Full-length Broad rediscovers his best
"It's not rocket science, gentlemen. You have to bowl the ball at the top of off stump." It was Matthew Hayden who uttered this memorable put-down at Melbourne during the 2006-07 Ashes whitewash, on a day when England's bowlers had been humiliated on the field and off it. First came a match-settling 279-run stand between Hayden and Andrew Symonds, then came the theft of their exhaustive but useless bowling plans. In every respect, England had lost the plot.
Right now, England's collective fortunes could not be further removed from that nadir, but for Stuart Broad the past few weeks have been a personal quest to rediscover a plot of his own. Lo and behold, as Hayden could have told him, it turns out it had been pinned to the top of that off stump all along.
In a soaring day's work, Broad replicated almost perfectly the unstoppable momentum he developed in the two most eye-catching spells of his career, at The Oval in 2009 and at Durban four months later, as he scattered the cream of India's batting and propelled England's bid to become the No.1 Test team in the world.
"I think it was quite obvious I bowled a fuller length today," said Broad at the close of play. "I thought about getting a cover in, still keeping three slips and getting rid of the gully which allowed me to bowl that fuller length without the thought of getting hit for four. I think that worked, getting the batsmen driving, and that length can still hit the stumps on a pretty slow Lord's wicket. I'll obviously look to do that in the future as well."
Going into this, his 38th Test, it's doubtful whether Broad's stock had ever been lower, and most pundits - this one included - would have preferred to give him a spell on the sidelines. It wasn't simply that his form was in a visible funk, with his eight wickets against Sri Lanka coming at a slack average of 48.75 and an economy rate pushing four an over. It was also the pressing claims of the fit-again Tim Bresnan, a bowler whose stump-threatening approach had reaped such rewards at the sharp end of the Ashes, after Broad himself had flown home with a stomach tear.
On the first day of this Test, as Broad's fortunes bottomed out with a first-ball duck, Bresnan served notice of his Test readiness with an heroic performance for Yorkshire in the Roses match at Headingley - first he drove like the clappers up the M1 to help transform a scoreline of 45 for 8 to 239 all out, then he claimed 4 for 50 in 24 second-innings overs to give his team a ghost of an improbable sniff of victory. Broad had no choice but to up his own game in response, because England have a wealth of options at present, and there's no room for living on reputations.
Instead, he responded with such an impressive performance, it simply beggars belief that Broad does not try to reap his rewards in such a manner more often. He was fast and he was straight, as he shaped the ball through the air in both directions with an imperceptible cantilevering of the seam. He challenged the base of the stumps and the splice of the bat in equal measure, thanks to variable bounce generated by a strong wrist position and the full use of his 6'6" height. And he channelled his aggression like a mongrel with a bone, clinging to his line and length so tenaciously that a succession of batsmen were made to know that their first false stroke would be their last.
The openers Gautam Gambhir and Abhinav Mukund made the mistake of blinking first and were both drawn into loose drives of the "you miss, I hit" variety. Next came the end of Sachin Tendulkar's century quest, thanks to a gem on off stump that kissed the edge and skimmed low to second slip. And incredibly, Broad should have claimed all five of India's world-beating top-order in the space of 47 balls, when VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid were each dropped in the space of a single over.
Though that gross aberration allowed India a vital opportunity to regroup, Broad's intensity did not waver as seven runs were squeezed out of his next eight overs. And when, at last, the new ball had been taken and Praveen Kumar was taking the long handle to his colleagues, only then did Broad slip his length back to the middle of the pitch, and bludgeon Kumar from the crease with a delivery that lived up to his reputation for possessing "the best bouncer in world cricket".
That was one of two unfortunate utterances from England's otherwise pitch-perfect bowling coach, David Saker - a man whose marshalling of the recent Ashes strategy has bought him a stature that rivals that of Troy Cooley after the 2005 triumph. However, Saker's desire to puff up a bowler whom he recognises as a kindred spirit backfired spectacularly down in Southampton last month, when he unwisely referred to Broad as his "enforcer". Both Andy Flower and Andrew Strauss were swift to distance their man from such a label, and almost immediately, Broad reminded himself of the delights of a full length with a timely five-wicket haul for Nottinghamshire in the County Championship.
It is simplistic to say that Broad should always bowl in this manner, because like Andrew Flintoff before him, there is a great deal to be said for a player who can operate in tandem with another member of the attack, and build the pressure that earns wickets at the other end of the pitch. After all, the best and most under-rated spell of Broad's early career came in a crunch contest at Napier back in March 2008, when he banged out a brutal mid-pitch length to set up Ryan Sidebottom for a series-seizing seven-wicket haul with his left-arm swing.
Similarly, Broad's defensive attributes went unnoticed during England's great escape in Brisbane during the Ashes, when he alone found the means to prevent Mike Hussey and Brad Haddin from crushing their opponents' will during their first-innings triple-century stand. It was unglamorous in the extreme, and hardly represents a blip on the scorecard, but as all bowlers know, the days of hard yakka are always going to outweigh those fleeting moments of glory.
"As a player you get asked to do different roles within the side," said Broad. "Within the changing room, everyone has always known I'm best when I pitch the ball up and get a little bit of movement. But when that moment comes when a bowler is needed to rough a batsman up or get two men out on the hook and try to unsettle someone, then the ball gets thrown to me because my bouncer is pretty good and it's got a decent yard [of pace] in it."
All the same, in an improbable echo of Kevin Pietersen's penchant for the big occasion, Broad's three finest England spells have now come in a must-win Ashes decider, a vastly significant overseas victory, and now, potentially, a memorable win against the leading Test team in the world. Given those returns, maybe he'll now see the full length as the first course of action, rather than the length of last resort. He's an England captain after all. He needs to know his own mind first and foremost.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo