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Whenever England’s two highest Test match wicket-takers are compared, Stuart Broad likes to make a simple point. While he and James Anderson are considered to be of the same generation, Broad is actually four years younger.
Two years ago, this difference in age seemed obvious. From the start of the 2019 Ashes until the English summer of 2020, Anderson played only three of England’s 11 Tests - and he ended two of them unable to bowl because of injury. Broad, meanwhile, played in every Test, and was England’s leading wicket-taker in the 2019 Ashes.
And yet, no matter that Broad is 35 and Anderson 39, increasingly, there is now a sense that Broad’s wonderful career might end earlier. In 2021, Broad played seven Tests, and only took 12 wickets - fewer than two per Test - at an average of 39.5. Anderson played 12 Tests, snaring 39 wickets at 21.7.
It is Broad who England now seem better-equipped to cope without. Broad’s comments in his newspaper column, in the Mail on Sunday, were those of a man not oblivious to this talk. “I'm not going to make any spur of the moment calls on my future,” Broad wrote. "There is a long time between now and the tour of the Caribbean in March and I have never been one to make emotional decisions.”
Broad’s great frustration is that, three Tests into the Ashes series, he has played only a solitary Test - and the pitch in Adelaide was less well-suited to his qualities than those in Brisbane and Melbourne. "As a wobble-seam bowler, I feel as though I missed out on two of the best wobble-seam pitches in Australia," Broad wrote. "Only playing once has made this a very disappointing trip, one that has not met my personal expectations."
Yet Broad says that his hunger to play Test cricket remains undimmed. And recent history attests to how foolhardy it can be to write-off Broad.
In England’s first Test in 2019, he was dropped in Barbados, with Sam Curran preferred instead; Broad went on to take 43 wickets at 25.1 apiece in the calendar. A year later, Broad was dropped for England’s first home Test of the summer, against West Indies, declared that he was “frustrated, angry and gutted” with the decision - and promptly took 29 wickets at 13.4 in the rest of the summer.
The decline in Broad's record this year has been altogether more pronounced than the dip in the quality of his bowling. Compared with 2020, Broad has found a good line and length almost as often, and bowled with the same pace, averaging 83mph. He is also swinging the ball as much. The biggest shift in Broad in 2021 was finding less seam movement - in large part, a product of the pitches that he has played on.
But if 2021 did not see an obvious collapse in Broad's skills, it did see something as significant for his future: the emergence of an obvious replacement.
Ollie Robinson bowls a couple of miles an hour slower than Broad. But, in 2021, Robinson was arguably Broad’s superior in every other respect. He was more accurate - finding a good line and length with 50 per cent of deliveries, more than Broad ever has in a calendar year. He swung the ball more, and found more seam movement than Broad ever has.
Most importantly, Robinson has found a way to be effective even when the ball is soft, and the pitch unresponsive. In 2021, Broad had to wait 204 balls apiece for his two wickets between the 31st over and the second new ball; Robinson’s 12 in this phase of the game came every 52 balls. As he demonstrated in Galle, Chennai and Melbourne, Anderson remains outstanding with the old ball.
In English conditions, there is every reason to believe that Broad remains a threat against all-comers. But the problem with England’s bowling attack is not its potency in favourable home climes: as well as Anderson and Robinson, Chris Woakes - three years Broad’s junior - is a titan with the English Dukes ball.
Broad’s future worth to England, you suspect, rests on whether he can demonstrate his effectiveness in altogether less favourable conditions. If he plays, the last two Ashes Tests will surely allow him this chance.