Stuart Broad has been a thorn in Australia’s side and delighted in their discomfort… and yet they applauded him on the penultimate day of his cricketing life

Half an hour before the penultimate day’s action of his cricketing life, Stuart Broad stood grinning from ear to ear in a circle of his friends on the lush outfield at the Oval. James Anderson, his great mate and the other half of the best bowling partnership in England’s history, stood next to him.

A football bobbed about between the men, bouncing off the tops of their thighs and their heads and the insteps of their cricket boots. Full-scale football matches as part of their warm-up were banned some time ago because they were getting too feisty so now they make do with this game called PIG.

Three mistakes, three lapses of control, from one person and he gets flicked around the head by the other players. Broad used to be the chairman of the warm-up game but on Saturday morning, he passed that honour on to Ben Duckett. It was part of moving on. It was part of saying goodbye.

And so, under the upturned rim of his blue bucket hat, Broad grinned as he played and he and Anderson took great delight in flicking the forehead of Josh Tongue when he completed his trio of errors. Broad left the game early and ran up the stairs to the changing room to pad up for the last time before he retires.

A few minutes before 11am, Pat Cummins led the Australian players out on the pitch and they milled around by the boundary. They had decided to form a guard of honour for Broad when he and Anderson walked out to resume their last-wicket stand. They looked a little awkward about it. They had a Test match to win.

Stuart Broad will retire upon the conclusion of the final Ashes Test following a 17-year career

Broad and James Anderson will bowl together for the last time on Monday during the final Ashes Test

Broad and James Anderson will bowl together for the last time on Monday during the final Ashes Test

But they parted into two lines and waited for Broad to appear and, eventually, after the strains of Jerusalem rang around the ground, Broad and Anderson came down the steps, too. Broad took his helmet off and ran his fingers through his hair as he walked towards the Australians.

He and Anderson paused for a second and Broad put his arm around his mate. The photographers captured that moment from behind, England’s No 8 and England’s No 9 frozen together in time, our greatest bowlers inseparable, just as they always seem to have been inseparable.

Broad walked forward through the guard of honour. The capacity crowd at this ground, which has seen so many emotional departures down the years, roared and cheered. The Australians applauded him, even David Warner, who may have been wondering whether he was about to fall victim to Broad for the 18th time in his career.

Broad has been their implacable foe for 16 years. He has taken more Australian wickets in Ashes Tests than any other English bowler. He has been a thorn in their side. He has delighted in their discomfort. He has taken their brickbats. He famously refused to walk that time at Trent Bridge.

And yet they applauded him. And they meant it. And it was hard not to wonder in that moment whether that is what Broad will miss the most when he has gone: the camaraderie of competition between elite athletes, the friendship that comes with rivalry, the joy of playing elite professional sport with your friends, the adrenaline of being in the arena.

Anderson hung back and as the Aussies broke their lines, they teased him and laughed with him and made a show of ushering him through the guard of honour, too.

Perhaps they would like to hasten his goodbye, too, but Anderson is not for leaving yet. And he is certainly not one for stealing his mate’s limelight. He waited until Cummins and the rest were dispersing and only then did he walk forward.

Broad has taken more Australian wickets in Ashes Tests than any other English bowler, a thorn in their side for the last 16 years

Broad has taken more Australian wickets in Ashes Tests than any other English bowler, a thorn in their side for the last 16 years

It feels so strange to think that we will not see these two bowling again after Monday. They have been a fixture of our cricketing lives for so long, twinned in our minds and in the history books, Anderson third in the list of all-time Test wicket takers on 690 and Broad fifth on 602. We will never see a partnership like theirs again.

Broad’s reward for this outpouring of emotion and affection and respect was to face Mitchell Starc, Australia’s top wicket-taker in this series, in the first over of the day. Broad blocked the first ball safely and took ineffective swings at a couple of others.

Starc dug the last ball of the over in short and Broad stepped back away from the stumps and swatted the ball away high in the air in the direction of Archbishop Tenison’s School.

It sailed and sailed through the air, sucked towards the stands in the same way Bill Shankly said the Kop used to suck footballs towards the goal at Anfield, and cleared the ropes.

It is astonishing how often sport does this, how often great sportsmen summon endings like this. Anderson was out the next over and so Broad’s last shot in Test cricket was a six against Australia. It was his 55th Test six, by the way. Only Ben Stokes, Kevin Pietersen, Andrew Flintoff and Ian Botham have scored more for England.

It is a wrong-headed comparison, perhaps, but it was hard not to think of another famous ending at this ground, when Don Bradman walked out here in August 1948 needing only four runs in his last innings to achieve an average of 100. Bradman was bowled second ball by leg spinner Eric Hollies for a duck and his average was stuck on 99.94 for the rest of time. Not all final appearances with bat in hand come to such an auspicious close as Broad’s did yesterday.

What Broad really wanted, of course, was to replicate that farewell with the ball in his hand. As he ran off to get ready to lead England’s attack, the big screens on either side of the ground played a montage of some of his greatest moments in Ashes Tests. It was not a short film.

It was still running when Broad came back out on to the pitch, his white headband tied around his hair, and as he loosened up, the screens took him and us back to his youth. They showed pictures of him dismissing Ricky Ponting and Michael Clarke and Steve Smith and, of course, Warner.

Anderson is third in the list of all-time Test wicket takers on 690 and Broad is fifth on 602

Anderson is third in the list of all-time Test wicket takers on 690 and Broad is fifth on 602

They showed him celebrating with Michael Vaughan and Ian Bell and Matt Prior, players who have long left the competitive arena. They reminded us of Broad’s longevity and the place he has in the hearts of England cricket supporters everywhere.

The fairytale part of Broad’s day stalled there. Sport is not all final-ball sixes and pats on the back. Broad knows that as well as anyone. And so, in this innings of all innings, Warner refused resolutely to play the role of Broad’s bunny.

In this innings of all innings, Warner looked more comfortable against Broad than he has ever looked.

Warner played superbly. Usman Khawaja batted beautifully, too. In this innings of all innings, they compiled their highest opening stand of the entire series, comfortably surpassing the 73 that was their previous best. Khawaja also moved beyond Zak Crawley as the series’ leading run-scorer.

Broad bowled well. He bowled six overs and two maidens for 15 runs but could not prise a wicket out of the new-found stubbornness of the Australians, who reached 135 without loss and, in the process, raised the spectre of a spectacular fourth-innings run chase.

And then the rains came. And Broad’s penultimate day ended with the sight of covers that gleamed with rain and hoods and umbrellas and dark clouds scudding across a forbidding sky.

He gets one more day of his cricketing life. One more day to bring the crowd to its feet, one more day to bound in from the top of his run with the wind in his hair, one more day to send an Australian batsman’s stump cartwheeling along the turf, one more day to chase a ball in the field and feel his sunhat flying off his head, one more day to wind up the Aussies, one more day to get Warner, one more day to love this part of his life that playing cricket has given him, one more day to try to do, for the last time, what he has done so many times before.