Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Following in Freddie's footsteps? As long as it is Broad...

There was never any doubt, of course, that Andrew 'Freddie' Flintoff could possibly allow the fifth and final Ashes Test match of 2009 - and his last for England - to pass him by. Though he offered two indifferent innings with the bat, and huge, gargantuan heart and effort with the ball for no reward, the pivotal moment of the deciding Test nevertheless fell to Flintoff - in the field.

Australia, chasing an improbable (and would-be record-breaking) 546 to win, were making a decent effort of it. Mike Hussey and Ricky Ponting had shared a third wicket stand of 127 runs when Hussey chanced a quick single to Flintoff at mid-off, presumably thinking he would be the one in danger as they ran. But Flintoff, so often in his career the big man for England in big moments, had his eyes on the big prize: the potentially match-winning wicket of Aussie captain Ricky Ponting. And, in one 30-yard throw, as though of pure lightning, Flintoff had done it. The single second on which the Test, and ultimately the 2009 Ashes series, hinged, was a moment of magic from Flintoff. As he has done more recently (as he's got older), Flintoff stood basking in the adulation of the crowd, awaiting his teammates to envelop him hugs and high fives. The key moment of the Ashes 2009 series had fallen to the key man, and he had, as ever delivered.

Following the ecstasy of the series win, the talk swiftly fixed upon where England are going to find Flintoff's replacement. He had always been considered the 'Botham' of his generation - who would be the next one, or more pertinently, the next Flintoff? Up until his announcement that he was retiring from Test cricket, it hadn't really been a problem. Suddenly, it was a panic. It was fitting, then, that the fifth test's Man of the Match, Stuart Broad, should properly step up to the plate in Andrew Flintoff's final Test match for England.

Broad, supported by Graham Swann, stole the show over the first two days. An entertaining quickfire 37 ensured England nudged a first innings total of 325+, but then came his starring moment. A majestic, unanswerable 12 overs of quick, accurate and clever fast bowling blew apart the Australian batting order, and gave England an advantage from which it would soon become impossible to lose. This, to many watching, was where Stuart Broad finally delivered on the potential he's been showing for the last two or three years, and proved he is capable of individual match-winning performances.

Without doubt, Broad has always had the talent to be a top performer for England. But critics have pointed to his temperament - think back to his dreadful over just in June in the T20 World Cup against Netherlands, where he literally threw the match away - and his bowling has often been expensive, a sign of inexperience and lacking concentration. With the bat, Broad has regularly shown his natural talent - elegant strokeplaying, attacking mindset, able to score quick runs - but his bowling seemed to let him down in the 'all-rounder' takes.

Not anymore. As well as scoring two fifties, contributing important runs in the final match and averaging better than recognised batsmen Alistair Cook, Paul Collingwood, Ian Bell and Ravi Bopara, Broad also became England's most potent bowler. Broad took the most wickets, including two 'five-fors', at the best average. And contrary to his previous problems with expense, Broad's economy rate was a smidge over 3.5 an over: compare that with Jimmy Anderson who was at 3.4, and generally recognised as England's best bowler before the series, and it seems more than decent.

The Ashes 2009 was the biggest series of Broad's life and across the five tests he has performed. After an inauspicious start too; following the first two tests Broad was in the firing line to be dropped. But Andrew Strauss, Andy Flower and the England selectors stuck with their precocious pin-up - and it paid dividends. England have now got to be patient with the star Englishman of the Ashes 2009. Broad is far from the finished product: consistency is what separates the greats like Brian Lara from erratic genius like Kevin Pietersen, and Broad is only just learning now how to use his talents tactically: when he does, he has proven he can be a match-winner. For sure, Stuart Broad can be nurtured into one of the best English all-rounders of recent generations - he is after all still young and, touch wood, not injury prone. But to be the next Andrew Flintoff, he will need careful handling, support and persistence; enough time to bloom, enough matches to become a regular England performer, enough opportunities to win matches for his nation. Because when England expected, Flintoff would deliver. If Broad is given the same treatment as Freddie, he will deliver too.

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