'England must beat SA to be considered the best'
Stuart Broad appears relaxed and contented, his manner as easy as his suit is sharp. In London to present some awards at a charity event, he is happy to chat despite being delayed for several hours on the train from Nottingham. Cricketers know a fair bit about life in transit and Broad had the latest series of Breaking Bad to divert him, as well as the comforts of first class. But still, the man who can disappear into Britain's public transport wormhole and come out the other side looking pretty chipper must be feeling good about life.
And well Broad might. Rested for the recently completed ODI series, he has had a couple of weeks to reflect on England's 3-0 Ashes victory, during which his 22 wickets at 27.45 took him to the top of the list of Test wicket-takers for 2013. His batting, too, showed signs of renaissance, with Broad facing more balls in a series than he had since 2010, when he made his only Test century against Pakistan.
Beating Australia was, he says, "really hard work", the kind of series where "you're just making a brew and then you lose a wicket and there is massive pressure back on". The respite for both teams will be short, as there are just nine weeks until the sixth Test of back-to-back Ashes begins in Brisbane. But in these brief moments, Broad is able to reflect with satisfaction on a season of sustained English success in which he has played a full part.
It may not have been this way. Less than a year ago, he left the tour of India with an injury that will likely affect him for the rest of his career. The one-time enforcer, England's fast-bowling big cat had been diagnosed with a kitten heel - a lacerated fat pad for which little could be done beyond rest and careful management - and, as 2012 drew to a close, Broad knew he faced an uncertain future. His comeback began in New Zealand, where, he says, "the first ten days I was in trouble". But he was able to gradually increase his workload, starting with the T20s and finishing the three-Test series in encouraging form. Then came Lord's, Chester-le-Street, euphoria.
"If you'd have offered me the summer we've had - beating New Zealand, Champions Trophy final, the Ashes and, personally, the summer I've had with being the leading Test wicket-taker in the world, I'd have snapped your hand off," he says. "From where I was at Christmas, to where I am now? Delighted."
During the Ashes, Broad became the 15th Englishman to reach 200 Test wickets, fittingly with the dismissal of Michael Clarke, Australia's captain, who alongside AB de Villiers is the batsman Broad has removed most times. Seven years since he made his England debut at 20, he may well have passed the halfway mark of his career as an international cricketer. It is, he says, "a bit weird when you get to an age where you think you have played more than you're going to play", but he has not begun to set targets.
Several of England's higher peaks - Andrew Flintoff (219), Darren Gough (229), Matthew Hoggard (248) - are on the horizon. Broad now has 217 Test wickets, while his new-ball partner James Anderson is second only to Ian Botham, with 329. At the close of the 2009 Ashes, the 27-year-old Anderson had 140. "I feel I've learned a huge amount that I can put into hopefully my best years," is about as far as Broad will go.
"I think this year has proved my hot streaks, so to speak, are coming between shorter gaps. So I seem to be picking up wickets more regularly than I did in the past, and that's going to come with experience, knowing how to do that. I feel excited about what I could offer the team in the next four to five years, having been through bad trots with the bat as well. So it's an exciting time to be part of this English cricket team."
Has he yet decoded the formula behind those "Broad bursts", the force-of-nature displays that yielded 7 for 42 against New Zealand at the start of the summer and 6 for 50 on a charged evening to seal the Ashes in Durham? Perhaps not entirely, but he says, "It is happening a bit too regularly to think that it just happens by accident.
"I think that the older I get, the more I play, you realise when it's your time. I mean, when you look through those Durham wickets, they're not all good balls. Smith sort of dragged one on, then I was on a roll. I'd say at Lord's I probably bowled a bit better but just didn't have any luck - you get the plays and misses rather than the nicks. So I think with the experience of knowing that, it means that when you are not getting the wickets you can just hold and hold and make sure you're doing your job for the team rather than panicking and thinking you've got to bowl wicket-taking balls."
