Although we spent most of England’s recent Test against the West Indies scavenging through the local bins to try and find some discarded gin, we did manage to see James Anderson pick up his fourth wicket of the match on the final evening, taking him to 384 wickets and past Sir Ian Botham to the head of the all-time England list. To a large proportion of the cricketing internet, this seemed to be the most significant thing to come out of the Test, conveniently ignoring Colin Graves’ view that “if we don’t win, I can tell you now there will be some enquiries of why we haven’t.” We can save him the effort and point out that the reason England didn’t win is mainly because someone forgot to write Liam Plunkett’s name on the team sheet. Probably because they’re jealous of his smouldering good looks.
Back on topic: a quick look at Botham’s career numbers show that they actually look pretty similar to Anderson’s: 383 wickets at 28.40 in 102 Tests compared to 384 at 29.78 in 100. But do those numbers tell the whole story? Clearly not. For a start they don’t mention the time Botham punched a policeman or that time his team thrashed Bill Beaumont’s by twelve points on A Question Of Sport. Or the time he deliberately ran Geoff Boycott out for being a dick and batting too slowly:
If we actually get into the detail, we can see that Botham didn’t actually take any wickets in his last two Tests. In fact, he hardly bowled at all with Graeme Gooch unsurprisingly preferring the mysteries of one IDK Salisbury, who made his debut in Botham’s final game. So if we ignore those last two matches that gives us a nice symmetry, with both bowlers playing 100 Tests. But how do those 100 stack up?
We’ll start by looking at the cumulative number of wickets by match:
What this shows us is that there was an enormous difference in the way they got to their respective totals. Botham started much more strongly and was comfortably ahead of Anderson for his entire career. In fact, based on this way of looking at the numbers, Anderson was only ahead at two points in his whole career: after two Tests (when he had 11 wickets, Botham 10) and today, after 100. After 25 matches Botham was 50 wickets ahead. By 42 matches the gap was 71. And yet after 100 matches Anderson is one ahead. How did that happen?
The obvious answer is that Botham’s bowling actually went a bit to shit in the latter half of his career after an explosive start (probably due to him being preoccupied with A Question Of Sport), whereas Anderson’s settled down at a consistently high level after a dodgy start (which Troy Cooley’s attempts to remodel his action can take the blame for). We can see this in a couple of ways. The first is just their bowling averages through their respective careers:
Of course, while this does show a long term decline for Botham, it’s important to put that into context. Even as his career dwindled out, his bowling average still peaked at its final value of 28.40: a decent effort by any standards, better than Anderson’s has ever been, and probably ever will be, given that it seems to have levelled out just around 30. Plus there’s the small matter of Botham’s 5,200 runs (at 33.54), which rather trumps Jimmy’s 969 at a fraction over 11.
Another way of looking at the decline and improvement is to split their careers into quarters:
Pretty remarkable stuff: Botham’s bowling average increases noticeably each time (after that superb start), while Anderson’s actually improves with age, like a fine wine or a nice glass of Um Bongo left to ferment in the sun for a few weeks. Anderson has never taken more wickets than in his last 25 Tests, which means that he’s basically bowling as well as he’s ever done. Or possibly that everyone else with him is pretty shit (bar Plunkers, obviously). Some of that improvement can no doubt be put down to physical attributes. At 32, Anderson looks as fit as he’s ever been. By the same age Botham was ambling to the crease and bowling at a pace that would embarrass Mark Ealham. We’ll leave it to you to decide whether that was due to his back injury or some of his lifestyle choices.
Another area that we’ll consider for now is their performance against the different opposition (note that we’ve added those last two Tests for Botham back in here, for all the difference it makes):
Again, the records are remarkably similar. Both struggled against the top sides of their day – West Indies in Botham’s case, Australia in Anderson’s – but did well enough against every other side. Although Botham never had the opportunity to play against Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, he also missed out on the rather more challenging prospect of South Africa.
Lastly, we’ll consider their home and away records, which is basically the bit where Jimmy Anderson’s haters can get their best green pens out.
No real difference for Botham, whereas Anderson’s struggles abroad are well documented, particularly when the ball doesn’t swing. The latter has a slightly higher percentage of wickets at home (65% vs. Botham’s 59%), but it’s still reasonably similar.
Based on all this evidence that we’ve cobbled together, in terms of who is the better bowler, it’s really a matter of opinion. In terms of being a ‘pure’ bowler, Anderson’s mastery and longevity gives him the edge. That and the fact that he hasn’t gone on to become the worst commentator ever. But if you take into account Botham’s record as an all-rounder, his performances are even more remarkable, even if he did make the schoolboy error of growing old. Luckily, we’ve finally got our polls working again so you have your chance to vote and tell us what you think.