The Nighthawk : A Tribute
Think of a cricketing legend. Your parents will perhaps say Tendulkar, and you’ll remember his straight drive, his 100 hundreds, or his innumerable memorable innings in the blue jersey. Memory always eulogises. One remembers, for instance, Laxman through the series in 2001, Kapil Dev through that catch, and Dravid through his tenacious front-foot defence.
For the recently retired Stuart Broad though, it doesn’t quite work that way. Firstly, the likelihood that you'd ever think of Stuart Broad among the pantheon of English legends is low – and when you are asked to think of him – memory, for once, does a disservice. You think of him being the victim of Yuvraj’s 6s, and you think of him as a side piece to the star that was Anderson, but never in the same reverential register with which memories ossify the legendary status of other sportspeople. We hope, through this piece, that history remembers Broad in a better light than memory does.
Statistics don’t lie. More than an erudite scholar of the game, who is ready to provide the media with a statement on just about everything in the world of cricket, Broad will be remembered for his ability to run into bowl long, difficult, and match-winning spells at inconvenient moments in the game. His Test record of 604 wickets at 27.7 puts him in an almost unattainably elite category of fast-bowler. His record in the big games, particularly in the Ashes against Australia is beyond spectacular. 4 Ashes series wins, 8 Ashes 5-fors, and the most wickets ever taken by a single bowler - facing off against 11 men in baggy green caps consistently brought out the best in Broad.
A more detailed look at the statistics makes Broad’s career appear even more fabulous. There is no opposition against which he routinely struggled, no conditions (except perhaps India) that caught him off guard, and for the last 15 years, no one year of cricket where his numbers were significantly worse than others. Broad rolled with the times unlike any other cricketer of this generation - maintaining a top-tier white ball record before deciding it was not for him. Broad, like his pace partner Anderson, is addicted to the long form of the game, a dying trait in a generation of primarily white-ball fast bowlers. The more he gave it to it, the more he seemed to have; for both were infinite. Broad’s long honed ability to consistently pick wickets in Test Matches allowed him to be a successful white ball bowler. As white-ball centric bowlers in the upcoming years could find out, the reverse transition may not be as easy.
As tempting as it is to see Broad and Anderson as joined at the hip, they have always been vastly different characters. Anderson was the wily master, standing at the top of his mark, adjusting his grip to catch yet another outside edge with the perfect ball, looking thoroughly annoyed throughout. He was always the star between the two, teasing batsmen with his inch-perfect deliveries, and making the swing-friendly English conditions his greatest ally. Anderson was the personification of a touring batsman’s deepest fears as they’d land in Heathrow for the English summer.
By sharp contrast, Broad’s role in the double act was far less sexy. It was to him the ball would be thrown to break a difficult partnership, or when the persistent tail-ender or nightwatchman would simply not get out, or when the pitch wasn’t doing much. Broad was also England’s Primary Vibes Supplier™, knees pumping as he ran into bowl, hair constrained by a hairband it didn’t need, running off in a trademark celebreappeal for a blatantly not out LBW shout. In many ways, Broad’s best skill was the ability to convince everybody that everything was part of his plan. Played and missed at one? He’s setting you up for the next ball. You crunched him through cover for 4? He meant for you to do that of course. Hit him for 35 (or 36) in an over? He’s giving his batters the chance to score a few more runs, that’s all. Hide from it, run from it, but eventually, you will be swept away by the Broadian avalancheTM. It is inevitable.
This is not to take away from his skill as a bowler, as Australia at Trent Bridge (8/15), India at Trent Bridge (5/5), South Africa at Johannesburg, and David Warner at any Test venue can attest to. But how did a bowler who was rarely 140+ kmph and only developed an outswinger once he had taken 588 wickets somehow manage to find his way into the list of the greatest fast bowlers of all time?
Bob Dylan once sang that the times were a-changing, and perhaps Broad’s greatest skill was his ability to pull off Dylan-esque changes in persona to keep up with the rapidly changing pace of modern Test cricket. He began as the bleach blond all-rounder heir apparent to Andrew Flintoff, then became the lean, mean fast-bowling machine who would be the backbone of a decade of English glory. By 2015, he had become the ever-studious seam bowling maestro who knew everything about cricket (except when he had edged the ball to first slip) which continued until the pandemic. Post the pandemic, he assuaged any worries of a decline by returning with a glorious new headband, before finishing perfectly with a brief but memorable spell as the Nighthawk of Bazballian lore.
Broad closing his career deeply entrenched in the cult of Bazball is fitting. Bazball is a philosophy that encourages players to play their natural game, and it unlocked the true thespian in Broad. He previously quipped that coach McCulum and Captain Stokes gave him a “new lease of life.” From the creation of the ridiculous Nighthawk (a role requiring batters to play in a way that entirely undermines the point of a nightwatchman) right until flipping the bails to take his final wickets, Bazball created a Broad that one could scarcely write. All the world was a stage, and every ball was Shakespearean, a cherry red Romeo desperately crying out to outside edges. His line to Alex Carey at Lords (“that’s all you’ll be remembered for”) was a putdown worthy of a hero in any Shakespearean drama or masala Bollywood movie (if it isn’t clear, both writers have done Literature and the World with Professor Jonathan Gil Harris). If Broad had spent his entire career coaxing and convincing batters to get out, Bazball empowered him to become a method actor. The Ashes was to be his final bow. From informing Steve Smith and Marnus Labuschagne that he had finally developed an out swinger especially for them, to his post-Bairstow stumping antics at Lords, and his final acts as Test player swapping the bails before nicking off two more left-handers, Broad left the game in the only way he knew how.
In his closing to "A Midsummer Night’s Dream", Puck calls the performance, “No more yielding but a dream.” That, sometimes, feels befitting of Broad too. As he charged across The Oval in celebration, he was encouraging us to applaud him, one final time, for all the stories he’s told, and for all the magic he has conjured up.