Australia have been flamed before, one of Broad's earliest displays of mercury helping to wrest back the urn at The Oval in 2009, and the contest clearly invigorates him. The pressure - not to mention the ambient media hothousing of every tiny issue - could be enough to cool anticipation of an immediate return series for some but Broad says England are "very fortunate" to have the opportunity to play back-to-back Ashes. Having been called a "cheat" by Darren Lehmann over his contentious non-dismissal at Trent Bridge, Broad is accustomed to the scrutiny and is ready for "a bit of a barrage" Down Under. Away from the game he is more interested in box sets but the middle is his boxing ring.
"I am one of these characters who seems to thrive off a little bit of niggle, a little bit of pressure," he says. "It's quite strange, because off the field I'm quite shy, quiet, prefer to watch a bit of TV at home, but get me on the cricket field I like it all kicking off. So it's something I look forward to, it will be interesting. I don't quite know what to expect but I'm certainly not expecting cheers."
After beating Australia four years ago, England mapped the route they had to take to become the No. 1 Test side in the world. Broad says they have not yet undertaken that exercise again but there is a sense that the team, unbeaten in 13 Tests, are girding themselves once more. Australia consumes their short-term future but there is a bigger, perhaps more-important, target - and a far harder beast to bring down - that England must pursue.
"I don't think we'll be classed as the best team in the world until we beat South Africa in a Test series," Broad says. "For me, watching them and playing against them, I think they're the best in the world. [Jacques] Kallis gives them a huge advantage in world cricket. The bloke's got 288 Test wickets, averages 56. So, I don't think as an England team we can class ourselves as the best until we play them, which schedule-wise is 2015-16."
It is two winters until England next visit South Africa to take on the team who swept them aside 2-0 at home last year and left with the ICC Test mace. That, Broad says, is a shame. "Our next stepping stone to being the best team in the world has to be to beat South Africa wherever we play them. But that's miles away, it's too far for me to even consider."
England's players have often spoken about how "making history" motivates them, and winning in South Africa for the first time in more than a decade is a decent-sized carrot. They will get plenty of stick in Australia over the next few months, too, but attempting to become the first England side to win four Ashes series in a row since the 19th century is, Broad believes, plenty of motivation to keep them focused on the task at hand.
Broad, as Anderson and Graeme Swann have in recent days, cheerfully accepts that England did not play their best cricket in beating Australia. That, he suggests, is a reason to be confident they will hit the return series even harder. There is also a personal mission for Broad, for whom it was "heartbreaking" to have to return home from the last Ashes tour and miss out on the final three Tests, the sackings of Melbourne and Sydney and a first triumph in 24 years. The thought of playing on pacier pitches is enough to make his blue eyes twinkle again.
"We're in a good place as a team and it's exciting to think we won a series 3-0 but know we weren't quite there, we weren't quite at the races all the time. Being in that changing room and knowing that we weren't quite as good as we could be gives us every incentive to work harder, to go and win in Australia. There's a huge hunger for that and no fan needs to be concerned that the guys won't be properly on it."
Winning is a tricky habit to acquire, far easier to misplace and England's capacity to grasp the important moments in a Test was evident during the summer. "We'll find a way to win a half hour that will eventually win us the game, and you need that as a cricket team," Broad says. An experienced team, in which four players are approaching 100 Tests, gives England a wealth of knowledge on which to draw, and that will inform the campaign ahead. As for the perception that Australia were somehow unlucky, and might have won two, three Tests had the dice fallen differently, Broad responds with a wry smile, informed by his own 62-Test career.
"It could have been 5-0 to us. That's not how sport works, is it? At the end of the day it's a stats, result-driven business. You get judged on your results. Of course your performance is important but… That's why I'm not a big predictions man. You look at this series coming up, no one knows what is going to happen, but you have to prepare yourself better than the opposition, you have to train, do your analysis better than the opposition to give you the best chance to win. So yeah, Australia had chances to win Test matches in England, there's no doubt about that, but they won none. That's the bottom line, really."
Broad's personal balance sheet, meanwhile, looks ever more impressive.
Stuart Broad was supporting the Chance to Shine campaign to keep cricket alive in schools. The Cricket Foundation's programme has brought cricket to over two million children since 2005. Just £15 pays for a year's coaching for one child. Donate at Chance to Shine
Alan Gardner is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here