James Anderson and the very definition of greatness

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Photo by Sarah Ansell
Photo by Sarah Ansell

Last week we sort of maybe vaguely agreed to possibly think about putting down a few words about James Anderson and whether or not he was a ‘great’. As with most things we agree to do, we put it to the back of our mind and just sort of hoped it would go away.

Now that Anderson has become the number one Test bowler in the ICC rankings, bringing forth all the comment section scorn such a noble position entails, we figure we may have to tackle this topic after all.

What is greatness?

Any argument about whether or not a player is a great of the game always boils down to this and only this. For some weird reason, people develop very specific ideas about what constitutes a great player and nobody agrees with anyone else as to what that definition is.

Arguments may appear to be about the player being discussed, but in reality they are invariably about the definition of the word. This cannot be resolved and the player’s eligibility for the greatness club can therefore never be established. For all the heat and passion they inspire, such discussions are endlessly pointless and infinitely dull.

As for our own definition of greatness – we don’t have one. To be honest, we don’t really see the point in having a word if no-one agrees on its meaning. Our only definition is the more commonplace secondary one: a throwaway description of something impressive but inconsequential – a great shot, a great catch, a great cup of tea.

So is James Anderson a great?

If it’s not clear by now, we’re not going to answer that question.

What we will say is that while Anderson’s performances are perhaps more dependent on conditions than some others, the skill he shows when the ball does swing and seam is truly extraordinary. In those circumstances, we can’t confidently name a single player who has been his superior.

That has to be worth something. Imagine a hypothetical scenario where a player won half the Tests he ever played for his team but contributed nothing in the other half. A player who single-handedly gave his team victories in 50 per cent of its matches would be a name for the ages. With just two such players, you’d be doing all right.

This hypothetical player isn’t Anderson. It’s an nth degree exaggeration. Our point is that having huge influence in home Tests isn’t negated by less effective performance overseas because half your cricket is still a hell of a lot of cricket.


James Anderson isn’t hopeless overseas. If he isn’t as consistent as he is at home, he’s still put in any number of match-winning performances over the years.

In England, he’s better still. When he’s gone, we will not see the thing he excels at done quite so well for a long, long time. It’s possible we never will.

It strikes us that the only thing that’s really up for debate is the exact worth of the craft that he has undeniably mastered.


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  1. Oh gosh, you actually did it. I’m so so sorry. If it helps, the hover caption made me laugh.

    I think he’s pretty damn good m’self.

    1. If you ever wonder why we don’t write more than we do, it’s because we can easily lose 20 minutes pondering whether to spell our newly-coined nickname “Jimbonderson” or “Jimbonederson”.

      We went with the latter because we didn’t want people pronouncing it as if he were called Jim Bond. As well as being an entirely different person, that doesn’t sound anywhere near as funny as the word we had in our head.

  2. There isn’t one James Anderson, there are uncountable trillions of him, sliced and diced by time itself. When people ask “is Jimmy a great?” another perfectly sensible non-answer response is “the Jimmy of which age?” Perhaps if we were to discretize the Anderson Continuum we could do so usefully by series or match, maybe even zooming in to innings or spell. At a more quantum level we might do it by ball – any further subdivision seems futile, although I’ll lay claim that I was the world’s leading bowler from the millisecond after I released the ball to the time I trudged back to start the next run up. If we view things in this level of detail, there is not such a distinction between “great ball” and “great bowler” after all.

    As for what greatness might mean, I like the definition of whether he would – at his best and in his prime, and in competition with rivals in their comparable zenith – have a berth for Earth XI vs Martians. Though this says little about the virtues of consistency, so perhaps we should substitute the phrase “at his most average”. (And of course, if someone at their most quotidian can trump others in their pomp, we are looking at a real great.)

    1. That’s a pretty good criterion BailOut. Perhaps you can ask, in how many years would the player make the hypothetical Earth XI? You get claims that the competition were weaker in such and such a year, but it seems the best option out of a bad bunch.

      1. Where is this Earth XI vs Martians match being played?

        Does it swing on Mars?

        What’s the lunchtime catering situation?

      2. Re. your last point: Mars bars, obviously.

        Can’t really recommend the ground, though – it’s lacking in atmosphere.

    1. That is a fairly classic example. Cricket seems more afflicted by this than other sports. Or maybe we just pay more attention.

  3. The only question that needs an answer is are you ready to give him the same award that you gave Chanderpaul (or maybe create a meme which is very funny like for Rob Key)

  4. Warne got clobbered in India. Tendulkar failed miserably in England. I don’t think a lot many people would hesitate to attach “great” to these fellows. Paul Dirac once said a man has to be judged by the best of his works – I’ll go with that sentiment and call Anderson great unreservedly.

    1. If we take that tack, it raises the question of who the worst ever “great” player is – the one with the most mediocre overall career, but whose best work was sufficiently top rate to join the GOAT club. Must be some good names in there.

      1. Vinod Kambli might deserve a special prize as “worst Great-At-His-Best to have nevertheless amassed deceptively Great-looking career stats”. In 17 tests he averaged 54, had three 50s and four 100s – an excellent conversion-rate – with two of his centuries being doubles – an excellent daddy-conversion-rate. This being the early 90s, not sure which of those double-tons – in home conditions vs Zim, and another in home conditions vs Eng – is the more impressive! Incidentally, in that England match in Mumbai Hick scored his Test-best 178 and beat Kambli to Man of the Match. He might be one for the list with Ramps.

      2. There can’t be many who have scored 178 and still lost by an innings.

        Poor old Hicky.

      3. There’s an error in that list, Mike.

        Some idiot has suggested that Collingwood scored 206 in a defeat in Adelaide in 2006. If that match had happened surely someone would remember it?

  5. Good article in the Guardian this morning about Anderson and Cook, complete with some interesting stats and a swear.


    My conclusion from all this is that great batsmen are great at batting, whereas great bowlers are great at winning. That’s the nature of the game, of course, but you can ask how well England’s winningest two players would each have done without the other.

    (Rather annoyed, by the way, that the spellchecker doesn’t want to correct “winningest”. I only used it ironically, but apparently it’s absolutely fine and part of the language and all that.)

    1. If it helps, my spellchecker gives “winningest” a wobbly red underline and suggests “winnings”, “winning’s” and “winningness”, the latter of which is hardly less jarring than “winningest” itself.

      Have you ever heard someone described as ‘losingest’?

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