December 2009
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Lawrence Booth: England must let Broad find his length

December 9th, 2009 by Lawrence Booth in England, Test cricket

When Stuart Broad bowled England to victory in the Ashes and himself into the annals he also underwent an epiphany. For a while Broad had spoken of seeking to emulate Glenn McGrath, who – to paraphrase the Australian politician who once chastised Geoff Boycott after a tedious day’s batting in Perth – did for variety what the Boston Strangler did for door-to-door salesmen. But the evidence too often begged to differ. Then, at The Oval, it clicked: Broad located a consistently fuller length and became a hero.

So far, so promising. But England – and Broad – now face a dilemma. And it goes like this. Andrew Flintoff’s capacity to balance the attack was more subtle than most people imagined, mainly because they thought he took lots of wickets, which he did not. Flintoff’s bang-it-in style, while counter-productive for his own Test strike-rate (66, for goodness’ sake), at least allowed the other bowlers to pitch the ball up. The theory was that Flintoff scared ’em and the others snared ’em. It didn’t always work. But at least it was a plan, which is the bare minimum for any self-respecting Test team.

Without Flintoff – and in the absence of Steve Harmison, who had been trading on a non-existent A-game for way too long – England find themselves without an obvious scarer. And the concern for Broad, recently so potent in the snaring role (his strike-rate against West Indies at home was 38; in the Ashes it was 51), is that he will be forced into a role that ill-suits him.

The question of Broad’s identity as an international bowler has been doing the rounds for some time. Talking on the eve of the Headingley Test last summer – at a time when there was speculation England would drop him – Broad said: “My role changes quite a lot to be honest. It varies on the line-up of the attack.” Chat to those close to Broad, and this was plainly code. What he really wanted to say was: “Please let me settle into a role I feel comfortable with.”

England bowled appallingly at Headingley, but Broad – who took six wickets in Australia’s only innings – was less appalling than most. The reason? He aimed (when he wasn’t getting sucked into a senseless bouncer battle) at the top of off stump. By the time he reached The Oval, the penny had dropped.

Here’s what Broad wrote about that McGrath-style spell at The Oval in his new book, Bowled Over: An Ashes Celebration: “When you consider it, it’s silly to ever depart from that pattern really, because if you get it right, hitting the top of off stump off a consistent length, there’s not much point in trying anything else. It is something I will have to think about as a bowler.”

Again, diplomacy dilutes the irritation. But the message is clear: let me develop into the nagging line-and-length merchant I want to be and England need.

Which doesn’t necessarily solve the problem going into next week’s first Test at Centurion. Jimmy Anderson (if fit), Graham Onions and Ryan Sidebottom are all pitch-it-up bowlers, or at least they should be: Onions sometimes drops too short, but lacks the pace to do so convincingly. Broad, fundamentally, is the same, but because of his height and adaptability gets used too often as the battering ram. Which could leave England asking Luke Wright – potentially the fifth member of the attack – to send down the odd bouncer.

It’s not ideal. But neither is compromising what is potentially one of England’s greatest strengths. If Broad is allowed to work in peace on his McGrath impression, Andy Flower and Andrew Strauss could reap the rewards for years to come.

Lawrence Booth writes on cricket for the Daily Mail, and you can sign up for his weekly newsletter the Top Spin here. His fourth book, What Are The Butchers For? And Other Splendid Cricket Quotations, is out now, published by A&C Black

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