At the peak of his powers, Stuart Broad has never been better placed to make a splash in India, writes Taha Hashim.
The big names played their part when England beat India in their own backyard nine years ago. In a 2-1 series win, Cook couldn’t stop scoring hundreds; Pietersen lit up Mumbai; Prior, Trott and Bell all averaged more than 40; Swann took the most wickets, and Anderson won the praise of MS Dhoni.
For Stuart Broad, there was little glory in England’s triumph for the ages. Despite holding the vice-captaincy, he was dropped after two wicketless Tests in which he went at more than four an over. When he returned to India four years later he was much improved, his wily cutters helping him to eight wickets in three Tests at 31. By comparison, Anderson took four wickets at an average of 53.5.
Yet Broad’s earliest outings have left him with an unenviable overall record in India. In no other country does he average more with the ball (53.90); in no other country is his economy rate higher (3.26). In fact, of the 58 men to have bowled in at least eight Test innings in India this century, only nine average more than Broad, with three of them – Tillakaratne Dilshan, Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag – in the category of part-timers.
After losing first-choice status on England’s 2018/19 tours of Sri Lanka and West Indies, it appeared for a short while that his influence on subsequent overseas battles was to be minimal, if not non-existent. But two years on, and 34 years young, Broad has never been better placed to make a series-defining impact in India. Since the start of the 2019 English summer, he’s averaged less than 20 with the ball in 18 Tests, picking up 80 wickets. And for those who think he’s done it all with the Dukes, his seven Tests away from home in that period have brought him 21 wickets at 22.42.
The most pertinent of those away performances came last month in Sri Lanka, the scene of his Test debut but also where he’d previously taken a total of three wickets across three tours. On his most recent visit, Broad transported Angelo Mathews from a friendly Galle surface to a less hospitable English wicket, such was the manner in which the seamer controlled proceedings in the first Test. Figures of 3-20 in the first innings were followed by 11 maidens from 17 overs in the second.
“I actually thought he bowled better in the second innings than in the first,” says Peter Moores, the coach who handed him Test status in 2007 and who still works with Broad at Nottinghamshire. “What’s happened to Stuart over the last two or three years is he’s really looked back on his most successful periods as a player and started to put that into practice. He doesn’t waste any balls, he’s at the batter all the time, over and around the wicket.”
By adopting a fuller length and focusing on making the batsman play, Broad’s wicket-taking prowess has gone to another level. A pivotal point in that development came ahead of the 2019 Ashes, while he was getting some red-ball overs under his belt with Notts.
“We played a game, I think it was against Hampshire, and Stuart never bowls badly, particularly when he plays for Notts, but he probably hadn’t got as many wickets as he wanted,” recalls Moores. “I remember looking back at the game and feeling like he’d been left quite a lot. So I went away and asked Kunal Manek, our analyst, to look at how much he was left, what percentage was it, and asked him to compare it against the series in my head where I thought he’d bowled the best, which was an Ashes series in England. We looked at the numbers and just had a bit of a comparison and it was definitely quite a lot higher than it had been then.
“I said [to Broad]: ‘Listen, what do you think? This is what it looks like – do you think now you’re bowling a bit more down the channel than at the batter?’ With Stuart he will always go away and think about it, but if he thinks you’re onto something he’ll then take the information. He’ll do the adjusting.”
Broad has since credited Moores and Manek with bringing that point to his attention, and it appears he’s brought the gameplan to the subcontinent, too. According to CricViz, in his one Test against Sri Lanka in 2018, 29.8 per cent of Broad’s deliveries were pitched on a full length, with 13.7 per cent of his balls going on to hit the stumps. In his Test appearance last month, 35.7 per cent of his deliveries were full-length, with 16.2 per cent projected to hit timber. A similar improvement in results can be expected in India too, says Moores.
“The more you play in places like India, the more you start to develop skills that will work on those pitches. The first time I took Stuart to Sri Lanka he developed a leg-cutter straight away because he’ll always find a way of adapting to a surface. He’s now got some skills that he can use out there which he’ll have developed over time. There will be times when tactically he might want to bowl wider, but I think he’ll pick and choose what he needs to do in any situation and I think you’ve got to trust him on that.”
It’s strange to think that Broad, England’s second-most prolific wicket-taker, played little part in the two greatest series wins of his generation. Prior to England’s win over India in 2012, he only featured in the first two Tests of the 2010/11 Ashes, succumbing to injury after taking two wickets at an average of 80.50.
In this bumper year of Test cricket, when he’s bowling better than ever, the opportunity is there to rectify that situation. Greatness across all conditions is still in sight for the master tactician.