Green shoots of recovery for Stuart Broad as drought ended

Slightly sluggish in opening exchanges, he eventually hammered away accurately

Stuart Broad had pitched up at the MCG this week in something of a funk. The big game Ashes hunter had left Perth more burned than the supporters who had roasted on the hills at the Waca after a career-worst performance that had turned him into a 6ft 5in lightning rod for much of the ire about England's failed defence of the urn.

When 88,172 supporters flooded into this cricketing colosseum for the first day of the Boxing Day Test, but had very much dispersed to around half the amount by the end, was not an opening of the floodgates for the 31-year-old. To expect such feats was to be distinctly unrealistic given a grassless, bat-first pitch on a day of cloudless blue skies and temperatures in the high 20s.

But there was a strong first-day performance from the bowler most questioned on this tour, the end to a drought that had become more than troublesome and an encouraging flicker of the knee-pumping Broad during a short passage of play after tea that dispatched Usman Khawaja and could easily have seen Shaun Marsh given lbw first ball.

Up to this point Broad had bowled far better than his none for 146 from 35 overs in Perth (the only way was up here, to be fair). Though slightly sluggish in finding the right length first thing, as David Warner raced out of the blocks during the opening exchanges, he eventually zoned in on the spot and hammered away accurately for Joe Root.

There was little by way of dross, helping to dry up Australia after their 102-run morning and then kickstarting the plan to stifle Warner in the 90s that so nearly paid off. But there was also little by way of movement, such that when Steve Smith’s bat was beaten at the end of England’s improved second session Broad’s reaction was more shock than exasperation.

Thus a barren spell that had begun during the day-nighter at Adelaide and swelled mightily in Perth hit a critical point. Broad had gone past the wicketless 66.5 overs he had endured back in 2012 against West Indies and South Africa for his leanest Test run and some of the chuntering from the past week was starting to surface again during the break.

But, after emerging for the evening session, the right-armer teased a smidgeon of seam off this moribund drop-in pitch away from Khawaja to give Jonny Bairstow a simple take and end the madness at 69 overs dead on.

The relief was palpable, with Broad then kicking up a gear in a brief assault on Shaun Marsh that saw a reviewed lbw first ball not out by a matter of millimetres (the ball was shown to be clipping the bails). And a second shout next up, though rightly ignored, demonstrated that his threat had suddenly returned.

This was all fleeting, admittedly. Broad would end the day with just the one wicket for his 19 overs that, like the England bowling performance overall and throughout the series, were full of toil but little by way of returns. And whatever happens over the course of this final Test of 2017, it is unlikely he will alter the view that his has been an annus horribilis.

Some woeful catching may explain partly why his English summer was, at 20 wickets, his leanest for seven years. But there have been problems with his wrist position too. This constant battle fed into to a subpar series at a time when Root, shorn of Ben Stokes and the all-rounder's ability to make something happen, needed Broad the most.

The response in training during the week impressed Root and the England management, such that though Michael Vaughan and others were calling for Broad to be dropped, they held firm in the belief he was not spent and still a better bet than those waiting in the wings.

The Ashes may be gone and his record of five wickets at 61 apiece from the first three Tests has been a contributing factor in Australia’s series win. But on the opening day in Melbourne there were green shoots of recovery from Broad on a surface lacking any such vegetation.

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