Cape Town – The
confirmed return on Saturday of veteran James Anderson, highest pace-bowling
wicket-taker of all time in Tests, to the mix is the most salient feature of
England’s 17-strong party for the looming four-Test series in South Africa.
At the advanced age of 37, Anderson simultaneously gets his final chance -- almost certainly -- to beef up his relatively ordinary record on our soil.
For a player who sports 575 wickets at an average of 26.94 and only has three spinners (Muttiah Muralitharan, Shane Warne and Anil Kumble) above him on the all-time list, his success levels in South Africa have been less auspicious.
Anderson has played eight Tests, spanning three series since 2004/05, in the country and shows 25 wickets at a more swollen average of just under 40 (39.92), with a lone five-wicket haul (5/63) in the New Year Test of 2009/10 at Newlands.
He tends to come much more into his own on seaming pitches, and that will not always be guaranteed on the looming tour which includes two Tests on traditionally hard and sun-baked Highveld pitches: the opener at SuperSport Park from Boxing Day and the fourth and final one at the Wanderers.
But it is also thunderstorm season in those parts of South Africa, so any opportunity for moist or overcast conditions brings the lanky Anderson right into his own, while he may find more regular assistance at the coastal venues of Newlands and St George’s Park – the surface at the latter has a reputation for becoming abrasive and encouraging reverse swing as the contest progresses.
Anderson last played a Test match in the first Ashes clash against Australia at Edgbaston in early August, where the otherwise amazingly durable figure tore a calf on day one.
He has played no competitive cricket since, but has been part of an advance England group already training in Cape Town and is expected to be available for selection at Centurion.
The recall of 149-cap Anderson, plus fellow-paceman Mark Wood and wicketkeeper-batsman Jonny Bairstow automatically gives England a more seasoned look than the squad (only 15-strong then) which took part in the recent, shorter two-Test series in New Zealand, lost 1-0.
While the presence of popular “Jimmy” Anderson undoubtedly adds to the gravitas of the series – the Proteas will be trying to recapture the Basil D’Oliveira Trophy last in their cabinet some four years ago – many South African fans are sure to rue the non-presence this time of Dale Steyn.
Currently lighting up the Mzansi Super League, Steyn, 36, retired from the long-form international landscape earlier this year: his Test debut had come on England’s 2004/05 series in SA when he bowled his famous “Vaughan ball” in Port Elizabeth.
For many years, debate has raged about which of the “Phalaborwa Express” and Anderson is better in Test cricket.
While Anderson has pulled well clear purely in all wickets snared in the Test arena (Steyn quit with 439 to his name), the latter still sports comfortably a better average (22.95), while his strike rate remains superior as well: 42.3, as opposed to Anderson’s 56.2.
This tour will see Anderson and long-time ally Stuart Broad potentially joined in strike duty by the exciting young Jofra Archer, a helmet-rattler of note, although the tearaway has only six Test appearances to his name so far and is unfamiliar with the South African environment.
Archer has, however, played one ODI against the Proteas and made a mark already: when he grabbed 3/27 in the victory for the English early in the 2019 World Cup at The Oval.
The England party for the Test series will boast seven survivors from their 2-1 series triumph here in 2015/16: Anderson, Bairstow, Broad, Jos Buttler, captain Joe Root, Ben Stokes and Chris Woakes.
They play a first warm-up match over two days against an SA Invitation XI at Benoni from December 17.
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing ...