoled, however, in the knowledge that he played the innings that defined this match and, to this point, the most mature and important innings of his career. After a modest 18 months, his confidence and form is as good as it ever has been and he should have proved to himself as much as anyone that he can produce such performances regularly.
Cook’s contribution could easily be overlooked on the final day, too. When he first moved into the slip cordon, he was something approaching a liability. Only a year ago, he put down several chances against South Africa that proved hugely costly for England. But, just as he worked on his range of strokes and his issues outside off stump, Cook worked on his weakness until he made it a strength.
Here, as the sole slip fielder and standing closer to the bat than normal to account for the lack of carry from the sluggish pitch, he held on to a couple of sharp chance, the first off Ashton Agar and the second off Peter Siddle. He did provide a reminder that you have never mastered this game by also putting down a relatively easy chance offered by Siddle but Cook, like his star fast bowler, has proved that with hard work and self belief, continual improvement is possible and can lift players to unprecedented heights. Neither Cook or Anderson would claim to be the most talented cricketers their country has produced, but they may well end their careers as the highest run-scorer and wicket-taker in England Test history.