Stuart Broad retired from Test cricket after the summer of 2023. Nothing Accidental, Jonathan Liew’s piece on Broad’s remarkable career, originally appeared in the 2024 edition of Wisden Cricketer’s Almanack.

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There were the injections and the anti-inflammatory tablets. The taping and the strapping. The blisters and the broken bones. There was the back muscle that tore away from his right shoulder during a Lord’s ODI against India, the right knee tendon that swelled to twice the size of his left, the abdominal muscle that ripped so violently during a Test in Adelaide it was visible under his shirt. There were the months of flashbacks and nightmares after being hit in the face by Varun Aaron while batting against India in 2014. There were the two smallest toes on his left foot that basically died, through pounding and overuse.

Then there was the blood. Pretty much every evening, when Stuart Broad took off his boots after bowling, they would be soaked red: the blisters raw, the toenails hanging, or just gone. Blood was how he came to measure his time and sacrifice; blood would be his feedback, his player rating, his performance review. Broad was one of those players who needed the knife between his teeth, the crowd at their loudest, the stakes at their highest. And even if he walked from the field without a wicket to his name, the blood in his boots was all the evidence he required of his day’s work.

So before the golden spells and magic moments, the pumping knees and the switched bails, the dreams and the memes, the Oh My Broad and the celebrappeal and the nighthawk, let’s remember Stuart Broad the hard bastard. Perhaps there were times when it was easy to lose sight of this, amid the famous cricketing lineage, the public-school upbringing, the good looks, the easy charm, the pop-star fiancée, the commercial endorsements, and the perfect ending on a sunlit summer’s evening in South London, when he took the last Australian wicket with his final ball, and left the Test arena to adoring spectators. Broad’s gift – and maybe his most significant point of difference with James Anderson – was to make the ugly and painful business of fast bowling look as slick and streamlined as a stage production. Perhaps the warmest tribute you can pay him is that there were times when you bought the illusion.

For behind the twinkling facade was an animal of pure suffering, a competitor compelled to seek out the path of most resistance. He courted controversy and the wrath of the crowd. He never shied away from criticism, or flinched in the heat of battle. He bowled in the shadow of Anderson, arguably the greatest of England’s seamers, and played most of his career without choice of end or ball. He was an 83mph right-armer in a country that seems to produce little else, and yet endured for 17 years in an era of ruthless schedules, generating some of the most memorable and vivid moments experienced on a cricket field.

Like a freak weather event, the Broad Moment could come from nowhere: a catatonic experience verging on mass mania, a rapture that swept everyone along. There would be a spring in his step, a glaze in his eyes, a feeling of sheer cosmic obligation. Seven times in his career, he took five wickets in a single spell. Six of those spells won the match; three won Ashes series. His 8-15 at Trent Bridge in 2015 was one of the most staggering analyses in the history of the game, and yet only three of his 57 deliveries would have hit the stumps. The first of his two Test hat-tricks, against India in 2011, contained an lbw decision after Harbhajan Singh had slashed the cover off the ball. Somehow, when the mood took Broad, everything – from crowds to fielders to opposition batters to umpires to reality itself – bent to his will.

[caption id=”attachment_610500″ align=”alignnone” width=”800″]Stuart Broad, 8-15, Trent Bridge, Ashes 2015 Stuart Broad celebrates dismissing Steve Smith, Trent Bridge 2015 (Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)[/caption]

How did he pull it off? About a decade ago, the England management introduced psychometric testing in an attempt to better understand their players. The tests were colour-coded: red for dominance, green for calmness, blue for order, yellow for warmth and optimism. Broad’s profile lay squarely across the red and blue areas: a hot temper coupled with a cool, analytical mind. This was the mental arsenal with which he would go forth and conquer. It was his skill, spirit and love of the battle that allowed him to hit these staggering peaks. But it was his calm and sober pursuit of understanding that allowed him to do it again and again.

And for all his impressive numbers, it will be the moments that endure. There have been faster England bowlers, more aggressive and accurate England bowlers, bowlers better at manipulating the ball, and – by his own admission – with more natural talent. But there has perhaps never been a bowler who knew himself, or his game, better. Like a mathematician devoting his life’s work to a single problem, Broad spent every waking hour trying to crack the code of cricket. Whether it was through technique or skill, physical prowess or psychological mastery, he usually found a way.

Early in his career, it was Red Broad who was dominant. The story is well-told: he shot up by a foot in his 18th year, and became a raw but eager fast bowler, as well as – in his final school year – an opening batter. When he first arrived in international cricket in 2006, he looked as if he were trying to bowl the magical delivery every delivery: the outswinging, inswinging, bouncer-yorker that would splay the stumps and split the atom. He took wickets. He clashed with opponents. And, yes, he went for a few. In India, there are still fans whose abiding memory is of Yuvraj Singh hitting him for six sixes in an over at the World Twenty20.

