x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Cricket: Broad gains for England bowler may diminish in time

The inconsistent Stuart Broad may have hit a career peak against New Zealand but the figures can be skewed depending on how you look at it.

England's Stuart Broad bowled a career-best spell of seven for 44 in the second innings but had only one wicket in the first. Mike Hewitt / Getty Images
England's Stuart Broad bowled a career-best spell of seven for 44 in the second innings but had only one wicket in the first. Mike Hewitt / Getty Images

If ever somebody compiled a list of the least-popular cricketers, Stuart Broad would find himself high in the mix, somewhere below S Sreesanth, but above Shane Watson, for example. Below Gautam Gambhir and Andre Nel, but above Mark Boucher.

Glenn McGrath would be on it, had he not become so cuddly and fashionable toward the end, and had he not been so obviously a great. This list would be about the way they are perceived, rather than the value of their skills, although those would eventually figure in the sense that they are not nearly as good as I think they think they are.

Mostly though, it is a personality thing.

Broad can be immensely annoying at many levels. First, he should not be our problem; with that face, he should be Simon Cowell's problem.

For another, he is the kind who sledges and glares, usually at those opponents who least warrant it. That guy who always hurls balls straight back at batsmen who have patted it back up the pitch? That is Broad. In 2010 at Edgbaston, he broke Zulqarnain Haider's finger doing so.

He then holds his hand up and has it passed off as simply a product of an insanely competitive nature, as if a sportsman who does not injure people or abuse them is less competitive.

Pakistani fans will also recall the insidious tone of moral superiority in his comments after the Lord's spot-fix.

But this week, Broad won England a Test, dragging his bowling into the spotlight instead. Which, if you think about it, has over the course of 56 Tests also been a point of considerable annoyance for England's management.

Broad took eight wickets against New Zealand, and a career-best seven for 44 in the second innings at Lord's.

He bowled the kind of fuller lengths pretty much the entire world thinks are better for him to bowl, but which he somehow imagines to not be as profitable.

That, plus some wickets in New Zealand earlier this year, marked yet another career upswing after a year that began well but ended poorly. A strange compendium of injuries affected him in India last winter, but the fluctuation is a career theme: months of progression, followed by inexplicable, stagnant ones.

The hoopla over fuller lengths is indicative not so much of a technical as an existential malaise: It still isn't clear precisely what kind of fast bowler Broad is.

Is he an enforcer, a man who pushes batsmen and teams on to the back foot with lengths just short of full, who may sacrifice individual wickets for collective ones?

Or is he something cuter, a man who cuts and seams and sometimes swings, bowling repeatable lengths and lines at an altogether slower pace?

For the sake of variety in England's current attack, it is a good thing he is neither Jimmy Anderson nor Steven Finn. But for the sake of Broad's individual identity, it is not.

The kind of mind-bending things with a ball Anderson does are beyond Broad at a sustained level, though on some days he can create a similar, less-glittery magic.

Other days, he can be quick, but neither can he emulate the frightening rawness of Finn's pace, or the ease with which Finn generates it. That does not leave him too many days in which to be Broad, whoever that may be.

Maybe a true identity is diluted, the downside to being integral across all three England sides and the constant switching of skill sets and attitudes. Anderson does not have Twenty20s to cloud his purpose. Finn has the pace to cut through formats.

Or maybe Broad is just a good bowler when the conditions are right?

There is a stark difference in his performances home and away (121 wickets in 30 Tests in England at 27.73 and 70 wickets in 26 Tests outside at over 37).

But that theory feels weaker after his outstanding, intelligent work in the Pakistan series in the UAE last year.

There might be greater substance in probing an offshoot theory, in asking whether he is, just at this moment, a very good bowler against weaker batting.

After Lord's, Broad has now taken 101 wickets in 27 Tests against Pakistan, West Indies, New Zealand and Bangladesh.

Against South Africa, Australia, Sri Lanka and India, however, he has 90 from 29 Tests.

Clarity might not take long; between now and next summer, Broad has 17 Tests against Australia, Sri Lanka and India.


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