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The Messi of cricket is British: meet Jimmy Anderson

Jimmy Anderson is the greatest English bowler of all time – and finally he’s coming out of his shell

The Messi of cricket is British: meet Jimmy Anderson
19 October 2018

It takes a while for the brain to catch up with what the eyes are observing. One is generally more accustomed to seeing Jimmy Anderson dressed all in white, a red stain smeared down the top of his right thigh, charging in from the pavilion end like a livid, snarling bull, all windmill arms and wobble seams, and wicket. But here, right now, dripping in Dries Van Noten and Vivienne Westwood, straddling a baby blue Vespa GTS, you could almost forget that you’re in the presence of the greatest fast bowler Test cricket has ever seen.

“Er, no,” he corrects me drily. “I’m cricket’s highest wicket-taker for a seam bowler.”

What’s the difference? “There’s a big difference. But don’t worry, it’s not something I’m really that fussed about.”

Not fussed? Last month, Jimmy bowled the final ball of a tense and thrilling Test series against India, clattering his 564th wicket and surpassing the record of Australian bowling legend Glenn McGrath. The world applauded, record books were amended, and best friend and fellow England legend Alastair Cook hailed him as England’s greatest ever cricketer, “an absolute freak”.

Don’t worry about that, though; Jimmy’s not fussed. “My family were proud and I got some really nice messages from people,” he shrugs. “It just didn’t feel like a life-changing moment for me.”

It’s 3pm on a Tuesday and Jimmy is the embodiment of no sh*ts given. He sinks back into the sofa in the east London studio where we’ve photographed him for ShortList’s cover and cracks open a can of Red Stripe that has materialised on the coffee table. 

He has earned his tinny. The 36-year-old Burnley man is not only one of Britain’s greatest sportsmen of the 21st century (for which he got an OBE in 2016, by the way), but also a player who – in a game famous for its jokers and p*ss-artists – has managed to become more of a self-made brand and global commercial property than any other England cricketer, past or present. 

With the physique of an athlete and face of a catalogue model, you might assume that Jimmy breezed his way to the top of his game. Not quite. The son of an optician, Jimmy says he had a mostly happy childhood though he doesn’t want to talk about it. All he’ll say is that school wasn’t easy. “I was bullied at school. I was a bit of a geek, the shortest in my year by a good foot, maybe more.” He remembers once a group of boys rubbed a Cornish pasty in his face. “I can’t remember why they did it,” he says, “but I’ve never forgotten it.” He can still taste the filling trickling down his chin. They also called him Goofy, because, he says, he had buck teeth.

“I am shy… I get self-conscious”

The joke is on them. Jimmy’s cricketing attributes are many; a combination of skill, intelligence, athleticism and remorseless will. Even so, he isn’t like a lot of sportsmen. 

When he speaks, he doesn’t cloak himself in clichés or spout platitudes rote-learned at media training. Yet, at the same time, he doesn’t give much away. He says what he wants to say, when he wants to say it.

It’s not that he’s being difficult or grumpy. Guarded, maybe. Or shy. “I am shy,” he says. “I get quite self-conscious.”

This is not, he admits, a helpful attribute for a man beginning to branch into podcasting (via his weekly BBC 5 Live show Tailenders, starring Jimmy, Radio 1 DJ Greg James and former Maccabees musician Felix White). “I hate listening to my voice on the radio,” he says, grimacing. “Whenever I listen back to the show I scrub forward when I’m speaking. I like listening to Greg and Felix. They make me laugh. But me? I can’t listen. I hate it.”

This seems a far cry from the Jimmy you may have seen on the pitch. His demonic inner rage and reputation for shattering opponents with mind games is legendary. Where, now, is that ruthlessly competitive gamesman who has no problem getting in a batsman’s grill? “That’s Jimmy,” he says. “At home I’m James. I’m definitely two different people. But now, the guy on the field is starting to mellow.”

“There have been times when I’ve not played well, opened the paper and they’re saying you’re rubbish, you should be sacked. It’s horrible.”

For proof of this, watch the TV interview he gave after beating India in September, in which he broke down in tears over the prospect of never again playing with best pal (and godfather to his eldest daughter) Alastair Cook, who’d just played his swansong Test. “I’m not embarrassed, it’s not the first time I’ve cried in an interview,” he chuckles, beginning to defrost. “Cookie is my best mate. I’m going to really miss him, especially when we go to Sri Lanka for six weeks next month: no home comforts or things to make you feel safe; just you in a hotel room, by yourself. You need your mates.”

