Stuart Broad's dismissal of West Indies' Kemar Roach on the third evening of the Third Test at Old Trafford was not the wicket that attracted most attention last summer. It was understandable: a nightwatchman, an empty stadium, Broad still one short of 500. Statisticians, though, banged their abacuses in appreciation: it took his average below 28 for the first time, in his 140th Test.
For much of his career, he has in fact been a mid-20s bowler: from 2011 until the end of last summer, he took 415 wickets at 25. But his career average hovered above 30 for more than 70 Tests, then pottered around in the high 20s. All the while, Broad evolved into one of cricket's greatest game-changers, a seizer and shaper of pivotal moments.
Beneath the cloak of that career average (27.56 after the Sri Lankan tour in early 2021) lurk some extraordinary figures. His numerical narrative can be split into four phases - two moderate, two exceptional. They tell a story of improvement and persistence similar to James Anderson, his partner in the exclusive Half-a-Thousand-Wickets club.
The Broad of Phase 1, from his debut at 21 in 2007-08 until an injury-ruined 2010-11 Ashes, was unremarkable, despite some sumptuous lower-order runs. His bowling average (35), not helped by learning his craft in an era of batting dominance, was the 19th-best of the 25 Test seamers who took most wickets in that period. Seldom a major influence, he claimed less than three per Test,and averaged almost the same in victory (27 in 16 matches) as defeat (28 in five). Yet within his prolonged apprenticeship came the first of the golden-armed eruptions that define his career - an Ashes-winning rout, in his 22nd Test, of Australia's top order at The Oval in 2009.
The improved, Phase 2 Broad - finally able to ditch his unhelpful "enforcer" tag, and bowl a fuller length - emerged in 2011: a haul of 25 wickets at 13 against India, followed by 13 at 20 against Pakistan in the UAE, the first overseas series in which he averaged below 30. In Phase 2, which lasted until 2015-16, his average of 25 was the fifth-best of the 25 leading seamers. He averaged over four wickets per Test, dominated at home (152 wickets at 24 in five summers), and did pretty well on tour (82 at 28). His performances had become central to England's fortunes. In victory, Broad took 5.3 wickets per match, and averaged 17 (Anderson's figures were 4.5 and 22); in defeat, he averaged 34. (Curiously, his one-day career slid in the opposite direction: Phase 1 Broad took 111 ODI wickets at 23; Phase 2 Broad 48 at 42. That was the end of his white-ball international career.)
But the influence and regularity of his eruptions set him apart. He took four or more wickets in a spell on nine occasions, including another two Ashes-winning masterpieces: Chester-le-Street in 2013, Trent Bridge in 2015. England's other seamers managed five such spells between them: Steven Finn twice; Anderson, Tim Bresnan and Chris Jordan once each. Broad's hot streaks have scorched as toastily as any bowler. Fifty men have taken four wickets in a Test innings 25 times or more. Broad's average of ten in his 41 four-wicket innings is the best of the lot, pipping Curtly Ambrose and S. F. Barnes. When he takes six or more, he averages seven - the best of the 26 bowlers with at least eight six-fors. He has been exceptional among the exceptional.
Phase 3 Broad, from the 2016 summer to an ineffective 2017-18 Ashes, was significantly diminished. Anderson was at his peak and, while there was a shift in the Test game towards bowlers, Broad's figures drifted towards Phase 1 levels. He had the 17th-best average (32) of the 25 leading seamers, and was again taking less than three wickets per Test. He had no five-wicket haul in two years. A spate of dropped catches hardly helped; nor did a tendency to bowl back of a length with the new ball. The magic, it seemed, had gone.
Once more, he rewarded the selectors' patience. The launch of Phase 4 Broad, from the tour of New Zealand early in 2018, was gradual at first. But after shortening his run-up in search of more rhythm, and making his action more side-on in search of extra swing, he picked up 30 wickets in the summer of 2019, including Australian opener David Warner seven times - a surgical, round-the-wicket demolition. A good winter followed: 18 at 24, his second-best average for a Test winter, behind 2015-16.
Despite his frugality, however, bowling averages around the world were tumbling too. And, in the continuing absence of those Broadian eruptions, his omission from the First Test against West Indies in Southampton was not the most unreasonable selectorial axe his family had ever suffered (see father Chris's dropping in 1988). His response was sensational: 29 wickets at 13, the best home-summer average by an England bowler (with at least 25) since Derek Underwood's 30 at ten in 1969. In seven consecutive innings, Broad picked up three or more, one short of the England record, held by Barnes and Maurice Tate.
Time will tell whether the last five Tests of the 2020 summer marked the high point of Phase 4 Broad, or the beginning of Phase 5, in which he combines those incandescent spells with the relentless pressure of a technical and tactical master. Either way, he has been an outstanding Test bowler, one half of an extraordinary partnership. Peak Stuart Broad has been one of the best of his generation. Peak-peak Stuart Broad has been one of the most destructive, highest-impact bowlers in Test history.
Andy Zaltzman is a comedian, podcaster and Test Match Special scorer and statistician.