That marks me out as naive, living in the past and detached from the realities of top-level international sport.
Here’s an irony: had Broad walked, I doubt he would have got any credit for it. Walking is the act of a batsman bringing clarity to a situation where there is ambiguity about whether the ball was hit. There wasn’t ambiguity in this case. If Broad had tucked his bat under his arm and headed to the dressing room, our thoughts would have turned to Broad’s weak back-foot dab, to the continuing magic of Agar’s debut, to England’s slender lead and not to the batsman’s magnanimity for acknowledging he was out. Ambiguity wasn’t the problem; Aleem Dar was and Broad exploited that.
This England team seems dense with characters who are divisive or unloved. I can think of only three players about whom there is a consensus of approval, who have a broad appeal: Alastair Cook, Matthew Prior, James Anderson, with Joe Root headed in the right direction. The antipathy towards Broad is based on his sulky, quarrelsome behaviour as a bowler; vanity about his appearance; his attainment of an undroppable status in the Test team, even when his performances don’t merit that certainty; and rumours that he has been active in a clique within the team, having had some involvement in the twitter account that goaded team-mate Kevin Pietersen.
In my estimation, Broad has risen high above that sour and self-obsessed reputation four times. Around each of these events, I have warmed to him and respected him.
The first occasion was after the 2007 World T20 when Yuvraj Singh struck him for 36 in an over at Durban. Broad was barely one year into his international career and had not yet made his Test debut. I thought that might sink him, or at least require some intensive therapy before he could again have the confidence to bowl at international batsmen. Not being a bowler (and as I have mentioned elsewhere three consecutive sixes did for my bowling pretensions), I admired his courage when his career continued without pause a few weeks later.
Incident number two was his eighth wicket partnership of 332 with Jonathan Trott at Lord’s in 2010. It was thrilling counter-attacking cricket that followed the dismissal of four of the previous five batsmen for ducks. And I was there.
The third highlight, and the only one with which I have no personal connection, was Broad’s performance on the tour of the UAE in the series against Pakistan. On lifeless tracks, Broad’s bowling was instrumental in England gaining positions of advantage early in the matches and then dragging themselves back into the game after the batsmen let the team down. His bowling was smart, stifling and straight. He took advantage of any movement that could be coaxed from the conditions, and ended the top wicket taker amongst the quick bowlers competing and bowled more overs than Graeme Swann.
The final event that lifted him up in my estimation was the Test Match Special interview he gave earlier this summer. Aside from cricket, my other deep interest is junior sport and the role of parents and coaches, which I explore on Touchline Dad. Broad spoke openly and very appealingly about his experiences as a young sports player. Asked about what influenced him to play cricket as a boy, his answer surprised: it wasn’t his Dad, the Test cricketer, but his Mum. He spoke warmly of their relationship and how her support – playing with him in the garden, then as he grow older, getting him to and from games, and always watching him play – helped him develop. He contrasted this quiet, constant presence with the dads who brought their boys to the nets hours before matches, drilling shots or deliveries. I appreciated his appreciation that driving home after games his mother wouldn’t grill him about how he had played, but let him talk or stay quiet depending on his mood.
So I have warmed to Broad when I’ve felt able to identify with him. And so it’s through the frame of my role as a junior coach that I have come to a conclusion about Broad’s most recent and heavily discussed misdemeanour. I have put my mind to what his exploitation of Umpire Dar’s error means for young cricketers of 10-13, playing their first seasons of hard-ball cricket.
Most of the boys and girls I coach will not have seen the incident. I see very little influence of professional cricketers on the youngsters. They play the game because their family does, or because some exposure at school has drawn them to the club. I detect widespread ignorance of the current game amongst those boys and girls. At this week’s junior nets, I was running a session on batting against slow bowling. “Who are the best spin bowlers in England and the world at the moment?” I asked. Swann and Ashwin were mentioned, but so were Bopara and Warne. Most of these kids lack the opportunity or desire to spend days soaking up cricket and its culture on television.
