There’s little more than a month to go, it increasingly seems, for Test cricket’s fresh lift-off after the coronavirus crisis.
Albeit under strict, sanitised conditions and without the benefit of a crowd, England seem set to get the ball rolling with successive, three-Test home series against West Indies (probably from 8 July) and Pakistan respectively.
It is the English summer anyway, and one already significantly delayed by the pandemic, but it also somehow seems par for the course that they get first bite, considering the country’s better-than-others devotion to, and volume of, the five-day format.
South Africa? Our own Test obligations during the local winter were always going to be limited to a skinny, two-Test series in the West Indies: the Proteas’ well overdue first combat in the Caribbean since distant 2010.
That venture is in considerable doubt (although alternative possibilities reportedly include the Windies coming to our shores instead, or even the series being staged in neutral terrain like England).
But the English national players have started stepping up their preparation in earnest for the likely West Indies combat … and the half-dozen Tests looming for them in fairly quick succession give someone like the prolific, veteran paceman James Anderson a further opportunity to hike up his wicket tally.
Anderson, 37, is still going strong and already sports 584 Test scalps from 151 appearances (average 26.83, strike rate 56.1), making him the fourth-highest wicket-taker of all time and leading pace bowler in that regard.
Although Dale Steyn has now retired from the five-day arena, Anderson’s battle with the South African great (36 himself and still available for some white-ball international activity) was a topic for lively debate over many years.
Before quitting Tests, having played his last of 93 of them against Sri Lanka at Port Elizabeth in February 2019, Steyn had racked up 439 wickets, the SA record … well below Anderson’s still-rising tally, but with a clearly superior average (22.95) and strike rate (42.3).
So the “who’s best?” argument may never emphatically be settled, of course, and can be influenced by national biases: it’s basically Anderson’s thoroughly admirable longevity versus Steyn’s superior strike ability in a more compressed period.
But England’s anticipated, looming new glut of Test cricket does remind, once again, of how Anderson benefited over the Phalaborwa Express during the time both were active in the landscape.
Both have had their injury-related curtailments – Steyn’s eventually influential in his decision to step down from the long-form game – yet Anderson also managed to pull well clear in the wickets column due in no small measure to England’s consistently beefier Test roster.
Since his debut against Zimbabwe at Lord’s in May 2003, England have played 217 further Test matches, including 63 further series … and 28 of them featuring four Tests or more.
Now weigh that against Steyn’s situation.
Since his maiden appearance against Anderson’s very nation at St George’s Park in December 2004, South Africa have played (note: including in the period since he has retired) a far smaller tally of 146 further Tests, including 52 further series.
Of those onward series, a miserly eight have been of four-match-minimum composition, and none at all featuring five – the latter something “Jimmy”, by contrast, can take for granted virtually every time there is an Ashes series against England’s old enemies from Down Under.
It is often said that a good, long series is the best way for a fast bowler to get the body into a suitably Rolls-Royce rhythm.
Even if Steyn had remained active at five-day level to this day, there have been no indications, based on the Future Tours Programme (FTP), that South Africa will suddenly start pursuing or actually playing nearly as much Test cricket as Anderson’s England do …
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