Andy Flower praised Stuart Broad today. Not to the heavens, for there was far too little evidence for that, but to a level quite high enough for honour to be satisfied on all sides. Flower was probably relieved that he could be so dutiful.
It would have been easy to overlook Broad’s performance in the first Test against New Zealand since figures of of 3-118 in 28 overs are not responsible for winning many cricket matches. The plaudits rightly belonged to Nick Compton and Steve Finn for their second innings efforts, the Dunedin Blockades.
But there was something in Broad’s efforts in New Zealand’s long innings that suggested corners being turned, if not mountains climbed. This has been a difficult few months for him – another difficult few months for him – and he came on this tour with severe doubts hanging over his immediate future in England’s Test team.
“I was quite impressed with him in the Test match,” said Flower, just falling on the right side of the line where being damned with faint praise lies. “I thought his pace was good, his body language and run-up were purposeful and strong, his follow through was strong, the ball was getting through to the keeper nicely. I thought his control was pretty good and I would imagine he will only get stronger from here in the rest of this Test series.”
But Broad, at a mere 26 with 53 Test matches behind him, now has to do it for more than a series. On the tour of India late last year, he was dropped for the first time since the start of his Test career. He had opened the bowling with Jimmy Anderson on 26 occasions for England, fewer only than two pairs in history.
The reasons were form, conditions and a troublesome heel injury which seems now to have been dealt with. When he came on this tour he remained under close scrutiny.
It was certain that Anderson and Steve Finn were the preferred first two seamers and that Broad was now contending for the back up role. Had Graham Onions not bowled like a drain in the Queenstown warm-up match he might have been chosen instead.
Flower likes Broad and what he has done for England. The startling interventions he has made from time to time – The Oval to turn the Ashes in 2009, Trent Bridge to halt a resurgent India with a hat-trick in 2011 – had made him virtually untouchable.
“Stuart Broad is a world class performer,” said Flower “He has altered the complexion of a number of international matches for us in his short career so far. Having him fit and firing is a huge factor in our game. If he runs in with that sort of rhythm and power then I think we’re going to see some good things from him.”
The fact remains that having awarded Broad the Test vice-captaincy at the start of the India tour, the selectors have now stripped him of it. Matt Prior will lead the side should Alastair Cook be unavailable (something that has not happened for 86 Test matches).
“Part of the concern with a fast bowler in a leadership role is that inevitably they get injured,” said Flower. “Stuart had that foot problem for a while and it’s great to see he hasn’t had any adverse reactions after bowling a lot of overs in this Test match. It’s one of the dangers of having a fast bowler in one of those roles, either captain or vice-captain and for stability’s sake we have decided to change it to Matt Prior for this series.”
But of course, Broad was still a fast bowler with a history of injuries when he was awarded the job. There is more to it, that being that he is no longer certain of his place. For months before India, Broad was out of form.
He had lost zip if not nip. In the colloquial language governing the performance of fast bowlers, nip is vital. Once that goes, so does a career. It was Matthew Hoggard’s loss of nip in New Zealand five years ago that ended his time with England and allowed Broad to break through.
Being without zip, on the other hand, is a temporary shortfall and Broad, his body rested, strengthened and more or less in one piece again, appears to have it back. What he needs now is some decent bowling figures to go with it after his low period.
Flower said: “I don’t want to talk about disappointment. I want to talk about how good the guy is. In this match his paces were up. We all ebb and flow a bit in our lives and have good times and tough times. Stuart is working very hard at his all-round game.”
There are others waiting their turn and rotation policies do not yet apply to the Ashes. Tim Bresnan is recovering from an elbow operation that should make a real difference, Chris Tremlett, maybe the most dangerous bowler of the lot, is reportedly on his way back, Stuart Meaker is champing at the bit.