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Face of a child, mind of McGrath

The kid who almost missed the boat has grown up fast, physically and mentally

Daniel Brigham
Stuart Broad barks an appeal, West Indies v England, 1st Test, Kingston, 2nd day, February 5, 2009

"I don't think there's a better buzz in the game than a first morning at Lord's or the first Test of a summer"  •  Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

Stuart Broad does not just enter a room, he fills it. He is unfathomably tall, somehow appearing even greater than his 6ft 6in, and with shoulders to match. Yet on top of this mammoth frame sits a youthful face with plenty of wavy blond locks and blue eyes. He is not quite Nordic God, more baby-faced Viking warrior.
It is these striking looks that have him fast becoming the poster boy of English cricket. Girls who do not usually follow men in whites show an interest normally reserved for Mark Ramprakash. Broad is the glamorous face of the Twenty20 generation, already accustomed to being interviewed by glossy lifestyle magazines like Cosmopolitan and Esquire.
Yet, like his physical appearance, things are not quite as they might first seem. His path into cricket has been a very conventional one - an England cricketer for a father and a private boarding school in love with cricket. He turns 23 in June and the youthful arrogance often associated with a new kid on the block has already disappeared. He gives the sort of considered, thoughtful answers expected of someone at least eight years older.
"A lot of people who meet me say 'I can't believe you're 22, you act much older,'" Broad says. "But then a lot of people also think I look about 12. I still get asked for ID whenever I go out."
Like his cricket, Broad is multi-dimensional. He was very nearly not a sportsman at all. A now famous (and painful) growth spurt when he was 17, which turned him into a bowler who bats rather than a batsman who occasionally bowled, coincided with a life-changing phone call.
"There were times when I started thinking about what I had to do because cricket wasn't really working out for me up until the age of about 17," he says. "I got left out of a Leicestershire Under-17 squad, then someone got injured and I came in and scored around 195. The next day I was in the academy and then within a year I got a professional contract. I was literally sitting at home and got a phone call asking if I could play and it changed my life."
Seventeen Tests and nearly 200 first-class wickets later that phone call has been well and truly vindicated. Broad was probably always destined to play cricket to a high standard. Dad Chris played 25 Tests and slayed the Australians. Mum Carole spent Broad's teenage years happily paying for new tennis balls and replacing broken windows. He also went to a school that took cricket seriously: Oakham in Rutland.
"A lot of people who meet me say, 'I can't believe you're 22, you act much older.' But then a lot of people also think I look about 12. I still get asked for ID whenever I go out"
"I owe a lot to the school I went to," Broad says. "Oakham was one of the best batting wickets in the country and we had the likes of [former England cricketers] Frank Hayes and David Steele as coaches there. We had a real love for cricket at school. I remember we had free periods when most people would be studying, but some of the teachers would let us sneak off and have a bowl and a bat in the nets. They would turn a blind eye to it because they knew we loved it so much."
Broad knows he was lucky, well aware that cricket struggles to attract children who have not been to a cricket-playing school or do not have parents who follow the game - the kind of children that the ECB hopes will be inspired by Broad to pick up a bat or ball. He would like to see cricket back on terrestrial TV to attract more children to the game, while acknowledging the reasons why the ECB sold it to Sky.
"It's a difficult question," he says. "But from when I was a young lad and we didn't have Sky, there was nothing better at school on the first morning of a Test. We would get out during our 10.30 break and quickly put on BBC or Channel 4 and everyone would gather around to find out who was in the team or who'd won the toss. That was fantastic."
Despite this, Broad was not such a keen watcher of cricket when he was growing up - he much preferred playing it with friends from around the village during his summer holidays. "I had a routine," he says. "I'd play all morning and come in and try and watch the highlights. Then I'd go out again and play some more, then come in again for the highlights after play. I was lucky because our back garden was basically a cricket pitch with nets up to stop the ball."
His love of cricket is palpable. He is an enthusiastic talker about the game, admitting to still getting excited about hearing England squad announcements being discussed on the radio. One of his biggest joys is the coaching days with kids that the ECB arranges with England players.
He does not mind the label of cricket nerd. "Cricket has always been a hobby," he says. "I've always read every cricket magazine and subscribed to them since I was about eight. I like to see what's going on around the world and who's doing well. I think it's important to stay in touch with what's going on." This may seem rather obvious for an international cricketer, but it is not always the case. When we interviewed Kevin Pietersen last July, two weeks before he became England captain, he was unable to answer a question about the new Sri Lankan bowler Ajantha Mendis because he had not heard of him.
Broad has just moved into a new house ("I had my mum sorting everything out"). He is not a big fan of sitting around, preferring to keep himself busy. He still sees many of the friends he played backyard cricket with. While most of them are finishing university, living in house-shares and playing computer games, Broad's career path could hardly be more different.
"I had to grow up quickly," he says. "But that comes from international sport, I think. Because I'm in the England dressing room there are a lot of mature characters around and most people I hang out with are that little bit older than me, so it probably rubs off. But I still have time to enjoy myself, and I love going on a night out and catching up with mates and sitting in front of the TV getting thrashed at Fifa Soccer.
