Jul 9, 2020
George Dobell at the Ageas Bowl
It’s a funny thing, given that he spent a fair bit of the afternoon sitting on his hotel room balcony as one of this Test’s very few spectators, but Stuart Broad may well have had the best day of any of England’s bowlers.
Was it a mistake to leave out Broad? It might have been. In recent times – since the start of 2019 really, when he shortened his run and resolved to make batsmen play at more deliveries – he has tended to bowl an excellent probing line and length. On this surface, offering some uneven bounce and a bit of seam movement, that would have been a useful weapon. He averaged 23.06 in six Tests in England last summer and 19.42 in England’s last series, in South Africa, too. Not many bowlers are left out with records like that.
But the one man who averaged even fewer in that South Africa series was Mark Wood. So even though Wood admitted to be “a little bit surprised” he was selected – “I thought the main four would play,” he said – it wasn’t really a surprising pick. Many times in recent years – not least in Australia – England have paid the price for a lack of pace, so the attraction of going into this match with Wood and Archer in tandem in Test cricket for the first time was understandable.
Wood has more to his game than pace, too. His statistics since he lengthened his run-up are outstanding – he has taken 19 wickets at an average of 14.66 – and while that is a small sample size, the way he has bowled in recent times – such as England’s most recent Test, in Johannesburg, when he took nine wickets in the match, or in the most recent Test against West Indies, when he claimed a maiden five-for – rendered him a hugely attractive option. Especially for a new captain in Ben Stokes who has known him for many years and has long sung his praises as a player.
Equally, we have to be careful not to exaggerate Broad’s potency. Since mid-August 2015 – just after the demolition job at Trent Bridge – Broad has played 28 home Tests and taken only one five-for. His average in that period – 27.66 – is still impressive, but he is not the destroyer he once was. Archer, by contrast, took two five-fors in his first series last summer and another in South Africa over the winter.
But might England have been guilty of picking the attack they would like to see in Brisbane rather than focusing on the here and now? Well, possibly. Certainly Jason Holder showed the virtues of control and movement. So while he bowled significantly slower – almost 20% slower than Wood at times – he had the game to exploit the conditions. Wood, who reached a top speed of 94.5 mph, and Archer were guilty of bowling just a little short and just a little straight. Both might have presented an intimidating prospect in Brisbane or Perth but on this slow seamer? Neither generated as much lateral movement as Holder. So far he has given them a masterclass in exploiting English conditions.
There are a lot of caveats to all this. West Indies have only faced 19.3 overs so far. At the same stage of their own innings, England had lost just the one wicket, too. Archer or Wood could yet bowl England to victory.
And, much of what is being said about Broad could be said about Chris Woakes. Indeed, Woakes, with a bit of extra pace and an ability to generate a little more movement in the air, might have an even stronger case for inclusion. He averages 23.45 with the ball in his 19 Tests in England and would have strengthened the batting, too.
That’s a relevant issue. For just as England’s selection was criticised when Broad was left out in Barbados 18 months ago, it should be remembered that they were bowled out for 77 when they batted. When that happens, it hardly matters what your bowlers do.
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While England’s first-innings score of 204 here is not so short of par – Wood reckoned between 250 and 300 was par, but 300 looks a vast total on this pitch – it was still the case that several of their batsmen paid the price for technical errors: Zak Crawley and Rory Burns played across the line, Ollie Pope nibbled at one he should have left and Joe Denly defends with a gate between bat and pad so wide it could be mistaken for Brandenburg. Broad’s inclusion wouldn’t have altered any of that.
There is, as ever, a wider context, too. England do have to look to the future. They cannot rely on Anderson and Broad, now aged 37 and 34 respectively, forever and know they have to start to make preparations for life after them. Maybe Wood and Archer will be able to find life in surfaces in India (or the UAE, if that series has to be moved, as some expect) and Australia that Broad and Anderson rarely could. It may also be that the selection was not wrong, as such, but that the performances have not yet been as required. And let’s not forget West Indies’ batting, either. Kraigg Brathwaite looked more solid than anyone in the England’s top-order.
Perhaps the summer schedule is also relevant. England are set to play six Tests in seven or eight weeks and will need to rotate their attack. Broad could well come back into the side for the Test next week – perhaps instead of Anderson, who has been injured in two of his three more recent Tests – and thereby ensuring England have an experienced attack leader. But conditions there might not favour Broad as much as they do here.
So were England wrong to leave out Broad? We’ll never know for sure. There was reasonable logic behind it, certainly. But as ball after ball was taken at head height down the leg side by Jos Buttler, it was hard not to look over at that hotel balcony and wonder if the man sitting on it might not have been better employed on the pitch.
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