By the sheer weight of his numbers, the biggest of which remains 611 (the most wickets by a fast bowler in the game), James Anderson defines the pinnacle of pace bowling in Test cricket. Three of those wickets scalped on Tuesday swung the match heavily towards the eventual outcome of an England win, quite literally. With big and booming reverse-swinging wickets – two of them in his very first over of the day – Anderson proved yet again that with him it is always about how and not how many.
There are certain challenges that great players take upon themselves. For a 38-year-old fast bowler in the twilight of his career, that challenge was to see if he could be effective in Indian conditions. Just as, say, Sir Richard Hadlee managed to be by bowling New Zealand to victory as a 37-year-old in the Mumbai Test match of 1988. That Hadlee did with a 10-wicket match haul. But Anderson will be just as proud of his Chennai tally of five; especially the three on Tuesday.
On a fifth day pitch, with a lot of wear and tear, England would've depended on their spinners, Jack Leach and Dom Bess, to do the job. But Shubman Gill and Rishabh Pant had played them comfortably in the first innings, just as they had nullified Nathan Lyon in Australia. In these conditions, the most dangerous ball is the flighted one into the rough from the spinner. Gill tends to take a big stride forward to smother the spin, while Pant prefers to charge and tonk over long-on; he had already hammered Leach for five sixes in the first innings.
But Leach had his tail up in the second innings. He had dismissed both Rohit Sharma and Cheteshwar Pujara, beating their broad blades with big turners. That hardly impressed Gill, as the opener coasted to his half-century. From the other end, Jofra Archer was not able to make much of an impression in his first six overs either. Enter Anderson.
It's hard to say whether captain Joe Root was taking a chance with him or if he knew that his oldest bowler would hold the key. For, in the first four days of this Test, Anderson had been the least threatening of all the pace bowlers on display. His contribution to England's cause was the wickets of India's No 9 and 10. The pace great certainly hadn't shown any signs of what was to come when the ball was handed to him in the 27th over.
With Gill already well settled and looking for more in the company of a positive Virat Kohli, captain Root couldn't have timed his move any better. The surface had become abrasive; the ball had started to lose its shine and the stage was set for a masterclass in the reverse swing. It would go down as one of the great overs by a fast bowler in Indian conditions.
With only his second ball, Anderson boomeranged the ball in towards Gill, who heard his off-stump cartwheel away a second later. With his fourth ball, the ball tailed in late into the pads of new man Ajinkya Rahane. Anderson went up in vociferous appeal, knowing he had got his man but the umpire believed the point of impact to be outside off-stump. DRS would later show it was 50-50, or "umpire's call", so Anderson decided to take the umpire out of the equation.
Very next ball, the violent reverse-swinger crept into the gate and Rahane was immediately walking back to the pavilion. Each of those balls was bowled to inch-perfect perfection. "The ball was reversing. We knew we had to get the lengths right and I managed to do that. I got a bit of luck with the bounce there," he would later say in an interview with the official broadcaster.
The wicket of Pant wasn't as theatrical (the left-hander was foxed into playing uppishly, only for the leading edge to be caught at short cover) but it was perhaps the most important of the lot, due to his form. Now at 110 for five, Anderson had all but ended the game. "Reverse swing was huge for us. The pitch was obviously slow and deteriorating, so movement in the air makes us seamers feel we can get a wicket any ball," he said in his humble fashion later, but his captain was far more effusive in his analysis.
"He's the GOAT of English cricket," said Root. "For someone, at 38, to be still getting better, still being as fit as he has ever been, it's a huge credit to his desire to play for England. He's a great role model for the rest of the group." Root then went on to pay him a compliment greater than GOAT (as far as English cricket is concerned) by comparing Anderson's effort in Chennai to that of Andrew Flintoff's during the 2005 Ashes.
"It reminded me a little bit of Flintoff in 2005 and the impact of that over to Ponting and Langer, but in the context of this game, it was huge. In big moments in Test matches, you expect that from him and the likes of Ben Stokes, coming on and taking the wicket of Virat Kohli. Big-game players stand up and do special things. It is a great example for young guys around."
Anderson has now taken 343 Test wickets since turning 30, two more than the previous fast-bowling record held by Courtney Walsh. What more, he is also the leading wicket-taker against India in the history of Test cricket, with 115 scalps – 10 more than Muttiah Muralitharan. Chennai 2021 was simply a refresher course for his heroics in Mumbai 2006 and Kolkata 2012.
On this tour of Asia alone, Anderson has now taken 11 wickets for just 109 runs, which of course includes his 6/40 in Galle, where he played in place of Stuart Broad. "Had a good tour of Sri Lanka and have managed to carry on the form here as well. Delighted to have got the nod for this game; we have a good lot of bowlers here," said Anderson.
This has, of course, put the England team management in a dilemma over their rotation policy of alternating between him and Broad – an effort to keep the two ageing bowlers fresh. Asked if he would be ready in time for the second Test in four days, Anderson smiled and said: "It was a hard graft out there for five days. Now I need to rest well for three days and come hard again in, well, three days."