What should England’s bowling attack be in Johannesburg?
That’s the question that has so far dominated the quick turnaround to the fourth Test against South Africa starting Friday. Should Jofra Archer return? Do Archer and Mark Wood both play? Is Sam Curran to be dropped? Does Dom Bess keep his place? Or do England go with five seamers?
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S Africa vs England
January 24, 2020, 7:30am
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One name notable by its absence in the discussion is Stuart Broad’s. So often in recent years it has been Broad’s name at the centre of any selection dilemma, but there is no debate to be had heading to Johannesburg.
The Wanderers is the scene of one of Broad’s best spells in an England shirt, one of those spells he has made a habit of over the years where, legs pumping, bounding in, he looks capable of a wicket with every ball.
Four years ago, in the third Test of four, he took 6-17 in 12.1 overs to blast South Africa out for 83 in their second innings, setting up a seven-wicket England win that clinched the series.
In his opening 10-over burst, Broad took 5-14, the first five wickets to fall – including a spell of five for one run over 31 balls – as he claimed the prize scalps of Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers, out for a duck.
The stubborn Dean Elgar (15) was first dismissed, poking at a wide ball, opening partner Stiaan van Zyl (11) was next to fall, De Villiers inside-edged a beauty behind fifth ball, then Amla (5) departed to one of the best short-leg catches you’ll ever see from James Taylor – the first of two stunners he’d take in the innings – before Temba Bavuma was bowled without scoring.
After a well-earned break, Broad returned to pick up the final wicket of the innings, dismissing Faf du Plessis (14) with a brilliant one-handed catch off his own bowling. It was, and still is, Broad’s best bowling performance in an overseas Test.
Yet, in the years since, be it down to form, fitness or certain selection issues – the need for spinners on the sub-continent, or the arrival of Archer on the scene last summer – it’s often Broad’s name that is mooted as a make-way.
Only a year ago, Broad was left out of the first two of England’s three Tests in Sri Lanka, with Curran chosen to accompany James Anderson as the front-line seamers. Broad would relieve both only in the dead-rubber third Test in Colombo.
A couple of months later, the same again, with Curran and Anderson picked ahead of him in the West Indies, though this time defeat in the first Test hastened his return to the team one game sooner.
Even last summer, for the Ashes, Broad’s spot in the side appeared to be under threat, with six seamers out of Broad, Anderson, Archer, Curran, Chris Woakes and Olly Stone needing to be whittled down to three.
Anderson was in, Archer also appeared a shoo-in following his World Cup-winning efforts, and it seemed to be Broad and Woakes battling it out for the last spot – both having ripped through Ireland at Lord’s a week prior to the first Test at Edgbaston.
Ultimately, Archer pulled up with a side strain pre-game and Anderson with a calf injury during it to guarantee Broad’s involvement going forward.
It seems crazy now to think of him not being involved, of him not dismissing his bunny David Warner for the umpteenth time; Broad finished England’s leading wicket-taker for the series with 23, at an average of 26.65.
Broad went from finding himself on the fringes to – especially after Anderson’s injury – playing a hugely important, senior role for a largely inexperienced attack. And, so often, that’s when we see the best of Broad.
He has stepped up in Anderson’s absence before, most memorably on the first morning of that famous fourth Ashes Test in 2015, ripping through the Australians to the tune of 8-15 in front of his home fans at Trent Bridge.
Broad has continued to lead from the front. He is England’s leading wicket-taker again for this series, with 12 at a measly 18.25 average.
Sure, Anderson has again pulled up injured, as has Archer, while Wood has played just the one Test, but it all just serves as a further nod to Broad’s fitness and incredible consistency at 33 years of age.
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Whispers of a possible early retirement have been silenced and he has a hugely important role to play going forward in the development of this youthful England team that has emerged on this tour.