By Peter Hayter
There were many familiar faces Stuart Broad might have searched for in the moment of celebrating his achievement in overtaking Sir Ian Botham to become England’s second highest Test wicket-taker last week.
As he raised the pink ball to mark the dismissal of West Indies wicket-keeper Shane Dowrich – his 384th in his 107th match – he could have pointed it at his dad, former Test batsman Chris, wrapped up against the cold like the rest of the Edgbaston day-night crowd, who first introduced him to the dream of playing for England by making him watch the video of his own success on Mike Gatting’s 1986-87 tour to Australia, On Top Down Under, until the tape wore through.
He could have pointed it towards Botham, that tour’s hero and his, to whom he paid fulsome tribute afterwards and who expressed his real delight that he had now been relegated to third on the list of England’s all-timers behind Broad and the runaway leader James Anderson.
But it was to his mentor and former county colleague Ottis Gibson that he offered this special gesture of thanks and, if romance has a part to play in whether England’s bowling coach takes up the post of senior coach with South Africa at the end of this summer, or stays where he is to try and help his present charges purge the dire memories of going down Down Under four years ago, the moment might turn out to have carried even more significance.
As it was, when later reflecting on England’s crushing victory in the first (mis)-match of the Investec series, Broad made his position crystal clear over who he owes most for his stellar career.
And he may also have reflected inwardly that, in another example of cricket’s penchant for cosmic symmetry, the spot from where he was acknowledging his debt was almost exactly the same one where, thanks to Gibson’s intervention the best part of a decade previously, it had finally started to go right. “Ottis has been a huge influence on me,” said Broad afterwards. “I opened the bowling with him at Leicestershire and he knows my action better than I do.
“He has been a huge help to me along the way and that was for him.”
A huge influence? For sure, ever since the 18-year-old Broad took the field alongside Gibson in his Championship debut against Somerset at his old school, Oakham, in June 2005, but never more so than at the first crisis point in Broad’s early career when, half-way through the 2009 Ashes series, he was facing calls for his head.
Thanks to Paul Collingwood’s Brigadier Block, followed by Anderson and Monty Panesar’s dramatic rear-guard in Cardiff and the batting of skipper Andrew Strauss and the bowling of everyone – mainly Andrew Flintoff and Graeme Swann – in the second at Lord’s, England arrived at Edgbaston for the third Test 1-0 up.
But, 18 months into a Test career in which he had taken 49 wickets at 41.06 and moved down the pecking order from new ball bowler to fourth seamer, Broad was struggling so badly for form, for confidence and for a clearly defined role that he feared the drop was imminent.
On a rainy fourth morning in Birmingham, all that was about to change, for the better.
In the book England’s Ashes, Broad explained what happened next.
“I hadn’t bowled well in the series but my poor performance had been masked by the brilliance of (Graham Onions) and Anderson,” said Broad.
“At the half-way stage I sat down with Ottis and we came to the conclusion that maybe I had been trying to do too many different things with the ball, searching too much for perfect deliveries, trying to buy wickets with bouncers and yorkers and slower balls. I had been trying to bowl in an aggressive role, but that led me to end up losing my natural length and I wasn’t looking dangerous. We both felt it was time to get back to real basics.
“Throughout my first-class career, I’d aimed to hit the same spot – top of off stump – and let the ball do something, not try and swing it, not try to seam it everywhere, just to get the ball in the right area and see what it does.
“And Gibbo said, ‘It’s not what the ball does, it’s where it does it from that matters,’ which made perfect sense to me. I put a cone down in practice where my best length is, 16 feet away from the stumps, just outside off stump. When I’m in rhythm and bowling at my best, my natural shape makes the ball swing slightly away from that angle so I can attack the stumps or outside edge.
“I concentrated on trying to hit the cone every ball. And I did the same from then on every day in warm-ups right through to the end of the series.”
The improvement was immediate and dramatic. After having managed just four wickets in the series thus far, he took 2-38 in the second dig there and followed that with 6-91 in Australia’s only innings in the fourth Test at Headingley as Ricky Ponting’s side caught England cold to square the series.
And then came the breakthrough – the spell that turned the 2009 Ashes decisively in England’s favour, the first of the hot streaks that have defined Broad as a world-class performer, four premium Aussie wickets for eight runs in 21 balls.
Shane Watson, Ponting, Mike Hussey and Michael Clarke came and went as their side slumped from 73-0 to 93-4.
By the time they had subsided to 160 all out, Broad had the first of his six five-fors against Australia, (5-37).
Despite Jonathan Trott’s brilliant century on debut, when England completed the 197-run win with which they regained the urn, there could only be one winner of man-of-the-match award, and the 23-year-old ended what could have been the summer when he went backwards as an England bowler as their leading wicket-taker and top of their averages.
It may not have been complete coincidence, either, that Broad’s greatest bowling performance, the 8-15 with which he destroyed the Aussies at Trent Bridge in 2015, came during the summer of Gibson’s reappointment after five years’ absence. He thanked Gibson for his help then too.
So while the fact that Broad should signal out England’s bowling coach for that special honour last week at Edgbaston might have come as a surprise to some, no-one deserved it more than his mentor, who, whenever the opportunity arises, he continues to credit for pushing him to carry keep improving.
Broad’s dad and his hero would surely have approved as well.