At first glance England's bowling attack might seem to have very little in common with the semi-defunct boy band McFly, and no more so when considering specifically the Test career of Stuart Broad, who approaches the third Ashes Test at Old Trafford this week on the verge of claiming his 200th wicket in his 60th match.
The big thing about McFly, in their extended dotage, is that they have a really handsome and famous drummer: a drummer so pointlessly handsome and famous – elevated from the bondage of boy band percussion by reality TV triumph – that he seems unavoidably disruptive, unsustainably skewed, the fatal paradox at the heart of McFly. Nobody needs a handsome drummer.
The big thing about Stuart Broad, on the other hand, is his increasingly fine mid-career Test record. Those 199 wickets have come at an improving rate as Broad has found his metier bowling sustained, accurate spells that are essentially attritional in nature – and occasionally destructive when all his gears and levers click and he finds that perfect, fuller length – and has taken the second half of those 200 wickets at an average in the mid-20s as opposed to mid-30s for the first.
And yet there is also a second big thing about Broad, specifically the enduring low-level hostility this persevering, occasionally ungracious athlete inspires among a section of the cricketing public, home and abroad. Even the quavering moral outrage after the Trent Bridge Test had something oddly familiar about it. If any England cricketer was going to be singled out as having terminally vandalised what is, at international level, a largely defunct moral code, it was always likely to be Broad.
This was a distinctly Broad-ish public relations disaster: if only his outside edge had been held by Brad Haddin and not flown maddeningly to slip; if only Broad's own insolent features had not been captured by TV close-up in an attitude of fine-boned innocence. But this is Broad and it did and they were.
It has simply been his fate to attract this kind of overwrought ad hominem hostility. The last time Australia were here their press nicknamed him Stuart Fraud. Broad was 22 at the time and the nickname didn't make it past the Oval Test. But even now there will be plenty keen to point out that almost all of the 14 Englishmen to reach 200 wickets before him did so more quickly, while of 62 international cricketers to get there only six finished with a higher bowling average than Broad has now.
This is to date his lot: a fine, if not absolutely top-rank cricketer who is destined to be condemned at times for the talents he doesn't possess, rather than celebrated for those he does: a thoroughbred workhorse endowed, confusingly, with the looks, attitude and celebrity brio of a leading man, the mannerisms of a Richard Hadlee married to the virtues of a Ewen Chatfield. He is, in effect, England's own handsome drummer.
It was probably a good thing Broad didn't get his 200th wicket at Lord's. Instead he bowled well without reward on the last day, attacking the slope at a challenging angle from the Nursery End, hitting Michael Clarke several times, but avoiding a moment of inflammatory scene-stealing. It was, though, a performance to highlight what has become quietly his defining quality. Broad is above all a brilliant wingman and a hugely successful support act to James Anderson. And really the story of Broad is the story of Broady and Jimmy, already – and perhaps surprisingly – the winningest fast-bowling duo in England Test history.
This is, of course, not to claim they are the best. But something is happening here: Broad has played 54 of his 59 Tests alongside Anderson, taken 185 of his wickets and seven of his eight five-fors in his company. Together they have won 26 Tests, where Ian Botham and Bob Willis won 25 of 60 together. Botham and Willis remain the leading joint wicket-takers (and, let's face it, a mouthwateringly fine pair) with 476 to Broad and Anderson's 397, ahead of, among others, Steve Harmison and Matthew Hoggard on 340 and Fred Trueman and Brian Statham on 283.
It is, of course, a list hugely biased towards the modern-day bowler favoured by consistent selection, central contracts and an increased volume of Tests played. But the story here is not so much a flawed ranking system as the historic oddity of two bowlers whose careers have become so utterly entwined in the five years since Peter Moores' decision in New Zealand to drop Hoggard and Harmison and install instead this Broady-Jimmy axis.
Moores was criticised at the time, particularly over Hoggard's treatment. He will no doubt raise a glass or two should Broad and Anderson pass Willis and Botham on the all-time list some time this winter.
It is not just Broad who has flourished in tandem. Anderson's own stellar mid-career has many contributory factors, not least the correction of some errant tinkering with his action. Broad has been one constant feature: England's new ball frontman has taken 12 of his 15 five-fors with Broad in the team and averages 27 in his company and 33 without him.
It is tempting to riff at this point on their mutually beneficial qualities: the taller, more obviously hostile bowler and the skiddier master of swing. This would perhaps be a little disingenuous. In truth Broad and Anderson have only occasionally bowled together as an obvious pair in the classic style. They are more accurately part of an extremely tight bowling four-piece, or a three-piece alongside Graeme Swann with a high-class session bowler in the other slot.
The vital fifth Beatle here is England's elite, mob-handed support staff with their pyramid of coach, bowling coach, fitness guru, laptop wonk, cone-fondler, mattress-tester and the rest. It is simply a great time to be an England bowler, as evidenced by the recent 200-up brigade of Anderson, Harmison, Hoggard, Andrew Flintoff, Darren Gough and Andrew Caddick, and now by Broad's continued rise.
If at times England's No1 supporting hustler still seems a little raw for a double-century bowler – his record overseas is poor; his list of match-shaping performances short, if at times spectacular – Broad remains a brilliantly fit and combative all-round bowling athlete.
No doubt he will duly claim that 200th wicket at Old Trafford, tribute to his own fast-bowling buddy act with the more subtly gifted Anderson and also to the triumph of method behind England's fast-bowling success, a group effort of occasional star turns and at least one confusingly prominent back-up act.
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