Rode the Six Hundred (and four) – Being Outside Cricket

So there we go, 2-2, honours shared but Australia return home still hanging on to the urn by their fingertips. Not quite a classic series, but only because the Old Trafford rain ruined the possibility of a denouement, and as a result the destination of the Ashes was already known going into the final Test. The matches themselves certainly were, only the curtailed Old Trafford game was one sided, the rest were nip and tuck throughout.

And yet it was a missed opportunity for England. The Manchester rain would have been insurmountable no matter what, and the complaining about declaration timing is fairly irrelevant set against the reality of losing two days to the weather. If that happens, you’re just not going to win very often. Equally, the response to bad weather on too much of the English media side was to rail against the cricketing conditions that have prevailed for a century and a half – such as ridiculous suggestions for a spare day. It rains sometimes. It’s unfortunate, but it’s as much a part of the game as winning the toss and batting on a glorious sunny day. It happens, deal with it.

With that match aside, England certainly could have won 4-0 with only a slight shift in outcome, and while Australians could legitimately say they could have too, the difference is that throughout the series it was England who were the ones pushing, and making the running. It was their mistakes that gave Australia their openings, their fluffs that cost them matches. With England 1-0 down I argued ( that the Bazball approach was the best chance of beating Australia – at the end of the series I remain of that view, and equally sanguine about the fact that such a high risk approach also engenders mistakes. Selection might have been contentious, but there were no easy solutions, and too many seemingly wanted to pick twelve players to get around that, something even the Australians were bound to notice. As it turned out, many of those players dismissed early on as the ones to remove had a huge say in the outcome of the series – particularly Zak Crawley who was showing consistency and improvement all the way through, and before his huge century. It is for him to kick on from here, and a single successful series doesn’t mean he will, but his shot selection has improved out of sight, not because he’s playing fewer of them, but because he is committing to them. Edges flying over slip from full blooded drives is exactly how he should play, he gets into trouble most of all when he’s hesitant.

All this talk has been about England, and for good reason. This series is one that has happened to Australia, pretty much from first ball to last. They have resisted extremely well, particularly early on, but they were the ones under assault and trying to fend England off throughout, which made their 2-0 lead feel very odd (and perhaps explains the anger at mistakes of the kind that happen in cricket), and made England’s comeback less surprising than it might have appeared from the outside.

Any Ashes series that is competitive carries its own narrative (as an aside, this is why Australian fans create their own amid the boredom of a thrashing of the England team down under), the twists and turns highlight individual instances and players and it’s ever unsurprising that Stuart Broad inserted himself into the story. A player who has been more than just his statistics throughout did it again. The switching of the bails in both innings, and subsequent wicket the following ball each time was so very Stuart Broad. Some cricketers seem to have the ability to shape reality around them far beyond their on field skills. Ian Botham once returned from a ban and the first ball he bowled was a slow, wide, half volley – unaccountably snicked behind by (I think) Bruce Edgar. Narrativium was a glorious Terry Pratchett concept, amusing in itself, and sometimes a little hard to deny when you see it happening.

Broad bowled beautifully throughout the series, though showing his age as it went on and he tired somewhat. A year ago he had looked toothless and coming to the end, certainly compared to Anderson who somehow seemed to be getting even better. The switch in fortunes for the pair this summer could not have been more stark. Perhaps that is why it felt a surprise when Broad announced his retirement first, mere days after Anderson had insisted he was going to carry on. Broad’s explanation that he wanted to go out on a high made perfect sense, but then so did Anderson’s that he wanted to continue for as long as he could. People are different – some former Test cricketers play club cricket into their seventies, others never pick up a bat or ball again after retiring from the top level. At Anderson’s age, it is impossible to have a poor series without being considered to be at the end, and maybe he is, but if he wishes to continue and try to prove otherwise, then there’s no reason not to allow him to, as long as selection remains on merit. Being available to go to India in the winter is quite the commitment from him.

But this piece is to be primarily about Broad. He was, perhaps, just a little below the level required to be called a great, but longevity itself should never be underestimated as something to praise without qualification. Some of those with better records would not have such had they played for as long as he has, while his overall statistical record has been one of gradually undoing the damage of a fairly poor start. To look at his average over the last decade or so is to see a player who has been exceptional, and the only reason for refusing the tag of greatness is because that truly should be reserved for the best of the best, irrespective of the trend towards greatesteveritis. He occasionally went off the boil, and struggled, particularly in the daft “enforcer” period, but he was also capable of spells that really were great, and as a result struck a note of fear into opposition hearts constantly just in case it was one of those occasions. Stuart Broad Day was a concept familiar to fans all over the world for a reason, when he was on song he was completely irresistible.

If the refused tag of greatness is to be qualified, his batting might well be the reason why. His bowling record is extremely good, but had it been allied with the batting prowess he showed in his earlier years, to the point where he was close to being considered an all rounder, then he would be propelled to the top of a great many lists. His 169 against Pakistan remains extraordinary, not just because of how he did it, but also because of how different his batting looked subsequent to being hit by Varun Aaron. He became a genuine tailender in those latter years, and it has to be wondered how hard England worked with him on his batting to overcome it. Strangely, it picked up just a little bit in the last few years when it had looked for a time that he would be a true rabbit, even below Anderson in the order. Speculation all, for the mental difficulties he confessed to after that injury cannot be gainsaid by an outsider, we simply do not know truly how hard it was for him, as it clearly was.

Therein lies a particular irony. As his batting declined, it became more celebrated. The occasional echo of past glories as he would lash bowlers into the stands became a meme, something to be looked forward to by cricket followers all around the world. An “Is Stuart Broad Batting?” Twitter account was set up, and amassed by the end nearly 16,000 followers, a level of silliness that ended up actually causing a sense of loss from many with the final tweet, viewed an astonishing 1.2 million times at this point.

Perhaps that’s one reason that set Broad apart. Another is certainly his combativeness, something that irritated plenty in the earlier years when he was viewed as a cocky upstart. Either he changed or we did, or both, because over time the barbs were laced with an acute sense of humour, most of all when they were aimed at the Australians, for whom he became the ultimate pantomime villain.

That it can be said it was a pantomime villain rather than a real one can be defined by the way no one, apart from the terminally dense, could get truly irate about a player not walking after an edge, while wandering into the Gabba press conference carrying the morning newspaper slating him under his arm was delightful. As for his delicious dig at the sandpaper affair by wondering why Australia had changed a method that was already working for them, it all merely adds to the appreciation level that has seen him approach national treasure status in recent times.

He will reappear in the commentary box, and it’s to be hoped he maintains the asperity, for there is no shortage of anodyne observation already. Whether he also goes down the celebrity route, Strictly et al, is to be seen. But he does leave a hole in the England attack that will not be easy to fill, and perhaps more importantly, a hole in the sense of fun for everyone watching. He is going to be missed, and for a retiring sportsman, perhaps that is timing it best of all.

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