Some do, of course, so the question about Broad’s example is worth looking at. I have never spoken to the junior players I coach about ‘walking’. There are few fine edges and fewer close to the wicket catches in our matches. The most pressing issue of conduct and etiquette is the acceptance of umpires’ decisions. Umpires in these matches (myself included) are not trained in match adjudication. We struggle, some more successfully than others, with an instinctive bias towards the players we coach. While we stand umpiring in the middle, we worry if the field is set well, if the next batsman is padded-up or kicking a football around the field and whether those boys playing in the nets are wearing all the right protective equipment. Confounding decisions are, therefore, frequently made.
The players themselves have limited understanding of the rules and in the pressure of playing often don’t really know what’s just happened. Encouraging them to take matters into their own hands – for example, walking, if they believe they are out – is a lower priority than getting them to accept an umpire’s decision and get on with the game.
I would rather Broad had walked, but not for the influence it will have on the cricketers I coach. Michael Clarke’s angry aside to Aleem Dar at the end of the over is the behavioural example I would like to expunge.
I am of course marked out by this view as naive, old-fashioned and out-of-touch. But I do wonder what Stuart Broad’s Mum would have said to him in the car if she had driven him home from Trent Bridge on Friday.
I was the top wicket taker in my first year at college. I bowled filthy, loopy slow lobs. Early the next season, we were knocked out of the Cup when a potentially close game was blown open by three consecutive sixes hit off my bowling and out of the ground. Bowling and I have never really been reconciled. Nets can be a torture, either side of the intense pleasure of a turn batting. So, there’s lots I don’t understand about bowling.
For example: Why can’t professional bowlers deliver a consistent line and length? Why do quick bowlers pitch short when conditions are favourable to seam and swing? What words would a bowler find helpful to hear from a teammate when he or she is struggling to direct the ball? How can a bowler carry on playing after being hit for six sixes in an over (three did for me)?
I also don’t really understand what ‘bowling as a unit’ means. Ian Smith said it of the New Zealand attack that has kept such pressure on the England batsmen in recent tests. I’m not clear how bowling as a unit is any different to all the bowlers bowling well.
To act as a unit means to co-ordinate efforts to work together. I infer from it that the sum is greater than the parts. It’s a familiar phenomenon in sport. A football team, say, when defending will combine to deny the opponents space and to pressurise the man on the ball. To some extent, it’s apparent in fielding as players back-up and support each other to deny the batsman opportunities for runs.
In these examples, the activity of the players making up the unit is happening simultaneously. They are interacting in real time to exert a combined influence on the game. Bowling is different to this: it is asynchronous, or more simply, each bowler takes their turn to deliver an over.
I understand well that bowlers have different roles. A stock bowler may be tasked with keeping an end tight, while strike bowlers attack from the other end. Alex of Lines on Grass has pointed out to me that some bowlers appear to have the ability to get wickets for the bowler at the other end. He cited Gavin Larsen; I would name Andrew Flintoff.
I can also see a bowler having a more specific role at a particular moment. For example, denying a front-line batsman a single towards the end of an over, to expose his partner, a tail-ender, to his fast bowling team-mate.
These practices seem to me more about all bowlers bowling well, than any heightened teamwork. Is there more to it than this? There could well be and I would like to be informed.
If there isn’t, I think we are in the territory of the tactical post-hoc rationalisation that Ed Smith wrote about recently. In trying to explain an outcome in sport, as in other areas of life, we seek a cause. Taking England’s lean spell in the 1990s, and the multitude of aspects of the game and society blamed for the national sport’s predicament, Smith notes:
The point, of course, is that causes are being manipulated to fit outcomes. They weren’t causes at all, merely things that happened before the defeat.
I speculate that the ‘bowling as a unit’ causal explanation arises when the bowling team has gained an advantage, without one of the bowlers ending up with an outstanding analysis – say, a five-for. Our personality-led preference for a ‘hero narrative’ isn’t available. In its stead, perhaps influenced by the culture of management and performance improvement, commentators and cricket fans may identify the ‘bowling as a unit’ cause. It’s much more purposeful and, superficially, more constructive than saying, “all the bowlers bowled well.”
But, I reiterate, I don’t know a great deal about bowling.
Alex at Lines on Grass has written a response to this piece, Hunting as a Pack, which I recommend.