As a schoolboy, Stuart Broad was more of a batsman than bowler. Gradually, as he grew taller, he concentrated more on his bowling but he remained a dangerous late middle-order batsman, capable of flaying a tiring attack and changing the shape of a match with an hour’s carefree hitting. He was no slogger, mark you; his shots were executed with a free flow of the bat and exquisite timing. One began to wonder why he did not take his batting seriously and move himself up the order. We all remember that breath-taking innings of 169 at Lord’s in the summer of 2010 against Pakistan. All right, that match will forever be tainted by the revelations of Pakistan spot fixing but I truly believe, on the occasions when the Pakistan bowlers were not bowling deliberate no-balls, they were not feeding Broad runs. They were trying to get him out but his clean hitting simply overwhelmed them. Notwithstanding his heroics with the bat on this occasion, Broad was evidently content to remain at No 8 and conserve his energy for taking his fair share of the bowling load. With the number of wickets he was taking – and continues to do so – who can say that he was not making the right choice?
And then in 2014 at Old Trafford he was struck in the face by a bouncer from the little known and less remembered Indian seamer, Verun Aaron. The ball somehow penetrated the grille of his helmet, leaving him with a damaged nose, two black eyes and a residual headache that was psychological more than physical. It wasn’t a fearsome blow – I’ve seen far worse – but it evidently had a considerable impact on Broad’s confidence. He later admitted to having nightmares, waking up thinking he had been hit in the face, time after time. Slowly, steadily, his performances with the bat declined, his technique against the short ball crumbling to such an extent that he is now known in cricket parlance as a ‘walking wicket’. With Jimmy Anderson injured - a genuine tailender if ever there was one - Broad now props up the rest of the batting order at No 11. How did it come to this, that such a talented striker of the ball should be reduced to a shuffling tailender, visibly flinching and backing away whenever the ball is dropped short? As Mark Antony spoke to the multitude at Julius Caesar’s funeral, extolling the virtues of his assassinated leader, “Oh what a fall was there, my countrymen!”
Mind you, no blow to the head should be played down, if you will forgive the unintended pun. One is reminded of a seeming innocuous short ball bowled to the Australian, Philip Hughes. He made as if to hook, played his shot too early and was struck on the back of the neck, with fatal consequences. I was fielding at short-leg when Andy Roberts felled Steve Camacho in Hampshire’s match against West Indies in 1973. Camacho was carried off, his cheek horribly smashed. All I can remember was kicking dirt onto the crease to absorb the blood. Camacho never played international cricket again. I also have another indelible memory of my time at Hampshire. One day, John Holder, the former Test umpire and in his day a seriously quick bowler, took the young Gordon Greenidge in hand. “Pad up, Gordy,” he said, “and come with me.” Taking a box of balls in his hands, he led Gordon to the nets at Hampshire’s headquarters in Newlands Road and proceeded to subject him to three-quarters of an hour’s fearsome barrage of short balls. And this was in the days before helmets, don’t forget. “You’ll never be a decent player if you can’t play the short ball,” he told his Barbadian countryman. He was right and Gordon’s subsequent Test career provides ample testimony.
Another memory of my time at Hampshire now floats into my mind. Roy Marshall (yet another Barbadian) was generally regarded as the most destructive opening batsman of his era, at a time when opening batsmen were expected to ‘see off the new ball’, not pummel it out of shape. He was also a distant and uncommunicative captain when I first arrived; I doubt we ever exchanged more than a dozen words. That was until he was removed, unwillingly, it has to be said, from the captaincy. It seemed that overnight he had a personality transplant. He became friendly, chatty, gregarious and helpful, especially to us youngsters. We would hang on his every word as he recounted stories and imparted knowledge from his lifetime as a cricketer. One day I asked him whether he had ever been afraid of fast bowling. His reply left me slack-jawed with astonishment. “Every time I went out to bat,” he said, “I was scared of getting hit. The trick was never to show it.”
Show me a batsman in the first-class game, let alone Test arena, who asserts he is not afraid of fast bowling and I will show you a liar. It is unusual, therefore – to return to my original point – that Broad has been so open about his fear of being hit again. If he was a batsman pure and simple, I doubt he would have gone public about his inner demons. As a bowler who does not depend on the weight of runs for selection, I suppose he feels less pressure to put on a brave face. My question is – why has he not taken steps (back and across and into line, not back and away towards the square-leg umpire) to combat the short ball? There is a technique to survive short-pitched bowling and it can be practised in the nets, as Gordon Greenidge did. I do not know what work, if any, has gone into rectifying his natural and technically disastrous instinct to back away. The days when tailenders were not expected to be able to bat have long gone. Nowadays, everybody has to chip in. Runs down the order can make the difference between victory and defeat. You may say that Broad’s recent buccaneering innings of 43 in Johannesburg, sharing a last-wicket partnership of 88, which pretty well did for the South Africans, was a sign that he had recovered his confidence and rediscovered his mojo. But I doubt it. South Africa are a weak and demoralised side and I have never seen a worse exhibition of bowling at a tailender than that da, against one whose weaknesses are known by pretty well every cricket spectator in the world. Instead of posting two short legs and aiming at his throat (cricket never was a cissy’s game), they gave him room and spread the field. Brainless.
I don’t understand why Broad, doughty performer with the ball that he is, has not sorted out his problem. It is the duty of every professional sportsman to extract every last ounce out of his ability. Broad can bat. He is not a No 11. Surely he ought to feel a twinge of embarrassment every time he walks out to the middle to see his name at the bottom of the order on the scoreboard. It’s not a psychologist he needs (apparently he has consulted one) but a session with John Holder in the nets.
PS John Holder tells me that at 74 he is not as brisk as he once was.