Candid Stuart Broad has shown that brave does not always mean fearless | Tim Lewis

The fast bowler’s batting has suffered since he was hit last year and he has risked being targeted in the forthcoming Ashes series after admitting why

If Stuart Broad plays well, as Nasser Hussain has noted, England tend to play well. He has become a talisman for the team, especially in Ashes matches. This dates, for the most part, from the 65 he bashed at Trent Bridge in 2013 after refusing to walk. Instantly he became an agreed hate figure for Australians while for home fans he was finally, impudently, taking on the baggy greens at their own game. It was an improbable, absurd and hypocritical squabble that rocked – or perhaps not – the moral foundations of cricket.

All of which makes Broad’s precipitous loss of form with the bat of exaggerated significance with the Ashes little more than a fortnight away. He did score 46 off 39 balls against New Zealand at Headingley in May but before that there had been four ducks in 10 Test innings. That controversial knock against Australia was his only Test half-century in more than three years. When England faced West Indies in the spring, there was genuine discussion about whether Broad should be demoted to No11 in the batting order. This is the same player who once came in as high as seven and who scored 169 against Pakistan at Lord’s in 2010.

The real dip had come since last August, when Broad’s nose was broken by a bouncer from India’s Varun Aaron. Always inclined to remain leg side of the ball, he had taken to backing away dramatically. On Test Match Special Michael Vaughan described him as “a walking wicket”, while Shane Warne called him “soft” and “embarrassing” after he was bullied out by New Zealand’s Tim Southee in the World Cup.

Broad admitted to feeling disconcerted by the Aaron delivery and worked with a sports psychologist to repair the mental damage. “I have had nightmares about it,” he said in March. “After my operation I don’t know if the drugs had anything to do with it but I would wake up feeling like a ball had hit me in the face … even when I get tired I see balls flying at me. My jaw clicks from it and, if I have two glasses of wine, I have black eyes.”

Broad’s honesty is unusual in sport, where admitting a weakness or any insecurity is considered self-destructive. And it is arguably a bit ill-advised to give your opponent a dossier on how to beat you. A loss of nerve, though, must happen all the time with elite athletes. A favourite sports quote comes from the Italian road cyclist Gianni Bugno. He was brilliant going up hills but terrible going down them and, after being the first over the summit in the 1989 Milan-Turin race, he was easily overhauled by his pursuers on the descent. “A priest in a soutane could have made it down faster than I did,” he said, in withering self-admonishment.

Bugno was born with an obstruction in his inner ear, which is crucial for balance, and led to a feeling of paralysing vertigo when he came down a mountain; this problem was exacerbated by a nasty crash in the 1988 Giro d’Italia. His treatment was an unusual one: for a month he listened to Mozart’s “Haffner” and “Jupiter” symphonies, tinkering with the speed and volume. The following year Bugno dominated the 1990 Giro and he was also world champion in 1991 and 1992.

What is really strange is not Bugno’s kooky cure but that more cyclists – and other sportspeople involved in high-speed endeavours – do not complain of such problems. When professional riders go downhill, they can easily exceed 50mph, as the ITV commentator Paul Sherwen will say several hundred times this summer. Some have died on descents, including Fabio Casartelli at the 1995 Tour de France and Wouter Weylandt during the 2011 Giro d’Italia. “Cycling is such a stupid sport,” David Millar, the Scottish rider, told the Observer in 2011. “Next time you are in a car travelling at 40mph think about jumping out – naked. That’s what it’s like when we crash.”

Most of the time the public are not too compassionate when athletes admit experiencing fear. They want their sports stars to be heroic, square-jawed, invulnerable. Those who do not show those qualities are berated as lacking bottle, even being cowardly. Warne used the c-word on the Fox Sports commentary as he discussed Broad: “I remember the fast bowler Rodney Hogg getting bowled when he was backing away to the West Indies off a full toss off his pads on to the stumps and ringing home and saying: ‘Please erase that from the tape. I don’t want my son to know I was a coward.’

He continued: “I think Stuart Broad might be on the phone later saying, ‘Please erase that from the tape too – I don’t want to see it again.’”

Is Broad a coward? Of course not. The fatal head injury suffered by Phillip Hughes was a terrible reminder of the dangers of cricket and, again, Broad chose to speak publicly of the powerful impact that had on him. These admissions – from Broad and Bugno – are reminders of something that almost everyone takes for granted watching from the living room. Sport can be brutal; the individuals who do it are often pushing themselves to extreme limits in part for viewers’ entertainment. Sometimes it really is a matter of life and death.

This is not a matter of choking, where the pressure of a situation becomes overwhelming. This is more visceral, almost a realisation of mortality. Such wobbles will afflict many sports people, even if they never admit them. Niki Lauda was one who had to confront that when he returned to motor racing in 1976 after a crash that left him in a coma, a priest beside him reading his last rites. In the final race of the season, in Japan, Lauda just had to keep his rival James Hunt in his sights to win the F1 championship. But it was raining heavily, the conditions were precarious and he pulled his car over after one lap. He once summed up his feelings: “I was lucky to have survived that far and I had the choice not to risk my life again.” Then he went on to win a further two titles.

Broad may rebuild his confidence, too. It may become clearer when he walks out to bat for the first time in the Ashes next month. The Australians will likely bring Mitchell Johnson on, they might put a leg gully in, to hint at the barrage he should expect to receive. The chatter will begin and continue relentlessly. Broad putting himself in that position strikes me as a decent definition of courage.

Contributor

Tim Lewis

The GuardianTramp

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