Stuart Broad — The superlative fitness and consistency of England’s new 500 club member
In July 2020, Stuart Broad dismissed the Windies’ Kraigg Braithwaite to take his 500th wicket, in a test match played behind closed doors in Manchester.
What should have been a jubilant, public celebration of the achievements of one of England’s most fearsome and prolific fast bowlers was shared only between his teammates and his father — the sitting Match Referee, watching on from his socially-distanced office.
The 500 club: Broad’s place in the pantheon
The legacies of the bowlers in the 500 club are burned into the memories of cricket fans. Murali’s mastery of variations, McGrath’s inhuman accuracy, Warne’s expert control and almost prescient knowledge of how to outfox batsmen.
So, it’s worth asking - what will Broad’s legacy be, when the cricket commentariat talk about him in years to come? It should be his outstanding consistency and fitness.
There are fast bowlers who are as “good” as Broad, and measurably so. Dale Steyn was outright better, if you’re going by the numbers. But what stands out about Broad’s journey to 500 wickets is how ever-present he’s been compared to other quicks in his era. The sheer volume of on-field work he’s managed to get through without burning out.
Trent Boult vs. the international cricket schedule
Trent Boult merits a mention when we talk about fast bowlers, workload, and 500 wickets. Boult has a comparable average, strike rate, and wickets per match to Broad. Yes, they have very different styles, but it’s hard not to note that Broad has roughly twice the wickets Boult does, in roughly twice the number of tests.
Pointing this out is a legitimate critique of outright records in contemporary cricket — England play more often than many other test nations, giving them more opportunities to accrue runs and wickets.
England’s schedule, in a normal year, is just about year-round. England regularly welcome two test-playing nations in the summer, then tour in the winter, dwarfing the number of tests New Zealand can schedule.
However, the question isn’t whether Boult, if he had played twice as many tests, would reach 500 wickets. Projecting the stats says that with Broad’s number of games, he’d be on nearly 550. Similarly, if Steyn had played 140 matches with the same figures he retired with, he would have screamed past 500 wickets and landed safely in the 600's.
The real question is, would Boult and Steyn’s bodies survive 140 tests the same way Broad’s has?
The persistent presence of Stuart Broad
Since Broad’s debut in 2007, England have played 165 test matches. Stuart Broad has played in 140 of them. He’s missed just 25 matches in his whole test career.
Boult, by comparison, has missed 21 of the 87 test matches New Zealand have played since his debut in 2011.
Dale Steyn, arguably the most dangerous man of his era (and certainly among the most thrilling), has played 93 test matches. South Africa, during the course of Steyn’s career, played 142. Dale missed 49 of those games.
Across his career, you could expect Steyn to miss a test match once every three tests. Boult will miss a test match roughly once every four. Broad, however, will miss a test match once every six and a half games. Dale Steyn was absent from test matches more than twice as often as Broad.
The same goes for his strike partner, Jimmy Anderson. Since Anderson’s debut in 2004 against Zimbabwe, England have played 218 test matches. Jimmy Anderson has played 153, missing 65 games. Over the course of his career, you can expect Anderson to miss one test for every three England contest.
We’re not even differentiating here between being dropped for performance or injury, because it doesn’t really matter — being near-permanently on the field has been what separates Broad from his peers.
He broke into the England squad and stayed there, justifying his place with consistent performances and keeping it through superhuman fitness.
Straight comparisons just don’t hold water
For Boult to be rounding up on 500 wickets, we’d have to massively increase his test match workload.
I should stress now this is my opinion, not data, but: I don’t think it’s credible to suggest that nearly doubling the stress on Trent’s body would produce a linear increase in wickets taken. He’s already missing one test for every three New Zeland compete in.
Accommodating Boult’s fitness and absences would mean, since 2011, New Zealand would have schedule in excess of ten matches a year from 2011 until 2026 to get his 500 wickets. Assuming, of course, he calls it a day in his mid-thirties. Even if Boult was English, his body wouldn’t be able to cope.
Steyn is a slightly different story. For Dale to get a fair shake in appearances, South Africa would have to pack another 23 test match appearances into his career schedule. If they did that just by increasing how many tests South Africa played, he would still then miss, statistically, around seven or eight of those games.
So they’d have to pack another 30-odd games into his 15-year career just to get him the same appearances as Broad had when he reached 500 wickets, increasing an injury-prone player’s workload by roughly a third over his career. Just like Trent, it doesn’t add up. More games in his active years probably wouldn’t have got Steyn to 500, even if the bulk of his injuries came as he got older. It might even have been worse.
That’s what makes Broad’s consistency and fitness so impressive. Fast bowlers trade their bodies for brilliance every time they compete in a test match, but Broad is a phenomenal negotiator. And he isn’t even done yet, we don’t know how long Broad can keep this record up.
The legacy of England’s War Horse
Broad will be remembered, alongside Jimmy Anderson, as half of the most dangerous opening partnership of all time. His place in the folklore of English cricket is guaranteed.
What separates his career from other bowlers with similar (and superior) skill, what has earned him a place in the esteemed company of the 500 club, is his spectacular consistency and fitness.
We can’t pretend that the finances of the game and scheduling haven’t had an impact on how achievable a record like 500 wickets is for a pace bowler today. It was functionally off the table for Boult before he even made his debut.
But that valid complaint shouldn’t be weaponised to diminish the achievements of England’s War Horse, the ever-present and ever-dangerous Stuart Broad.