Stuart Broad restates his Ashes gun status with one last late-summer blooming
In many ways, this Ashes series has told us very few things that we didn't already know. England's Test cricket during the Trevor Bayliss era has been compelling but unloved by the critics, more Paul WS Anderson than Paul Thomas Anderson. Steven Smith is batting's equivalent of Captain Ahab, forever chasing the Moby Dick of series run aggregates (he ended up 200 short of Bradman in 1930). Ben Stokes is a phenomenon, Pat Cummins a champion, Jofra Archer the real deal.
That Stuart Broad is a man with a bit of an Ashes aura about him does not exactly constitute a revelation, either - although the prospect that he would be as dangerous as ever this summer was far from certain, as was his place in England's best XI. Then James Anderson reached for his calf after sending down four overs at Edgbaston and Broad's remit became crystal clear.
Four more wickets on the final day at The Oval, as England sealed a farewell win for Bayliss, meant that Broad took his tally for the series to 23 at 26.65 - surpassing his previous Ashes best. He now sits third on the all-time list for England, with only Ian Botham and Bob Willis having been more prolific against Australia. Four times has he taken 20-plus wickets in an Ashes series, an achievement unmatched by Englishmen, and only previously achieved among quick bowlers by two of the greatest, Dennis Lillee and Glenn McGrath.
Whether Broad lasts to take part in a fourth tour of Australia in 2021-22, when he will be 35, is open to question but England's departing head coach backed him to still be involved.
"It was a big loss, missing Jimmy, and someone of Stuart's experience - we didn't have to say anything to him, he took on the extra burden," Bayliss said. "The proof is in the pudding. With Jofra he led the attack and took important wickets when we needed them, kept the pressure on when we needed to. I think he will go to the Ashes in two years' time."
Doubts about Broad's longevity had begun to creep in, and not purely because of the rise of Archer. He was left out of the side in Sri Lanka last winter, only playing in Colombo when Anderson was rested, and then did not feature against West Indies in Barbados (although that error in selection was rectified for the second Test).
Broad has had to get used to people wondering about how long he has left, in part because his prolific England buddy act with Anderson seemingly leads to them being both put in the same age bracket - though Broad is the junior partner by almost four years. But as often as Broad has found his form or his place questioned, he has come up with a response. You don't get within sight of 500 Test wickets otherwise.
In 2015, as Broad confirmed the other day when replying to a tweet from ESPNcricinfo, he began to work on the round-the-wicket angle that has made him so potent against left-handers - as David Warner discovered to some anguish over the past few weeks. He has also reaped the benefit of pitching the ball up further than he ever has, convinced by Joe Root to abandon the asceticism learned during the Strauss era and have some fun.
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Invigorated by a frisky showing to help dispatch Ireland for 38 at Lord's, Broad stepped up in the absence of Anderson to begin his seventh Ashes with a seventh five-wicket haul against Australia. That it was completed with the dismissal of Smith hoicking across the line at the conclusion of his magnum opus 144 was doubly portentous.
England's best chance of neutering Smith might have lain with Broad, but it was not to be. He has removed Smith more times than any bowler in Tests - though it took until the last act of the tour for him to enjoy an eighth success. The level of jubilation that greeted Smith finally steering a hip-high short ball into the hands of leg slip, a plan England have long schemed over, might have suggested Root's side had clinched the Ashes, rather than simply removed him for less than 50 for the first time in seven Tests.
Drawing the series was the best they could do and Broad began England's victory charge at The Oval by removing Marcus Harris' off stump with a satisfying "kerplunk". He then extended his mastery over Warner to seven dismissals from 10 - equalling the best series return for a bowler against one batsman in Tests - but it was the wicket of Smith that allowed England fans to sit for the most part in comfort as the long-and-winding road of this World Cup and Ashes summer meandered towards its curtain call.
The hopes of a quick kill ebbed through the afternoon, while Broad for the most part grazing in the outfield. Archer engaged in a fiery battle with Matthew Wade, whose hundred kept alive Australia's chances of extending the series into the working week, bringing the crowd back to life during a somnolent evening session. Broad then returned to give them what they wanted, breaking a stubborn stand between Wade and Pat Cummins before being serenaded back down to fine leg one last time.
It was of course at The Oval a decade ago that Broad first produced the sort of heart-pounding spell that became his trademark, filleting the Australia top order and setting up England to regain the Ashes. This was a more laidback affair, a lazy Sunday romancing from an experienced performer. He finished having nudged his way back ahead of Archer as England's top wicket-taker in the series. So there you go, Broad remains an Ashes gun. But then we already knew that, right?