Master of self-improvement and reinvention, Broad was a great survivor
It might not have ended like this. There was the mutinous interview in an Ageas Bowl portacabin. The calf injury that ruled him out of the India series two years ago. The exasperation of the Ashes series he voided, and a blind-siding omission from the squad that toured the Caribbean.
But Stuart Broad has often been confronted with his temporality as a Test cricketer across the course of a 16-year career, and has usually responded in the same way. Broad was the master of self-improvement, a man who constantly reinvented himself. It was the only way to survive, and Broad was a great survivor.
This was a fitting finale. Broad was predominantly a showman, a great entertainer who played to the gallery, and his bail-switch that immediately preceded his dismissal of Todd Murphy was another moment of pantomime that only he could pull off in the midst of a tense final-day run chase.
And yet there was another side to Broad, one that was harder to detect from the public persona who geed up the crowd, wearing a bandana out of superstition and a masterful comedian as well as cricketer.
Behind closed doors, he was a meticulous thinker about the game, described by his Nottinghamshire and ex-England coach Peter Moores as “the best tactician that I’ve been lucky enough to coach”. It was no coincidence that, with two left-handers frustrating England, Ben Stokes threw the ball to Broad.
“You’ve seen the way he bowls at them,” Stokes said. It was not always that way: Broad took 71 wickets at 41.11 against left-handers before 2015. But extensive research ahead of that summer’s Ashes series prompted him to change his default angle from over the wicket to around; since 2015, he has dismissed 122 left-handers at 24.85.
“That’s part of my personality,” Broad explained. “I’ve never been an amazing trainer. I need to have something to aim for in training all the time, that spurs me on. I need to have a new skill to be working on, otherwise I could float through training a little bit.”
Returning after tea, Broad bowled exclusively from around the wicket, inducing regular plays-and-misses; two in a row from Murphy prompted his bail-switch in an attempt to change his luck. “I just kept saying, ‘Keep bowling the same ball over and over again,'” Stokes said.
After Murphy edged behind, Broad created two final chances. Carey nicked him to second slip where Zak Crawley spilled a tough low catch, before edging through to Bairstow in Broad’s following over. Both balls were textbook late Broad: angling in before nipping away off the seam to take the edge.
Another feature of Broad’s self-improvement has been his desire to lower his “leave percentage” – a statistic that is rarely referenced publicly by anyone other than him. Four years ago, Moores told Broad that Kunal Manek, the Nottinghamshire analyst, had noticed an uptick in the proportion of his deliveries that batters left alone.
“I judge myself now on how much I make a batsman play in a day,” Broad said during the 2019 Ashes. “If I am bowling badly, my leave percentage will be 30 percent – I am getting left 30 percent of the time. If I am bowling brilliantly, it will be 16 percent or 17 percent.”
On his final day as a Test cricketer, it was down at eight percent: Australia’s batters left only seven of the 88 balls that he bowled. Broad will not be aware of that statistic as he basks in the glow of his farewell on Monday night, but there is one that makes him prouder than any other: his tally of 153 wickets against Australia, the most by an Englishman and a record that may never be broken.
In the build-up to this series, Broad played down his chances of playing anything more than a bit-part role. Instead, he was the only England bowler to feature in all five Tests, finished the summer as their leading wicket-taker, and took centre-stage as six weeks of drama came to a head in the final moments of the series.
If there is such a thing as destiny in sport, Stuart Broad was destined not to bow out quietly. “I am not too emotional, to be honest,” he reflected, speaking moments after clinching England’s win. “Taking those last two wickets proved to me that I still loved taking wickets because I just ran around like a headless chicken. I still have that emotion and love for winning Test matches.
“To take a wicket to win an Ashes Test match being my final ball was something that will make me smile for the rest of my life,” he added. “When the dust has settled it will sink in. It still doesn’t feel massively real. When I told the guys I couldn’t remember what I said. I didn’t feel like I was in my own body; I feel a little bit like that now.”
Broad made an admission on Saturday night that is rare to hear from an elite athlete: “I know I am not the most skilful player that’s played,” he said. But if his eventual Test bowling average, 27.68, does not secure him a place among the game’s greatest fast bowlers, his longevity will – a longevity secured by his self-professed addiction to the sport.