New Delhi, November 07, 2018: The drive from Colombo to Galle is now as straightforward as it is picturesque. There was a slight fear, as the capital enjoyed the best weather of the week, that the two hour drive would take the England and Sri Lanka squads back to the lightning storm that came and went through Friday night. Thankfully, aside from a deluge that gave the motorway more of a slip-and-slide feel, the Fort was bathed in sunshine and cautious optimism.
That optimism looks, ultimately, misguided. The forecast for the coming week is dire, with weather reports ranging from the standard heavy showers to a potential tropical storm due to hit the south coast of Sri Lanka for – yes, you guessed it – day one of the opening Test, on Tuesday. It will bring with it a surge of winds, too, but there is a chance the final three days should be fine, provided the damage done to the ground on the first two is manageable. More than enough time for a result to be achieved, especially here according to the reports published in m.cricbuzz.com.
By now, even those who only joined the limited overs players last week to make up this Test squad are bored of checking their weather apps. For the newer members, the novelty of preparing for a Test series is enough to enjoy, let alone the sights taken in already. But even for James Anderson, embarking on his 20th overseas tour, the spirit for the grind is just as high.
Maintaining that enthusiasm has been easy. Talk of either he or Stuart Broad missing this tour was more or less down to the players concerned. “There was a question asked if I was keen to go on tour in the winter,” revealed Anderson. “I said, ‘Yes’. And that was pretty much the end of it.” There is a theory among the team’s medical department that Anderson is like a sports car. Leaving him in the garage over the winter could mean starting him up again next summer would not be straightforward. Going on the numbers alone, there is no reason to take him down a gear. The engine’s purring a smoothly as it ever has. Anderson’s record since the start of 2016 is, well, ridiculous: in 33 Tests, he has taken 138 of his 564 wickets, at 20.31. This purple patch – in which has toured Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India – has taken his career bowling average comfortably below the 30 mark – currently 26.84 – where it looks likely to remain when he eventually decides to call time on a journey that began way back in 2003.
The 36-year-old is slightly bemused at his late surge but appreciates his own success is not reflective of the fortunes of the team. England have only won 15 of those 33 Tests, despite his best efforts.
“Yes, I think it has,” answered Anderson when asked if his success in the last two years has surprised him. “It’s not the norm for bowlers to have that sort of spike towards the back-end of their careers. I’ve been a little bit surprised by it. I’ve really enjoyed the last couple of years. It’s been a bit up and down for the team but we seem to be making good progress at the moment. As I say, very enjoyable both personally and I enjoy playing in this team.”
What awaits England’s greatest is, invariably, three matches of graft beyond whatever rest-bite the weather offers. He jokes that he welcomes the hard work: with age, keeping the pounds off gets trickier, even if the fourth highest wicket-taker in Test cricket looks as lean as a featherweight. He will obviously remain a wicket-taking threat at certain times, particularly when the ball starts reversing. His last appearance at Galle, back in 2012, saw him take first-innings figures of five for 72. But times and surfaces have changed. Then again, so has Anderson. “When I got wickets there, it was slightly different to recent Test matches they’ve had over here.
“It is a huge challenge for seam bowlers out here but when you have a good day here you get more satisfaction than bowling on a green seamer in England in April. When you’re dripping with sweat, covered in mud, you know you’ve had a hard day, I think you get more out of that. You’ve put in the hard yards for the team.”
M.cricbuzz.com further added that Spin has become more prevalent from the start at Galle, with sides opting to give the slow bowlers the new ball. The prouder seam presenting opening batsmen with a different challenge entirely. Nevertheless, there are other jobs for Anderson to excel in.
He can still draw on his control and play a holding role, as he has done so expertly when faced with similar circumstances in India. He is also an exceptional close-catcher and England will need their best hands and reactions for the merest nicks, not simply leaving it to the new kids. That being said, Rory Burns and Ollie Pope are more than capable around the bat.
Of the 17 to select from, only Anderson and Broad have toured Sri Lanka before. And in the absence of Alastair Cook, Anderson will be one of Root’s main sounding boards, along with vice-captain Jos Buttler.
“We (he and Broad) have a job in trying to help guys prepare and understand what they are coming up against. That is our role and always has been.”
The main concern, beyond the weather, is the lack of preparation, which is seemingly an accepted nuisance of modern Test cricket. Nevertheless, England begin training at the Galle International Stadium on Sunday and will look to make use of the two days prep remaining. Anderson believes he has enough overs in the tank after a busy home summer, net sessions back in the UK during October and the 12 he bowled in the first warm-up match at the Nondescripts Cricket Club earlier in the week. He is raring to go.
“I still enjoy the challenge. It’s different and it’s going to be my last trip to Sri Lanka, it’s a great place to tour and I’m going to enjoy it while I can.”
It is at this point that Anderson is reminded that England are due to return to Sri Lanka in 2020. “Are we?” he asks with a smirk. Over the summer he stated that he is not one for making plans too far ahead, especially on the matter of when to call it a day.
“I should have looked at the schedule,” he says before adding, to the relief of many: “So, penultimate tour, then.”