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Sports

The Audacious Heroism of Stuart Broad

It's not so much that Stuart Broad thinks he's great, more the thought that he might not be simply doesn't occur to him.
June 27, 2015, 3:45am
Photo by PA Images

This article originally appeared on VICE Sport UK.

Cricketers often have defining matches. Ian Botham had Headingley in 1981, pulling England back from the brink with bat and ball; Brian Lara had Bridgetown in 1999 when the West Indies beat Australia by one wicket; Sachin Tendulkar announced himself to the world by scoring 114 while his Indian teammates fell around him in Perth in 1992.

Perhaps Stuart Broad's defining Test was against Sri Lanka last summer, when he took a hat-trick without realising he had done so, then as England were desperately batting for a draw on the fifth day and looking to waste as much time as possible, he casually sauntered off to visit the toilet. This was about 15 minutes after he'd come out to bat, so either there were some pretty potent diuretics in the England Gatorade, or this was Broad being Broad. The performance was the heady mix of superb skill and heroic levels of chutzpah. Peak Broad.

You could make a case for Broad to be the most entertaining cricketer in the world, and definitely in the England team. He's not the best, certainly not the worst, but it's the peripherals and intangibles that make him a joy. Broad pouts, he complains, he subtly annoys virtually everyone he plays against. He is the pioneer of the 'celebrappeal', charging down the wicket with arms flailing rather than asking the umpire, as is the convention, when he thinks he has a wicket, no matter how spurious the claim.

In short, he's great.

As well as this, Broad is one of those sportspeople who is clearly very good, but you might struggle to explain why. You could easily identify the strengths of England's other two world-class bowlers in recent years, Jimmy Anderson and Graeme Swann, who could do things with the ball that few others in the world could. But Broad… well, he's tall, which is handy but not a guarantee of wickets. And he's fairly quick, but loads of bowlers are quicker… and that's about the size of it. He can swing the ball a bit, he can bowl economically, he can rough a batsman up with short deliveries, but none of them consistently, and certainly none of these things define him.

Broad celebrates taking a wicket during the second Ashes Test | Photo by PA Images

He also has a pleasing knack of taking more wickets with bad balls than most other bowlers, which happens so often that you'd think it can't be an accident, but nonetheless is confusing when trying to assess his worth. Equally, he's capable of long stretches of mediocrity then suddenly, without warning, bursts of unplayable brilliance. Still, at the time of writing he has 296 Test scalps to his name, and Anderson thinks at some stage Broad will eclipse his own, recently-broken England wicket record, so he has to be discussed as one of the country's best ever.

Broad's primary skill is less tangible, largely because it's not technical, but mental. To say he has strong self-belief would be quite the understatement; it's not so much that he thinks he's great, more that the thought he might not be doesn't occur to him. This doesn't manifest itself in an ostentatious swaggering ego, but in the steadfast conviction that he will take wickets, no matter what.

You can see this in his rather liberal use of the Decision Review System, inviting the umpire to double-check with technology when a call doesn't go his way; he's always convinced he's got his man, possibly because the idea of him not being brilliant just doesn't compute. It's almost as if he thinks 'well, clearly I'm not doing anything wrong, because it's me, so something else must be awry.'

Nothing seems to be his fault. One particularly illustrative example was during the tour to New Zealand in 2013. He bowled a rancid leg stump half-volley that was duly spanked to the boundary, only for Broad to affix hands to hips and bawl out a fielder (Monty Panesar) for not stopping the thing, the inference being it was another, rather than the one that bowled the ball, that was to blame. It was a bit like trying to paint a wall with soup then blaming the brush when it doesn't work out.

If you were to really dip into cod-psychology, you might think of all of this as the product of a child who wasn't told 'no' very often, one used to getting what he wants, so a negative response is deeply confusing to him. Which of course could be infuriating, but a possible result of that is not so much a cricketer with thick skin, but with bones draped in kevlar, off which everything deflects.

It's one of the reasons he has a slightly confusing relationship with Australia. This largely stems from the infamous incident in the 2013 Ashes Test at Trent Bridge (below), in which he was basically vilified for an umpire's incompetence and refusing to 'walk' after clearly edging for a catch, as happens in basically every cricket match, ever. This caused many to not so much lose their shit as throw it onto a fire and set it alight, dancing around it and screaming obscenities. Michael Vaughan called him a cheat, assorted columnists thoroughly embarrassed themselves and grown adults had t-shirts printed bearing the legend 'Stuart Broad Is A Shit Bloke.'

After the series, he gave a tremendous interview to the BBC, in which he said: "It was an important moment in the game because, let's be honest, if Belly and I hadn't put on those runs, we wouldn't have won the Test match so we would only have won 3-1 or something." All of which was said with a straight face, meaning you weren't entirely sure if he was consciously winding an entire nation up, or if it was so ingrained in him by that point that it was just natural. Which is of course indecently enjoyable. He doesn't do wind-ups in the same way as David Warner, who talks as he bats (aggressively, unsubtely, an almost cartoon Australian), but not as overtly, with slightly more finesse, whether that's a deliberate choice or otherwise.

In the subsequent tour in Australia, Broad actively sought out opprobrium, wandering through crowds in warm-up matches and posing with people in those 'shit bloke' t-shirts, to the point where it blunted the abuse. It was as if he was feeding off the shouts and spittle from the cheap seats, absorbing it all and turning it into fuel. On a miserable tour for the team, he took 21 wickets at 27, comfortably England's best bowler, and bettered his career average and strike rate.

It might also explain why he is capable of blistering, match-winning spells, like the Oval in 2009 and Durham in 2013 to beat Australia, Lord's in 2013 to blow away New Zealand, or Durban in 2009 where he and Swann bowled South Africa out. "I don't know how it happens but I do know when it is happening to make the most of it," he said about these spells, "It's the greatest feeling in the world when it happens and most bowlers know what I'm talking about. You feel as if you're going to get a wicket with every ball you bowl. You never want it to end."

Broad is an easy man to dislike, from his apparent 'cheating' to the entitled pouts to his baby-faced features, but they're all reasons to love him too. A bastard, but 'our' bastard. Hate him, cherish him, but you'll miss him when he's gone.

@nickmiller79