If any England player can relax and speak freely before an Ashes series these days, it is probably Stuart Broad. The fast bowler, who heads into his fifth red-ball encounter with Australia, knows that in the eyes of opposition supporters he is now irreversibly cast as the villain – the non-walking, talking embodiment of the dastardly pom.
Be it those series-sealing bursts with the ball at the Oval in 2009, or Durham four years later, his dead-eyed refusal to budge at Trent Bridge – an incident up there with the most over-moralised in the sport’s history – a tendency to celebrate wickets before the umpire’s finger goes up, or simply those blond-haired, blue-eyed good looks, the 29-year-old manages to get under their skin like no other.
Broad, safe in the knowledge that all of the above makes him a favourite of the home crowds, knows it too, and happily plays along; one of the many marketing posters that will swamp international grounds during this Ashes summer pictures him – arm around the shoulders of an Australian – beaming while his new friend looks positively repulsed. Staged it may have been, but easily replicated in real life one would fancy.
And now, speaking ahead of the series opener in Cardiff on 8 July, Broad is on the wind-up once more, questioning how the world’s highest-ranked Test batsman, Steve Smith, will cope on English surfaces in his new position at No 3, and picturing the scene should Australia have the Ashes urn taken from them by one of their own, the new England head coach, Trevor Bayliss.
On Smith, there is something to admire about such a direct throwing down of the gauntlet to a player who has averaged 102 in the past 12 months and settled quickly into life in England, with 111 in his side’s first warm-up, against Kent, before retiring his wicket. However, his verdict is based on what Broad believes is sound cricketing logic – and, it must be said, couched with words of respect too.
For Broad, the fact that this upcoming series will be played with the Dukes ball, with its prominent seam, means a player such as Smith, who has only recently moved to No3 during Australia’s 2-0 Test series win in the Caribbean, could be vulnerable if exposed early.
Asked how he will look to attack Smith, Broad replies: “I’ve got a few ideas which I have run past a few players that seem to think it might be a good option. I won’t share them with you yet. But I think it’s an advantage for us with him coming in at No3 with the Dukes ball in England. I’m certainly not doubting the quality of him as a player; he’s a wonderful player, and I enjoy watching him play when I’m not bowling at him.
“But you have to have a very tight technique to bat in the top three against the Dukes ball in England and it’s up to us, as an opening attack, to get an early wicket and get him in early against the new ball, because he’s not had amazing success in England. When he played in the 2013 series, he got a hundred at the Oval on a flat wicket. We’ll be looking to try and test his technique with a Dukes ball early.”
If the Dukes is Broad’s weapon of choice, then he knows it will be similarly to the liking of the right-arm fast-medium of Ryan Harris and Josh Hazlewood, whom he tips to have a greater impact than out-and-out quicks Mitchell Starc and Mitchell Johnson – even if you would wager that the latter’s 37 wickets over five Tests the last time the sides met could have been achieved bowling an orange. “We can only play Mitchell Johnson better than we did in Australia,” jokes Broad, whose own batting is showing signs of recovery this season after the broken nose suffered at Old Trafford against India last summer.
Asked for his preference of surface this series, Broad replies “slow, seamers”, and stated that Keith Exton, the former groundsman at his school, Oakham, might be worth a call now he is charge of the pitch in Cardiff. “I don’t want anything like that 2009 Ashes Test when Monty Panesar and Jimmy Anderson could bat 20 overs on it.”
As for England’s attack, he claims the balance is now close to the fabled 2005 five-some of Matthew Hoggard, Steve Harmison, Andrew Flintoff, Simon Jones and Ashley Giles – with the effervescent Durham seamer Mark Wood a welcome addition to the front line three this year. “Woody is just a natural wicket-taker and an exciting guy to play with. He’s a bit mad, but I mean that in a polite way,” Broad says.
“I was fielding mid-off [against New Zealand] and he was giving his imaginary horse a pat at the end of his mark. I was like: ‘What just happened there?’ and he gave a quick ‘neigh’ before he went on to bowl. I’m not saying he doesn’t take it seriously – he’s very intense with his cricket. But he can also bring a lighter side to it, which, as a team, we’ve taken a good move to. I think fans want to see guys smiling on the field.”
Have the team taken themselves too seriously in past? “Potentially. When you’re not playing well as individuals it’s harder to have that lighter side. So the biggest test for us as a team is, if we get bowled out for 150 can we still be smiling and playing it that way? I think this group probably can.”
It is that carefree spirit that has been a feature of the summer under assistant coach Paul Farbrace, and one that Broad believes will only be enhanced by the arrival of Bayliss as head coach. While the fast bowler does not know much about the 52-year-old Australian – a common theme – he has gleaned from Farbrace and Nottinghamshire team-mate Michael Lumb, who was part of his Sydney Sixers side in the Big Bash League, that it will remain a player-led environment. For Broad, his new coach’s nationality is merely an added bonus.
“I love the fact he’s Australian and could potentially take the Ashes away from Australia. I quite like that sort of banter involved in the series,” he adds. “It’s the first time we’ve had an Australian coach and I’d love to see a picture of an Australian with the three lions on his chest, with an Ashes urn in his hand. That would be beautiful.”
Hardys of Australia sponsor England Cricket. Use #ENG or #AUS this summer