Most of us thought it would be Jimmy first, right? That made sense. Older, more miles in the legs, more grump in the soul. But the unexpectedness of Stuart Broad‘s exit is a neat motif to his entire career in one sense, always not being what you thought he would be, or was becoming. And he may have emerged as teenaged prodigy but who could’ve expected Broad to build the career he has done while playing it entirely alongside the greatest fast bowler England has produced?
Only a couple of days ago Ben Stokes went further and called James Anderson the greatest fast bowler to play the game. That’s a big call but when he is your weapon, it’s not a crazy call. At the least, Anderson is in those conversations. Nobody will call Broad the greatest fast bowler, though it is worth noting that in 2016, he – and not Anderson – was the first England Test fast bowler to be ranked No. 1 in the world since Steve Harmison in 2004.
Anderson replaced him that year, which seemed not a correction but a bend towards a natural order. Anderson has since been back to that spot several times, most recently earlier this year; Broad has not.
Which is just fine. Not all fast bowlers are – or must be – great. It’s enough for them to create a great spell or two which aren’t spells of great bowling so much as total life events, occasions you will remember forever but will never quite be able to make complete sense of (see: childbirth, weddings, funerals and the day Elon Musk took over Twitter); days when the world was a little tipsy and so life moved fast very slowly.
A great spell or two, but with Broad we were spoilt. Entire mornings, afternoons and days lost entirely, unexpectedly and indisputably, to Broad, ones that he had conjured from scratch and, lucky us, let us in.
There was always something a little titillating about his best spells, a slightly guilty pleasure. You knew you should be sitting stroking your chin at the cant of Anderson’s wrist and his reverse-reverse wobble, but all you wanted to do was to be an absolute lout watching Broad wreck stuff. Anderson satisfied the intellect, an arthouse spectacle scaled up for mass consumption like a Chris Nolan film. Broad, for all his evolution over the years, for all the roles he took on, for all his smarts, remained at heart, an out and out big-action banger, all breath-taking, set-piece stunts stitched together to make the movie.
Which is why, as tempting as it is to treat with due deference the sheer gargantuan nature of the headline numbers of his career – only four bowlers, one fast bowler, with more wickets, only one bowler with more Tests played – Broad’s best self will always live in his brief, sharp jags of anarchy into an otherwise perfectly civil day’s play.
Like the two Test hat-tricks, the second of which he didn’t even realise he’d taken and the first of which (against India) came with bonus and massive DRS schadenfreude; his breakthrough at The Oval, four wickets in 21 balls; eight in 9.3 overs at his home ground; six in 7.3 overs in Durham; seven in 11 at Lord’s; the smallness of these numbers, the compression, speaks to the truer magnitude of his work. In them is a distinct mood: Broad, full lengths, nibbling away at an edge, nipping into a pad, smashing stumps, careening away in celebration, total upheaval in his trail.
Is it sacrilege to say there was a little bit of Warne in Broad’s theatre around a delivery, enough that watching him was as compelling as the bowling itself, that a spell could be measured and experienced purely through his expressions? The arms flung in the air at repeated play-and-misses, the frowns and eyebrow shrugs and wry smiles, the wide-eyed disbelief and cupped-hand-over-mouth shock and, of course, the teapots. Broad’s last day will always be memorable for clapping Zak Crawley when he spilled a catch off his bowling, a sure sign that this was the end, of Broad, and, perhaps, of times.
The most endearing was when, after beating a batter, or even being hit for a boundary, he would stop in his follow-through, fold one arm across the chest and hold his chin with the other, absorbing what had happened professorially. It was an unusual pose for the occupation, though in hindsight it works alongside a visualisation of one of his great early quotes, in a Guardian interview from 2010: “Tea just helps me fight”. Tea? For fighting?
There was always some game within the game, especially when there wasn’t, the bail-switching last week an absolute Broad classic. Is it the imagination or did umpires have to be the most switched-on bodies on the field when Broad was on one, turning him down, answering a hundred queries, humouring him, regularly being proved wrong by him, admonishing him. Parents will recognise and sympathise.
After all of it, the walk back to the mark, with the intent, form and purpose of a self-important civil servant. Some days his knees pumped more on that walk back than in the run-up.
He was not the first celebrappealer but there’s never been a better one and it captured something central in him. The sense of entitlement in dispensing with the need for the umpire’s adjudication that his critics loved to hate, but also the rakish hustle that his fans loved. Some of that manifested itself in a mid-career trait of wasting reviews while batting, prompting an irritated Mike Selvey to coin the L’Oreal referral (because he’s worth it).
If there’s an absence of an appreciation so far of the nuts and bolts of his bowling, it is only because, 17 years from his international debut, what is not known about it? Once you have taken as many wickets as he has, it kind of stands as monument to the career by itself. Of course, he’s a giant, because you don’t get that many wickets otherwise.
Broad: I wanted to finish playing at the very top
Stuart Broad reflects on his decision to retire from all forms of cricket after the fifth Ashes Test
Some might argue he got that many because he played so many Tests, like it’s some sort of a caveat. Well one, taking 604 wickets is in no way an inevitable consequence of playing 167 Tests. No wicket comes easy in Tests. Two, he played as many as 167 Tests because he was good enough. And three, staying fit enough to play that many is a feat on its own. None of this was inevitable.
The other thing is that once we’re slicing up that many wickets and Tests, of course there will be skews, to home conditions, to specific opponents, to bits of stats padding. That is inevitable. It applies to every player with a long career. All of that is what makes a career, it doesn’t take from it.
And Broad’s has been as rich as it is long, sustained by a thirst for self-improvement. He was never still, forever learning, adapting, tinkering, experimenting, right up to the start of this, his final series. One of the by-products of that, and what sets him apart from Anderson perhaps, is the suspicion that, had he really wanted, he could still cut it amidst the helter skelter of white-ball cricket.
The end came as a career had gone, with proof of his durability. When Alex Carey nicked behind, it was the fourth ball of Broad’s seventh over in that spell. At the end of day five. Of a five-Test series. In which he played every single game. In which he bowled nearly 26 more overs than any other bowler. During which he turned 37.
That was overshadowed by the set-piece moment to sign-off, the last two wickets to seal an Ashes win, a wicket off his last ball and hugs with Jimmy at mid-off. It’s a shame there weren’t more wickets left because with two in 13 balls, one dropped catch and numerous plays and misses to balls he was shaping in and swinging away as much as ever, we all had that sense, one last time, that Stuart Broad is about to get on one and we best be there.