“It does get a little frustrating,” Buzz Aldrin once said of a lifetime of being known as the second man on the moon. When you’ve travelled approximately 240,000 miles further than all but an infinitesimally small proportion of humanity, it is a bit harsh to be judged in perpetuity against the only man to go one step beyond.
But then again, Stuart Broad isn’t the first mighty bowler whose achievements are destined to be remembered in the context of a double act. And far from diminishing Curtly Ambrose, or Waqar Younis, or Glenn McGrath – all of whom shared a stage with a partner who outstripped them in the wickets column – the stature of their sidekick in fact offers a secondary route to immortality; an opportunity to be remembered, quite literally, as more than just the sum of some very considerable parts.
For when you stop to think of Broad in full flow, do you really have to doublethink and factor in Anderson’s presence at the other end? Or do you simply marvel, as we all have done this week, at the spring-heeled malevolence that he still carries with him to the crease after all these years, with an action of such biomechanical purity that – barring a few notable tweaks to his wrist position – it has barely altered since his earliest stirrings as a teenage prodigy for Leicestershire in the summer of 2005.
For there comes a point in the accumulation of such towering statistics that context becomes irrelevant, and the sheer scale of the achievement takes over as the defining attribute. Broad’s critics (and my word, they are legion – more of which later…) would argue he remains a bowler of great spells rather than a great bowler in his own right, but when the list of those spells – 18 five-fors now, and barely a dud among them – becomes longer than the careers of many of the men he’s outlasted, well, you start to run out of caveats.
Back in 1964, Fred Trueman declared that anyone who sought to extend his then world-record of 300 would be “bloody tired”, and 30 years later, Kapil Dev epitomised that prediction as he flapped and gasped his way past Richard Hadlee’s extended mark of 431, before retiring exhausted one match later. Even the mighty Courtney Walsh had lost a measure of his indefatigability by the spring of 2001, when he became the first seamer to 500 in his final home series against South Africa.
But Broad, right here right now, is performing with the fury of the slighted, and the confidence of the blessed. All angles and attitude, the spring of a lamb and the snap of a crocodile, that evoke nothing less than Ambrose in his pomp. “Sacrilege!” some might argue, but really, who else could compare?
After all, both men have thrived on a scent of blood in the water, a whiff of cordite in the nostrils. A threat to their hegemony, or an insult to be avenged. And at the given moment, almost invariably with a series on the line, both men’s knees would start pumping, their torsos bouncing to the crease like an out-of-body experience, preternaturally excited about what this next delivery might bring.
“I’m always amazed at how he gets on a spell and just blows people away,” Anderson told Sky Sports before the start of play, an Ambrosian trait if ever there was one. And sure enough, in seven overs spanning the end of the West Indies’ first innings at Old Trafford and the start of their second, Broad returned the remarkable figures of 6 for 22, before capping his rampage with a full-length pad-thwacker to pin Kraigg Brathwaite lbw. The 500th breakthrough was every bit as irresistible as the fare that had gone before it.
If there’s been a frustration in the course of Broad’s career, it’s been that those spells – the truly extraordinary spells, when he’s pitched the ball right up to the bat and kicked it off a length like a mule – have been so irresistible that you begin to wonder why he’s not done it every day of his career. Both he and even Anderson have often been guilty in years gone by of dragging their lengths back to avoid being driven, but according to Cricviz, Broad’s length since the start of 2018 has been 41cm fuller than any previous stage of his career, as if he’s realised that now’s the time in his life to hang the reticence, and chase every last scalp available.
But the mechanics are one thing, it’s the moods that are quite something else. Broad’s reading of a situation and his ability to strike accordingly has been second to none throughout the course of his career, right from the moment, as a 21-year-old, he was pitched into the fray in the winter of 2007-08 and lauded by Michael Vaughan as “the most intelligent bowler I’ve ever worked with”.
For Broad’s natural length on that maiden winter in Sri Lanka and New Zealand was short and shorter. Remarkably, given his stick-insect frame and baby-faced looks, his first proper role in the team was as an “enforcer”, the man to shove a series of batsmen back into the crease so that Ryan Sidebottom and Anderson himself could draw them forward again and get them to nick off to the slips.
The ploy worked too. England were terrified they might wreck Broad in a solitary outing, when he replaced Anderson on a dead deck in Colombo and made an arduous debut in stifling heat, but the following March, his recall alongside Anderson in Wellington would prove to be one of the most pivotal selections in a generation. It was certainly the boldest of Peter Moores’ ill-starred time as England coach. With the team 1-0 down after a terrible loss in Hamilton, the Ashes heroes, Matthew Hoggard and Steve Harmison, were put out to pasture, and a nascent alliance was trusted to turn the tide back to England with a pair of back-to-back wins.
And in spite of England’s attempts to clean out the stables once more, and move on from another pair of established heroes in good time for the 2021-22 Ashes, Broad in particular is digging his heels in with admirable truculence, and showcasing the stubborn spirit he will need to have one last stab at his favourite foes in two winter’s time.
For Broad surely ranks as England’s most consistently competitive Ashes combatant since Ian Botham – a man best remembered for his 8 for 15 at Trent Bridge, no doubt, but whose first great dent on the records came six years earlier at The Oval, where his spell of 12-1-37-5 was the first time in three consecutive home Ashes that he’d deliver the series-sealing haymaker.
But that Aussie-baiting nature has revealed itself in a myriad of guises. Not least the rhino-skin thickness of his hide, for few men have been moulded who can soak up the sort of vitriol that has been sprayed his way down the years, and remain so gloriously, and supercilously, inured to such criticism.
The most famous example came on the 2013-14 whitewash tour, where his refusal to walk for one of the most blatant edges imaginable during the previous summer’s victory at Trent Bridge caused one Australian newspaper to drop their bundle and start a personal vendetta against him. Not only did Broad claim a five-wicket haul on the first day of the Test, and walk into the press conference with a copy of said paper under his arm, he later found himself, on a night out with his mum in Melbourne, giving directions to the pub to a man wearing one of the summer’s must-have accessories, a “Stuart Broad is a shit bloke” T-shirt.
Perhaps there’s the fact that he’s the son of an ICC match referee – and not just any old referee at that, but the ultimate poacher-turned-gamekeeper – a stump-kicking, umpire-dissing, curse-uttering competitor, whose entire career was a byword of bad behaviour.
Perhaps it’s the fact that he has the body and looks of an Aryan wet dream, or that his idiosyncratic mode of lbw appeal has led to an entirely new addition to cricket’s lexicon, which one irate feedbacker on ESPNcricinfo’s ball-by-ball commentary described thus during the day four rain-delay at Old Trafford:
“You call it celebrappeal. I call it the worst acts of cheating cricket has seen. Charging to the off side to celebrate before the ump has even considered his decision. No wonder we in Australia hate Stuart Broad. Celebrating in front of the batsman without even looking at the ump … a*****e … pathetic … bring on 2021-22 … [message truncated].”
Had Broad been born in the era of Bodyline, he wouldn’t simply have been an enthusiastic advocate of Douglas Jardine’s leg theory, banging the ball in halfway down the wicket with a cordon of vultures under the ribs. He’d have donned a cravat and harlequin cap between overs, and sauntered down to fine leg to wind up precisely those types who profess to this day to loathe him.
Who’d want to take the field without such a competitor in their ranks?