That humiliation served as a kind of epiphany for the young Broad, a chastening realisation that talent gets you only so far. The transition from Red Broad to Blue Broad had begun. Blessed with an incredible memory for numbers, and an inexhaustible thirst for learning, he buried himself in knowledge: obsessing over leave percentages and seam positions, experimenting with run-ups and shoulder positions and delivery strides, long nights slaving over a hot iPad in search of video insights. By the end of his career, he would be arguing that cricket was “90% mental”, a game of processes and strategies and self-analysis, where the object was to arm oneself with the tools to thrive under pressure.

Not since Dennis Lillee has there been another fast bowler who strove so hard for the tiniest edge, who scoured every corner of his existence for the small efficiencies that would aggregate to greatness. For English cricket’s nutty professor, no innovation was too silly, no gain too minuscule. Ahead of the 2013/14 Ashes, aware that Australian crowds would unload on him for his failure to walk at Trent Bridge earlier that year, he spent warm-up games strolling around the grounds unaccompanied, soaking up as much abuse as he could, so it would be less off-putting when it happened in the Tests. Once, in a hotel room on tour, he had a bad cup of tea, which put him in a foul mood all day; on every subsequent tour, he would bring his own teabags. During his later years, he developed the habit of applauding batters when they hit him for four. Praise or sarcasm? A classy touch or a crafty tactic? All we can say for sure is that, when it came to Broad, nothing was accidental.

Even his gentle decline with the bat – he averaged 30 early on, before the figure settled at 18 – seemed part of a grand plan. Forget everything you think you know about his budding batting career. The tale, often nourished by the man himself, goes something like this: the early Broad was a dashing and gifted talent, until the blow from Aaron shattered his confidence, after which he was never quite the same batter again. This feels instinctively right, but omits two facts. First, in the next innings after his nose was broken, he smashed 37 off 21 balls at The Oval against an attack including Aaron, whom he hit for 20 off eight. Second, the rot had set in long before.

The truth is that Broad recognised fairly early that he was never going to be a genuine all-rounder, and certainly not while focusing on the main facet of his game. His defence was not robust enough to regularly keep out the good ones, but the eye was just about keen enough to play the odd momentum-shifting cameo. The free-striking nighthawk who emerged under Ben Stokes’s captaincy was just a new name for an old role, one Broad had been playing for a decade. Form was a chimera. Averages were an irrelevance. And yet his highest score, 169 against Pakistan – an innings no one talks about any more, because no one can make any sense of it – is higher than Dilip Vengsarkar, Mark Waugh or Misbah-ul-Haq ever managed.

Broad’s flagging returns with the bat fell into a wider strategy that would emerge only late on. Batting was merely the first ballast to be unloaded from his game. An easily forgotten white-ball career had been unfussily wrapped up soon after the 2015 World Cup. He led England’s T20 side for four years, but any Test captaincy ambitions had long evaporated by the time Root resigned in 2022, though it’s intriguing to wonder how he might have fared as a stopgap after Alastair Cook. He came to specialise in home conditions, featuring in just eight of England’s last 19 away Tests before his retirement.

By the end, Broad had pared himself down to his essence: a fast-medium, red-ball, home-surface Test specialist, but one with every trick in the book. And perhaps only in his era was such a stark distillation of labour possible, a sweet spot in history where lavish central contracts and the primacy of Test cricket existed at the same time. The Broad of the past would have been flogged to innocuousness on the county treadmill. The Broad of the future will choose a more lucrative career in white-ball cricket. Even the Broad of the present only just survived the numerous attempts to put him out to pasture, saved by his enduring excellence and by an unusual media savvy that would become just another theatre of combat, another skill to perfect.

Broad had always been unusually eloquent by cricketing standards: a smart guy with a sharp understanding of how words and images can shape public opinion. The media became part of his armoury – a platform for his many commercial interests, and a mouthpiece that would reliably air whatever he said, as long as it was catchy enough. When he was surprisingly dropped against West Indies in 2020, he gave an incendiary interview to Sky while the Test was going on, insisting he “felt like it was my shirt”. And he knew exactly what he was doing when he argued, ahead of the 2023 Ashes, that he regarded the previous, Covid-inflected, series in Australia as “not a real Ashes”.

Broad recognised that Test cricket is a performance as much as a pursuit; that, in a game driven by human emotions and frailties, projection was everything. It informed the celebrappeal, which whether conscious or not created a swell of inevitability behind his lbw shouts. It informed his relationship with DRS, though even there his reputation for pushing his luck was belied by stats suggesting he used it better than most. It informed the Warne-like revelations that would emerge ahead of every Ashes series about “new” deliveries he had been working on. And it informed the final flourish: the dramatic little switch of the bails that thrilled the Oval crowd, spooked the Australians and helped create the perfect ending.

Like any great craftsman, Broad was happy to use any tool at his disposal: sport science, psychology, physics, theatre, even the supernatural. And perhaps this is the only way he could justify the whole exercise to himself: that a job as brutal and demanding as fast bowling was worth the trouble only if the rewards were truly spectacular, if he gave it everything he had, if he left nothing in reserve. In the Oval dressing-room, with his mate Anderson at his side, he peeled off his boots, and threw them in the bin. “There was blood everywhere,” he later remembered, approvingly.

Jonathan Liew is a sportswriter for The Guardian.