It started with a catch in the slips, off a ball that landed, just like the one before it, a little short of a length and on a line just outside off stump. But where the previous delivery slid across towards the leg side, this one moved a touch the other way, enough to hit the outside edge.
And it all ended, 90 minutes later, with another, off a ball almost identical except that it was delivered from over the wicket rather than around it.
In between, 54 balls, all but six landing in the very same slot outside off, and six more wickets. So eight in all, in just 9.3 overs and for only 15 runs – the finest figures of Stuart Broad’s career, and the best by a fast bowler in the history of the Ashes.
Alastair Cook said before the game that there was an opportunity for a player to have their name “etched in history”. It seemed like another soundbite, until Broad started bowling.
So it appears that this Ashes series, like the last two in England, will be sealed with one of Broad’s spells. In 2009 he took five for 37 in the fifth Test at The Oval. In 2013, six for 50 in the fourth at Chester-le-Street. This was the ninth time Broad has taken six wickets or more in a Test innings. Which is as many or more as any of his contemporaries. And it was the third time he’s taken seven or more.
The same goes for that stat too. His wickets often come in rushes. He would be a good subject for students of that much studied, little-understood phenomenon sports people like to call “the zone” since he has spent so much time there in the eight years he has been playing for England.
In psychology it is known as flow, a name coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, distinguished professor at California’s Claremont Graduate University. High performance characterised by complete absorption in the task. According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow has three pre-conditions.
One is that the task must have both clear progress and an obvious set of goals. Like taking 10 Australian wickets. Two is that it must provide clear and immediate feedback. Like the sight of ball beating bat, the cries of the crowd, the sighs of the slips. And three is that there has to be a balance between the perceived challenges of the task, and the perceived skill of the person performing it. And this last seemed to be the key. Because, from the very first over, it was clear that while Broad was bowling Australia’s batsmen were entirely out-matched.
This was only the sixth Test in the 82 Broad has played without James Anderson alongside him. Doubts about how he would cope were soon settled – as was the issue of Broad’s 300th wicket. His father, Chris, said later that he was worried the looming landmark would distract his son from the match in hand.
So it helped that he reached it early, from his third ball. The fact that it was Chris Rogers, at that point the leading run-scorer in the series, and the man best equipped to bat in these conditions, further undermined the Australians. That Rogers fell for a duck, the first of his Test career, seemed another ill omen.
Broad dismissed him in both innings at Edgbaston while bowling from around the wicket. And that was where he started here; a sign of intent.
Then came Smith, the best batsman in the world according to the ICC’s rankings. Squared up by a ball that bounced a little more than he expected and he was caught at third slip.
The next over was the first of three wicket-maidens in a row. The victim, Shaun Marsh, prodded at a fuller delivery. Caught second slip. Then Adam Voges. A thick edge, and an astonishing diving catch by Ben Stokes in the gully. Scorers’ pens scurrying to keep up now.
Next, Michael Clarke. A wild swish at a wider one, also caught first slip. Five-for, in 19 balls, so fast it equalled a record set by Ernie Toshack against India at the Gabba back in 1947.
The fifth wicket fell to the 25th ball of the game, another Test record.
And the ranks of Australian fans, all kitted in green and gold, folded their arms over the chests and fell deeper in their seats, like so many schoolkids waiting outside the headmaster’s study. Everyone else roared for Broad, surrounded by his jubilant team-mates, as he raised the ball high in celebration.
After that, Mitchell Starc and Mitchell Johnson, both out slicing catches from outside off to Joe Root at third slip.
And finally Nathan Lyon, who was last to fall. Broad bowled only three balls that would have gone on to hit the stumps. And every single one of his wicket-taking deliveries would have passed by wide and high, had they been left alone.
There was some wretched batting, and some bad luck too, as batsmen hardly seemed to miss a ball, and almost everything they did hit flew to a fielder.
But Broad, on his home ground, on a green pitch under grey skies, knew exactly what he was doing, knew that the batsmen’s techniques were weak, their confidence shot, that there were vulnerabilities there which he could expose and exploit by sticking to that line outside off. His skill was easily the equal of the challenge.
By the end of the day he had 307 Test wickets.
Equal, then, with Fred Trueman, and etched, as Cook said, in the history of the sport.