Test cricket is renowned as the game of second chances
During England’s last Test tour of Sri Lanka, Stuart Broad could have been mistaken for the extra player taken on a school cricket tour just in case there are injuries. He was not selected in the first two Tests, and only given a game when the series was sealed. Even then, Broad had the feel of an unwanted spare part: he bowled 14 overs, but did not take a wicket.
These struggles had to be understood in context. In Test cricket, conditions have seldom favoured spin, and marginalised seam, as they did when England visited Sri Lanka in 2018. Still, Broad’s underwhelming series fitted in with a common criticism of him: his returns in Asia. When he left Sri Lanka after England’s last tour, Broad did so with a Test average of 38.1 in Asia, notably higher than Jimmy Anderson’s 31.3. And in three Tests in Sri Lanka, Broad’s average soared to 83.
But the story of Broad’s past two years has been of reinvention. Through embracing a fuller length and targeting the stumps more, he has discovered the best form of his career aged 34: 2020 brought 38 wickets at under 15 apiece. The first Test in Galle allowed Broad the chance to show that his reinvention extended to finding new answers in Asia too.
Test cricket is renowned as the game of second chances; bowling fast in Sri Lanka it does not always seem this way. With the Dukes ball on inhospitable tracks, the fast bowler’s lot, essentially, is of being granted one short new ball spell – no more than five overs, thanks to the heat – before passing the baton to spin. They might never get it back: in the second innings at Colombo three years ago, Broad bowled four overs with the new ball, and then only one of the next 78 overs in the innings. So the importance of every delivery with the new ball for quick bowlers – to take wickets and to justify their berth in the side – in Sri Lanka is amplified.
Broad has often spoken about his focus on leave percentage – the proportion of deliveries that batsmen have to play at. The data endorses what observers of Broad have long thought: he is far more dangerous when he is harder to leave. “I judge myself now on how much I make a batsman play in a day,” Broad said last summer. “If I am bowling badly, my leave percentage will be 30 per cent — I am getting left 30 per cent of the time. If I am bowling brilliantly, it will be 16 per cent or 17 per cent.”
These observations double as an explanation for Broad’s poor record in Sri Lanka. Until this Test, batsmen had left 23 per cent of Broad’s deliveries in Sri Lanka, soaring to 30 per cent in his first spell. Too often, Broad has squandered the scintilla of movement offered to the new ball.
For all his wonderful bowling in England in recent years, the challenge of Sri Lanka demanded Broad hatch new plans too. That meant different fielding positions and different deliveries. Both earned him a wicket in his new-ball spell.
The different fielding position, Jonny Bairstow at leg slip, snared Lahiru Thirimanne flicking a delivery from around the wicket. Then, the different delivery did the same. A leg cutter – a delivery Broad has honed over years, but has no need for with the new ball in England – to Kusal Mendis deviated off the pitch and elicited his outside edge. Craving the simple pleasure of ball on bat after three consecutive ducks in South Africa, Mendis was particularly susceptible to such a delivery.
These two new-ball wickets – which could have been three, had Jack Leach not misjudged a top-edge from a well-directed bouncer to Kusal Perera – were reward for Broad’s craftmanship. And yet for all that he did differently to bowling in England, one trait was the same: Broad pursued a line and length that could not easily be left alone. Sri Lanka only left 13 per cent of deliveries – four out of 30 – in his opening spell, under half as many as in his previous Tests in the country.
It added up to a spell that encapsulated the best of Broad: taking the essential quality that defines his most dangerous bowling, and fusing it with the specific demands of the conditions, the opposition and the moment. On a wicket that could have been designed to neuter his strengths, here was another snapshot of Broad’s adaptability, intelligence and ceaseless evolution.