There was a moment on the third morning of the Auckland Test that seemed to sum Stuart Broad up rather perfectly. As England were being lightly flayed by Peter Fulton for the second time in the same match, Broad bowled a leg stump half-volley that the New Zealand batsman briskly clipped to a very fine leg for four. Broad was aghast – not with himself for generously donating a boundary to a tall man, but aghast with Monty Panesar, who had been deliberately placed by his captain at a wide fine leg, meaning he had no chance of stopping the thing at the best of times. And when Monty is in the outfield, no time is the best of times.
That Broad was so upset – and boy was he upset, pouting with hands outstretched and a baffled look upon his pretty face – is hardly a surprise, because nothing is ever Stuart Broad’s fault. When he gets out, the look on his face suggests he is batting on the Sabina Park pitch, 1998 vintage. When a catch is dropped, the his demeanour screams ‘Why do bad things happen to awesome people?’
And of course, his liking for a review has become both a punchline and a handy indicator for any viewer or prospective captain – if Broad asks for one, assume it was not out and don’t waste a precious trip upstairs. If Broad says it was knocking middle out halfway up, nod and know it was missing a second set.
Part of this might be an insatiable desire for wickets, part of it might be delusion, but it also might be a particular form of arrogance that Broad believes something must be seriously awry if he isn’t taking wickets. Perhaps he thinks ‘Not out? Not out!?!? Well, I’m bowling, so that can’t be the problem. I can only assume the umpire has made some sort of dreadful error. Let’s check Hawkeye.’ This also manifested itself in that dreadful habit of celebrating an LBW or caught behind rather than going through the dreary rigmarole of actually appealing to that chap in the white coat. It’s a habit that has dissipated, but still pops up occasionally.
There are things I know about Stuart Broad and there are things I don’t. In the former category, in answer to question ‘Is he a bit of a dick?’ I say ‘Yes. I know this. He is.’ See above for my working on that one. But in the latter, we have the quandary of whether or not Stuart Broad is actually any good. You see, I have no idea if Stuart Broad is actually any good.
Broad’s figures are actually perfectly respectable. In 55 Tests he has taken 183 wickets at 31.92, with a batting average of a neat 25. Nothing exceptional, but those numbers tell the tale of a good Test bowler who can bat reasonably well at eight or nine.
And yet, for long spells Broad looks awfully, painfully, tediously innocuous. Innocuous to the extent that one often gets frustrated that this man is taking up a place where a bowler with more obvious tools – the swing of Tim Bresnan say, or the height of Chris Tremlett perhaps (yes, I know they’re both injured at the moment – hush and leave me in the World of Hypothetical) – could be. That’s the problem with Broad – he has no obvious huge single strength. He is quick without being lightning fast, he doesn’t really swing the ball, he tends not to bowl short enough to take advantage of his height, he isn’t a McGrathian nagger. He’s just…competent at most things a fast bowler needs to be competent at. And who can get excited about that?
And yet, Broad has a handy knack of coming up with his best performances when he is seemingly on the verge of being dropped. That five-fer in 2009 came shortly after a significant bout of ‘What’s he for, exactly?’ talk. The century against Pakistan was really the first score of any note since a couple of 60s in a losing causes against Australia and South Africa, after which he was touted as an all-rounder. In the 18 months before India arrived in 2011, Broad had taken 34 wickets in 13 Tests at 40.29. He probably would have been left out of the 2010/11 Ashes side had he not picked up an injury at Adelaide. There are plenty of other examples too.
This is the thing about sport, but particularly cricket. Pressure builds over time, but all it takes is one good performance, a century, a five-fer, for that pressure to be relieved and the clock is reset. Depending on previous performance, one good Test probably buys you at least a series or two of good will, and Broad seems to have developed this extremely handy habit of pulling something out of the bag when the pressure is about to reach dropping point.
Another thing is that, of the three defining moments of his career – the spell at the Oval against Australia in 2009, the century against Pakistan in 2010 and the hat trick against India in 2011- two are tainted in some way – without wishing to piss on anyone’s chips here, you understand. The 169 had the edge taken off by the spot-fixing story that emerged during the game, and the hat trick was quite the travesty and would have been struck off if Stuart’s beloved DRS had been in place against India, thanks to Harbhajan Singh hitting the cover off the ball as he was given out LBW for the second wicket. These things are obviously not Broad’s fault, but there they are.
All of which adds to the conundrum of whether he’s any good. With most of the England cricketers of recent years you can offer definitive answers to that question – James Anderson (yes), Matt Prior (yes), Alastair Cook (yes), Darren Pattinson (no), James Tredwell (bless him) – but Broad…not so much. And in this age when grey areas are not allowed and you absolutely must be violently for or against something, I demand clarity.
Maybe I’m just jealous. Broad is, after all, a successful, wealthy and handsome young sportsman who used to step out with her out of off of The Inbetweeners and her out of off of The Saturdays. I am a chronic overdraft-dweller who is occasionally mistaken for Daniel Kitson and shares a cricket blog with a sweary malcontent from Cambridgeshire.
It probably isn’t jealousy, though. He just confuses me. Stuart Broad, make your mind up. Or rather, make my mind up.