The bowler who should replace James Anderson

Dillon Pennington of Nottinghamshire bowls during the County Championship match against Lancashire at Trent Bridge on May 10, 2024
Dillon Pennington has flourished since moving to Nottingham - Getty Images/Gareth Copley

When it comes to replacing the irreplaceable and finding a successor for James Anderson, England’s selectors and supporters should not make the mistake of setting the bar too high.

Anderson can arguably be hailed as England’s greatest pace bowler, as Michael Vaughan has done, and he has been great in so many spheres: in longevity, like no other pace bowler has ever achieved; in the metronomic accuracy which makes it impossible at times for a batsman to score; in his mastery of everything to do with manipulating a cricket ball’s seam; and in the physical courage simply of getting out of bed the morning after his body has done what nature never designed human beings to do: bowl.

In one relevant respect, however, Anderson cannot be classified among the all-time great global bowlers, and it is this consideration which is to be borne in mind when selecting his successor. The all-time greats – and omitting those who played on uncovered pitches before the First World War – have averaged around five wickets per Test, while the very good have averaged more than four wickets.

Owing in large part to all those years he spent hanging the ball outside the batsman’s off stump or “bowling dry”, instead of attacking the batsman’s pads and stumps as he reverted to doing under Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum, Anderson has taken 700 wickets in his 187 Tests, an average of 3.74 per game. For a bowler who, for more than half of his Test career, has been armed with a Dukes ball and had English pitches for his stage, this bar is not insuperably high.

In other words, even when England have selected five bowlers, and if they all perform as effectively as Anderson, England do not take 20 wickets in the average Test.

So let the bar be reset: England need someone to take the new ball and 10, perhaps 12, wickets in each of their two three-Test series this summer, against West Indies then Sri Lanka; to bowl wicket-taking spells with old and new ball in the next Ashes; and to take 100 Test wickets. This much is humanly achievable.

Archer and Robinson sharing new ball likely to remain a dream

Sam Cook of Essex has been identified as the nearest to a like-for-like replacement and he shares some of Anderson’s finest attributes. He was parading his fast-medium pace and accuracy – giving the batsman no option other than to play ball after ball as it nibbled around – in Essex’s last County Championship game on a damp pitch at Taunton. In 15.4 overs Cook took five wickets for 38, snuffing out Somerset for 128.

Give Cook such a pitch during England’s Test summer and he would probably do the job better than anyone, especially perhaps at Trent Bridge. There he has broadened his skills when playing in the Hundred for the Rockets: at 26 he is a quick learner to judge by his range of slower balls.

The trouble is that Test pitches in England now are very seldom “decks” conducive to seam bowling, whether upright or scrambled or wobbled: they are batting tracks made for Bazballing. On the second day of Essex’s game against Somerset, the pitch began to dry out and batting became less hazardous. It was still a low-scoring game but Somerset edged home by three wickets. Cook again bowled 15 overs but this time for two wickets and 55 runs, conceding the initiative when Somerset’s opening batsmen and later Andrew Umeed went after him.

Essex’s Cook and Jamie Porter are arguably the most difficult opening attack to face in the championship if the pitch is doing anything at all. But the pertinent point for England here is that there is precious little difference between their figures: when Cook took five for 38 against Somerset, Porter took five for 37. In last season’s championship Porter took 57 wickets at only 19 each, and Cook 48 at 19. If Cook is Test calibre, one would expect his figures at this stage of his career to be distinctly better than Porter’s.

All ready to go as fast bowlers with ECB central contracts are Ollie Robinson, Matthew Potts, Brydon Carse, Josh Tongue, Mark Wood, Jofra Archer and Gus Atkinson. Any day that he is fit, Archer should take the new ball. Any day that he is hungry and not hiding his insecurity under a facade, Robinson should share it with him: that would be England’s dream opening pair in Australia, capable of matching the achievements of Anderson and Stuart Broad Down Under, but the probability is that it will remain as much: a dream.

The group characteristic of the other candidates who have central contracts is that they have grown up as first or second-change bowlers for their counties, not new-ball operators. Who is therefore best-placed around the circuit to take a new ball for England?

Dillon Pennington of Nottinghamshire bowls during day three of Vitality County Championship division one match between Warwickshire and Nottinghamshire at Edgbaston on April 28, 2024
Pennington looks faster than Sam Cook of Essex - Getty Images/Gareth Copley

My choice would be Dillon Pennington, who moved from Worcestershire to Nottinghamshire during the winter. Worcester made the right starting point for his career: somehow they combed their own county and Shropshire to find young pace bowlers, and put together a stronger home-grown stable than any other county under the tutelage of Alan Richardson.

Pennington moved to Trent Bridge for greater opportunity at a Test ground: nothing wrong with that.

My impression is that Pennington, when he gets steam up, is faster than Cook, perhaps 85-6mph rather than 82-3mph, and in such a small margin lies a world of difference on flat pitches.

And Pennington does get steam up. If he has not got his line and length right in an opening spell, he will come back, set his teeth and bowl and bowl until he clicks.

Not so much like Anderson as Stuart Broad. And that will do too.