When, after taking a Test “career-best” six for 91 in Australia’s innings at Headingley, Stuart Broad left the field looking moderately smug – at least he showed enough humility not to raise the ball to the crowd – I felt more like slapping him across the face with a shovel than congratulating him. Unfortunately, from my position in the East Stand, I would never have got across to him before he got to the sanctuary of the dressing-room or I’d been arrested for impersonating a groundsman.
For that was one bad six for 91. I’d even go as far as to say it was the worst six for 91 I’d ever witnessed. And, to be fair, if that performance was to go on and define him as an international bowler for the rest of his days, simply because it was a “career-best” and therefore had to be recorded in the official statistics, then that would be a pity.
Well, after today’s display at the Oval, where he single-handedly blew away the Australia top order, there seems no danger of that (although, to be accurate, his five for 37 will appear only anecdotally as his career best, because those pesky stats from Leeds will still hold sway in the scorer’s lexicon).
But make no mistake: that was a stunning performance; stunning, mainly, because it was so unexpected. We expected Flintoff to get some life out of a testing pitch, we expected Harmison to crack a few knuckles, maybe feather a few gloves on the way through to Matt Prior and we expected (or maybe, more realistically, hoped) that Graeme Swann would find the turn that would rip through a bamboozled Australia line-up.
What we didn’t anticipate is that the bowler with the flowing blond locks and sweet looks that raise more questions about his gender than that of Caster Semenya, should play the macho role – especially after being left to linger at long leg for most of the morning session.
Maybe the rain that preceded lunch by only minutes helped uncross the wires that had engineered a change in Broad from promising, McGrath-comparisoned quick bowler at the start of the series to frontline batsman as it draws to a close.
Or maybe the moisture in the air disturbed so many atoms and molecules in the Oval environment that he discovered the art of swinging it late (his movement hitherto had usually started from the hand, negating its danger) to dismiss Brad Haddin and Michael Hussey, while still being able to rip the ball off the pitch sufficiently to nail Shane Watson and Ricky Ponting.
And if it was his idea to stick the short extra cover in for Michael Clarke, may he be awarded another brownie point, although Clarke must surely be regretting the arrogance of reaching so far for another drive before he was settled.
Perhaps, though, the plaudits should go to Andrew Strauss, the captain whose hunch to bring him straight on after the rain delay worked to perfection. And hopefully, if Strauss the batsman, one of the few to have looked comfortable on a pitch that is slow and now turning alarmingly even for an occasional off spinner, can continue where he left off this evening, it will be to Broad the bowler rather than batsman we will be turning to later in the day or early on Sunday.