On Sunday, England’s Jimmy Anderson became the fourth English bowler to take 300 test wickets when he helped skittle out New Zealand.
Anderson’s bowling coach, David Saker, made a big statement: he called Anderson the most skilful bowler around. Note: not the best, but the most skilful. He meant that Anderson’s control of outswing, inswing and reverse swing across conditions is second to none.
Many would dispute that. The many who believe that Dale Steyn is the one way ahead of the pack.
One thing is undisputed though: these two pacers are head and shoulders above the rest. Here’s why:
• Their ability to get wickets across all conditions. Anderson and Steyn have both succeeded in India, no paradise for fast bowlers.
• They have the cleanest bowling actions I’ve seen in a long time. Dale Steyn is a rhythm bowler and once he’s found his groove, he doesn’t look to be exerting himself at all. Look at how his opening partner Morne Morkel strains himself to get pace and bounce. James Anderson cocks the ball by his cheek just as you’re taught in school; none of Andrew Flintoff’s flailing arms.
• They’ve managed to steer clear of injuries. One needs only look at India and Australia in recent times for cases where injuries to strike bowlers have killed the team’s chances.
It’s an intriguing exercise to look at their stats side by side.
They’re around the same age (Anderson is 30 and Steyn 29), and made their test débuts within a year of each other (Anderson, 2003, Steyn 2004). Steyn took just 61 tests to reach the 300 wicket mark, whereas Anderson took 81.
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Anderson’s ability to swing the ball both ways is extremely useful and the fact that he developed it recently is commendable. His 5-52 at Galle in 2012 showed his range of skills: the first two wicket-taking balls moved away from left-handers, the third reversed into a right hander’s pads, the fourth was an off-cutter that bowled a right-hander and the fifth left the right hander. Anderson’s seam position is perhaps the best in the world and he is able to generate ferocious outswing to left-handers. In my opinion, fast bowlers like Anderson and Steyn are strike bowlers—especially in test matches—and my main interest is them getting top order wickets. Even though Anderson has bowled 700 more test overs, Steyn still has more wickets and a far better average. In fact, at 22.65, his test average is inferior only to McGrath, Ambrose, Marshall and Hadlee in the all-time highest wicket takers list.
Dale Steyn’s 7-51 at Nagpur was a master class in fast bowling in hot, dry conditions. He caused the Indian batsmen all sorts of trouble by bowling good length balls at searing pace. While Anderson is all about a controlled seam, Steyn’s main asset is much more primal: sheer speed. He is quick enough to blast through batting attacks on the subcontinent. Anderson is a thinking bowler, but when you can bowl 140kph reverse swingers, perhaps you don’t need to think too much. Steyn also has a higher percentage of wickets taken away from home. There’s no question he’s the better test bowler.
The two are much more evenly matched when it comes to ODI cricket. Interestingly though, Anderson has bowled more than twice as many balls as Steyn has.
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Anderson has a marginally higher percentage of wickets taken away from home in ODIs. Though they are neck-and-neck in the 50-over game, Steyn is ahead in the shortest format. Because of the IPL, Steyn has played a lot more T20 cricket than Anderson and it shows.
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It is clear that Dale Steyn is the better T20 bowler. His average in T20 Internationals is a staggering 16.64.
I can see where David Saker is coming from when he said James Anderson is the most skilful bowler in the world. He has worked hard to strengthen his wrists and release. And Anderson has more variation and seam control than Steyn. But is bowling quick not a skill too? Steyn is a good five miles an hour faster than Anderson and tends to swing it later. Anderson, however, is improving very fast: his test average has come down about 2 runs per year since 2007.
Overall, I would have to say that Steyn is the better bowler but Anderson is on an upward trajectory. What constitutes skill? I’ll leave to you to decide.