Stuart Broad decision exasperating but it is impossible to be fair to all
The 21st-century revival of England’s Test team has much to do with the advent of central contracts. They were introduced in 2000 to the universal relief of the England players and their coaches; there was some grumpiness around the counties but at least they were spared some significant wages. As has been clear this April, the counties have never been averse to what is effectively a handout.
But there are occasions when the central contract system is a source of exasperation. And this is one of them. Stuart Broad was very keen to play against Durham on Friday; his county, , now a second division team, were very keen to have him in the XI. But the director of England cricket, Andrew Strauss, has decreed that Broad must stick to the original ECB plan, which had him missing this game.
Broad is capable of playing the diplomat. “It is a tricky one”, he said after learning of this decision. “Straussy won’t mind me saying that I spoke to him and wanted to play [against Durham]. I had a decent week at Grace Road, felt in really good rhythm and wanted to carry that on. But sometimes as a player you get in that short-term mindset of saying I want to play now. The control workloads throughout the year. They are going to want their bowlers fit come Boxing Day in Melbourne and the Sydney Test in the new year.”
In a previous era England’s best fast bowlers were seldom in a mindset of “wanting to play now” for their counties. Down at Hove in the 70s John Snow would self-regulate how much energy to expend between Tests, a source of occasional frustration for his Sussex team-mates. At least Bob Willis at Warwickshire was captain there in the 80s, so he could leave himself out of some county games to the extent that one fan at Edgbaston would unfailingly bellow “Bowler’s name?” whenever Willis came on to bowl.
Ian Botham played his fair share of games for Somerset, who after all employed him, but there were times when he would bowl gingerly and briefly. Trevor Gard, a wicketkeeper to whom the constant barrage of banter now required did not come naturally, once felt obliged to encourage Botham after he had bowled three balls of the first over of the match. He tried a dutiful “Keep going, Both” with modest results.
By comparison today’s England fast bowlers are in clover. But that does not mean the ECB always gets it right and that more rest is always the best option. In this case Broad, though he is too polite to say so, clearly does not think so. Broad is 30; he is a thoughtful cricketer who made his debut for England over a decade ago. It might well be that he knows his body and how much he needs to bowl as well as anyone.
No two bowlers are the same and certainly it would be wrong to bracket Broad and Jimmy Anderson together as a matter of course. Some fast men just like to keep bowling. That was the case with Courtney Walsh towards the end of his career, when he reckoned that, like some rusty, reliable old banger, if he stopped bowling his body might never get started again. Andrew Caddick bowled better when playing continuously. This may well be the case with Broad rather than Anderson.
There are two arguments for Strauss’s decision, one good, one bad. Whatever Michael Gove may say, there is a good case for trusting the experts. It may be that the physiologists and several other “ologists” are right. Strictly monitoring the workload of pace bowlers can pay dividends and, yes, England would like to see Broad romping in at Melbourne in eight months. However, in Nottinghamshire’s first game – against Leicestershire – which lasted little more than two days Broad bowled 21 overs whereas Anderson bowled 40 against Essex.
The bad argument is that Strauss wants to be fair to the various counties with England players and to avoid setting a tricky precedent. Hence he sticks to Plan A. There has been some grumbling, for example, that Jonny Bairstow has not been immediately available for Yorkshire, even though he had clearance to play in the IPL (he was not enlisted). The volume of complaint might have increased if Broad had his way.
There might even have been a certain sensitivity about Durham, Nottinghamshire’s opponents on Friday. They have already been relegated by the ECB because of their financial plight; they were also docked 48 points and then what happens? One of England’s finest is suddenly released to play against their threadbare side at Chester-le-Street. Perhaps Paul Collingwood would have echoed the words of Julius Caesar, as portrayed by Kenneth Williams in 1964: “Infamy, infamy. They’ve all got it in for me.”
The simple fact is that it is impossible to be fair to the counties when deciding who can play when. Such a goal would leave the ECB tangled up in knots. The sole criterion for the availability of England cricketers at county level, which should be encouraged whenever possible, must be the physical and mental state of the player concerned, his individual needs and his impending workload. The politics should not come into the equation. Some counties will be lucky, others unlucky while Strauss, like Caesar’s wife, must somehow remain beyond suspicion.