If you think Stuart Broad looks boyish even now, at age 30 and having just participated in his 100th Test, look up the photograph from his Test debut. In it, Michael Vaughan is handing him his first Test cap and by comparison to now, Broad looks positively newborn in it: glistening blond hair, longer and no sign of the stubble – perhaps no capacity for its growth then – that adorns his face these days.
Next month it will be nine years since that debut in Colombo and it was a tough one back in the day when the Sinhalese Sports Club surface was a proper road. It was a struggle, and he ended with just one wicket in 36 overs, Chaminda Vaas mistiming an attempted hook shot to slip.
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For all that he has grown and become a man, he retains a sense that was formalised in those early days: here was a near-perfect product from a new, emerging assembly line of English cricket. He was athletic and fit; he could bowl in different ways and he was smart about the game; he could bat well enough to prompt dreams of all-round glory; he did the whole media-speak thing impeccably, trained to say plenty without really saying anything alarming or, usually, insightful. There was no way he could fail.
And he did not, even if it took him until his 22nd Test, 20 months later, to show us where the outer extremities of his gifts could reach out to. In that Test, against Australia at The Oval in the 2009 Ashes, he caused them to collapse from 73 for 0 to 160 all out – one spell all told, five wickets in 47 balls, only one requiring assistance from his fielders.
That spell, the nature of it, its suddenness and above all, its force became a Broad party trick, perhaps the Broad party trick. For in one way, his is a career told through these spells, these bits of a day that end up defining not only the session, but the day, the Test, even a series itself. Heck, they have ended up defining a career.
Soon there would be a dissection of India at Trent Bridge, which included the first of his two Test hat-tricks (that itself is revealing of the unstoppable nature of his best spells). There was a five-fer in six overs against South Africa in the troubled summer of 2012 and the next year, seven in 11 overs against New Zealand, which his great partner James Anderson thinks is his finest spell.
To most people’s eyes, he will not have bowled better than the 8-15 at Trent Bridge in the 2015 Ashes, a spell so wondrous the defining image of which is Broad’s astonished visage – ostensibly it was for Ben Stokes’s catch but which may well have been at the magic of his own spell.
During these spells, Broad has looked like the best fast bowler in the world, and a complete one, who has pace, who has control, who can work batsmen over as well as work them out, who hits effortlessly upon a length that batsmen universally flinch from.
A telling perspective is cast on his career by the glow of Anderson’s. If the Lancastrian is the more complete and more skilful bowler, as well as the one with a more consistent record, Broad is a creator of those great, dream spells in a way that Anderson is not. Anderson has many magnificent spells in his bag, but none quite so dramatic and instant as Broad’s finest.
Conversely, it is between these spells that Broad has often been forgotten, his impact dimmed by the memories and expectations of his own capabilities. He has not been poor in these periods, merely one part of an always strong England pace attack, as opposed to its totemic presence.
England could have done with just such a spell in his 100th on the last afternoon in Rajkot. It was not to be and if there is a point he may feel he has to prove, it is of his quality in Asian conditions especially, and away from home generally.
The vast majority of those great spells have come at home. And while the diversity of surfaces and conditions within England precludes him from being labelled a conditions-only bowler, a record of just 129 wickets in 43 Tests outside of England is one that needs righting more than it does justifying.
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