In a world where men’s relationships are too often dismissed as hollow compared to women’s, and that men are held back by notions of manhood that emphasise toughness and rugged individualism at the expense of personal relationships and mental health, Jimmy wants to tell you that it’s OK to cry. “All jobs can get to you,” he says. “We spend a lot of time away from our families in this job, which can be tough, so you need someone to lean on. There have been times when I’ve not played well, opened the paper and they’re saying you’re rubbish, you should be sacked. It’s horrible. You start bottling things up. But Cookie was always there for me. It’s important to be open about your emotions when times are tough, or things can really escalate.”

He’s seen this first-hand. In 2006 – the year Jimmy and Cook met on a Virgin flight to India with England – batsman Marcus Trescothick lost his career to debilitating mental illness that left him in tears in the changing room after matches and, ultimately, sobbing in the corner of a shop at Heathrow, too terrified to get on a plane and leave his family.

“I was on that tour,” recalls Jimmy. “It was horrible to see first-hand such an influential player struggle the way he did. Thankfully he got the help he needed. But today I’d like to think that a player wouldn’t get into that situation because mental health is more talked about. I think guys are becoming more open to discussing things like that.”

Of the 16 men in that 2006 squad, Jimmy is the last one left. More than 15 years, 31,500 balls and 564 wickets since his England debut, and he’s still flying the flag for the sport he’s loved since he was eight. The flag, however, is growing heavier. Cricket – Test cricket specifically – is on a sticky wicket. In May, a Sky News poll revealed that 57 per cent of fans believe today’s youth are not attracted to the sport. Once a national summer obsession, the long-form version of the game is seen more often as a sideshow to the biff, bang, wallop of its newer, faster, shorter brother, T20. 

“If someone doesn’t think cricket is cool, I don’t think you can try to convince them. But every Test match we played this summer, we sold out at least three days at each ground around the country.”

Jimmy sighs deeply: “The truth is, I don’t know what the answer is. If someone doesn’t think cricket is cool, I don’t think you can try to convince them. But every Test match we played this summer, we sold out at least three days at each ground around the country. That speaks volumes. It’s not dying, not in England. There’s still a real hunger for Test cricket.”

All sport, as Jimmy will tell you, is about winning. But it’s also about drama. And few sports embody as much drama as Test cricket: heroes and villains, struggle and redemption, tension and release. “It’s the only sport that does that,” says Jimmy. “But if we want to get more people into cricket, it’s on us, the players. If we’re successful, with talented players who want to show off their talent and play with a fun style that people want to watch, interest will grow. And look, you don’t have to sit there for five days and watch it. You can dip in and out. That’s its beauty. You can flick on the radio to catch up. Or you go to Lord’s: people watch for an hour and then they’re off. It’s a social event: they go with a group of friends; they’ve got champagne in a picnic basket.”

He pauses, takes a lug of Red Stripe, and laughs, “I’ve never done it because I’m always playing. But apparently it’s a really fun day out.”

Still, playing well is not enough. If cricket wants to attract younger fans, it needs to meet them on their home turf. That’s why he’s taken up podcasting. And, it turns out, he’s not at all bad at it. Tailenders touts itself as an “alternative (and sometimes musical) look at cricket”. 

It’s a carnival of call-ins, singsongs (Swann Song), irreverent games (Ready, Steady… Alastair Cook), guests and cricket analysis (sometimes serious, often not), all framed with a heavy dose of British bantz. And it seems to be working. With more than half a million downloads this year alone, it has become BBC 5 Live’s most successful cricket podcast. “We never in a million years thought it’d do as well as it has, or get the fanbase that it’s got,” Jimmy says. “We did a Tailenders versus Test Match Special [the BBC’s main rival cricket podcast] cricket match this summer and 5,000 people came to watch. It was ridiculous.”

In a couple of weeks, Jimmy is heading off to Sri Lanka for another Test. It’ll be his 144th. Now no longer the wrong side of 30 but the right side of 40, he is an old man by any sporting standard. Is he considering following Cook’s footsteps and hanging up his flannels any time soon? Not likely. “I’ve no plans to retire. Why would I? I’m bowling better than I ever have. That said, Glenn McGrath said he had no intention of retiring before the 2006 Ashes, and five games later he was done, so you never know.”

What then, when that day finally comes, will he do with his life? A career in podcasting, perhaps? “I think the way I’ve gone about cricket is to be the best I possibly can be, and I’ll put that same ethos into whatever I do next. I’m a bit of a perfectionist. But what happens next, I don’t yet know.”

He pauses for one last swig of beer. “But whatever it is, if it helps get more people into cricket, then I’ll be happy.”

Tailenders is available to download on all good podcast platforms

Styling: Georgia Medley   Grooming: Emily-Jane Williams   Additional photographs: Getty Images