"It's not like I have to dedicate every minute of my life to cricket, but it certainly is pretty hectic. There are a lot of times when your mates are just nipping to the pub. but you can't because you're training in the morning. But I wouldn't change it for anything."
When Broad made his ODI debut in 2006 it was clear he was a man with inherent talent. But his natural, wicket-taking bowling action seemed to change. His father was not best pleased, and last October, Hayes, his cricket master at Oakham, said that England told him to bowl more chest-on to avoid injury. It resulted in a loss of swing and fewer wicket-taking deliveries.
With the appointment of Ottis Gibson as England bowling coach, Broad's action reverted to its old, natural style and the wickets started coming. James Anderson's action has also gone back to its unconventional beginnings, bringing him more wickets and greater confidence.
Does Broad think Hayes' assessment was accurate? "Yes," he says, after initially hesitating. "I mean, everything always develops. When I came into the international set-up my action got tweaked a little bit, but I've gone back to how it felt good for me. I think working with Ottis has helped me tremendously. He's a very simple character with very simple drills. I think for any young person you need to keep it as simple as you possibly can. You know when it feels right and when you're bowling well.
"I think injury prevention is huge, but I think it's important to keep your natural flair. If you've bowled well in the past and taken wickets, there's a reason why you did that and I think it's crucial that you don't let people change you too much."
Kevin Shine was the England bowling coach who was criticised by Hayes and others for his handling of Broad. He is now the ECB's lead fast-bowling coach and runs its fast-bowling development programme. He says: "Stuart was very happy with the work that we did with him at an early age, when we thought there were issues, relating to his lower back, that could affect him. We had to get him to understand how his body worked.
"Stuart's a very strong-minded individual. We explained it all to him and he wanted to know all the information. He had to give it a yes or a no. At no point did he say he was upset. The programme had his best interests at heart."
Broad is strong-minded indeed. He went very much against the grain by opting out of the IPL while other England players filled their boots (or bank accounts). Although a difficult decision, he does not regret it, happy with his choice to hone his skills in Test matches rather than Twenty20 cricket. When we speak, it is four weeks into the tournament and he has not watched a game.
As the bright, young thing of English cricket, Broad should represent the Twenty20 generation - quick, exciting bowler who does not hang around with the bat. Yet that is not quite true. Broad will have gone through his formative years without Twenty20 as an early influence - anyone a year or two younger than him will no longer be able to do that. In some ways he is the last of a breed of cricketer whose loyalties were not tested by the big bucks of Twenty20 from the moment they first picked up a bat.
He was 16 when the Twenty20 circus hit county cricket and was at the first Finals day at Trent Bridge as a fan of the semi-finalists Leicestershire. "Twenty20 cricket is hugely exciting for youngsters to watch and play and it does create a lot of new skill in the game and that can only be good for Test cricket.
"But I don't think there's a better buzz in the game than a first morning at Lord's or the first Test of a summer. I hope that buzz will always be the same in Test cricket throughout my career."
With Twenty20 has come an increased celebrity around cricketers - they suddenly seem more accessible to the public, led by the poster boys Broad and his new-ball partner and good friend Anderson. So, does Broad mind the little celebrity perks that come with being a hyped young international sportsman? "I suppose when you put yourself up for naked photo shoots you put yourself out there a bit," Broad says. "But everything that can take you away from cricket on the odd occasion is refreshing and good for your mind and it's good life experience."
The naked photoshoot he talks of was for Cosmopolitan in April 2008 (for charity, of course), with Anderson and Alastair Cook for company - plus one bat apiece to maintain their modesty. Broad says he was nervous - especially when eight women appeared to be hanging around the shoot for no other reason than to pretend to make tea. Broad drops eye contact for the first and only time during the interview when asked whether he and Anderson are the glamorous face of English cricket, mumbling "No, not at all."
Is there a rivalry between him and Anderson? "No. Although he's the sharper dresser, but then that's because his wife's always on his case. It's safe to say he's dressed by his wife. He definitely holds the advantage in the fashion stakes. It's hard for me to get clothes that are long enough, so I have to use a tailor, one up in Manchester that a lot of Manchester United players use. I'm pretty much a typical sportsman, wearing hoodies and trainers."
Broad fulfilled a long-held ambition to appear on the BBC's A Question of Sport and does not rule out following Ramprakash and Darren Gough into TV. "Well, hopefully not on Strictly Come Dancing with my dancing ability. Being in the spotlight isn't something that fazes me. TV is something that I'd enjoy doing when my cricket career slows down."
That should be a long way off. For the moment he is happy learning, improving and hitting 93mph at Lord's against West Indies - something the Australian batsmen, battered and bruised on their last trip to England, will not have ignored. In 2005, Broad was caught up in the hysteria around the Ashes as a cricket fan, watching glimpses of it on TV during his first season in Leicestershire's first team. Just four years later and despite still getting asked for ID in pubs, all 6ft 6in of him will be spearheading England's campaign to reclaim the Ashes.

This article was first published in the July 2009 issue of the Wisden Cricketer