Stuart Broad held up the ball to the empty stands of Old Trafford, even as teammates lined up across the pitch to congratulate him on his 500th Test wicket. In turn, he gained access to a most elite club —one that has maintained its single-digit membership even after 143 years of Test cricket.
The first member of this club was Courtney Walsh. He got to the landmark at Port-of-Spain against South Africa in 2001, when he trapped a young Jacques Kallis in front. Broad too got there in similar fashion, with a ball keeping low and smacking Kraigg Brathwaite’s back pad right in front of middle stump.
Between those two LBWs spanning nearly two decades, five other bowlers (three spinners and two other pacers) have breached 500 Test wickets, with Sri Lanka’s Muttiah Muralitharan still leading the pack with 800 dismissals to his credit.
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Murali and Shane Warne got there within days of each other in 2004, when their race to the summit was still ongoing. Warne’s teammate Glenn McGrath got there soon after in 2006—with a magical spell of five wickets for two runs at Lord’s in 2005—and India’s only entrant to the club, Anil Kumble, followed a year after. The world had to wait 11 long years before Jimmy Anderson joined the group; Anderson’s entry—also, incidentally, with the wicket of Brathwaite—was a dozen years after the previous fast bowler in McGrath. While the gap between Anderson’s entry and that of his new-ball partner in Broad may have been considerably lesser (four years), it looks like it is going to be a long time before another fast bowler joins Broad in the club.
Why? Well, due to two main reasons. One: because of all the different formats and franchises that jostle for the attention of the best players in the world today. And, two: the wicket gap between Broad and the next highest on the list, Ishant Sharma—who has taken 13 years to get to his current tally of 297 wickets.
Broad himself was asked who he thought will be the next quick into the 500-club and his answer said it all. “Someone is going to have to play a lot of cricket because there is a lot of competition out there, between different T20 leagues franchises, 100-ball…” he said on Tuesday.
The spinners will always find a way into the club. Australia’s off-spinner Nathan Lyon is 110 wickets from 500, while his Indian counterpart in Ashwin is 135 adrift. Ashwin averages 5.1 wickets per Test and if he is to maintain the same rate then he will get there in 27 Tests; or in three years considering that top teams average around nine Tests a year. Similarly, if Lyon were to maintain his wicket-rate of 4.0 per Test then he too will get to the landmark in 28 Tests, which is a shade over three years.
By the above calculation, Ashwin will be 36 and Lyon 35. Neither age is a stretch for modern day cricketers; or for spinners, who generally play longer than their pace counterparts. These offies are most likely to get there, quite unlike the best of the older fast bowlers operating in Test cricket today. With 297 wickets, Ishant is the closest to the 500-mark among current pacers. He averages 3 scalps a game, and at that rate he is going to need another 68 Tests to get there. Ishant is 31 years old today, so by the most conservative estimate he will be 38 by the time No.500 happens, assuming he is still a constant in the playing XI.
Also of the same age are New Zealand’s new ball bowlers, Tim Southee (284) and Trent Boult (267). Now both of them clock 3.9 wickets per Test. But New Zealand does not play as many Tests as India, England and Australia (Big Three) and hence will possibly not join Broad either.
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Which makes Australia’s Mitchell Starc, with 244 wickets currently, the next best bet. Starc takes a whopping 4.2 wickets per Test (the best along with New Zealand’s Neil Wagner, among pacers with 200 wickets or more). But Starc is 30 and injury prone, having suffered everything from sore calves to ligament tears to heel injuries to ankle injuries. If he stays injury-free and healthy, it would still take him 61 more games to join Broad at 500.
“I feel very lucky to have played for England in an era where we’ve played a lot of Test cricket. I think there’s talk of thinning the amount of Tests we play in a summer down. You need a lot of Test matches to get 500 wickets,” said Broad and you can understand why. “There’ll be people who have the talent to get the numbers but whether they’ll be able to play the amount of Test cricket the seam bowlers have to get that feat remains to be seen.”
RED OR WHITE
The growing popularity of T20 franchise leagues has completely changed the dynamics of cricket. Only England, Australia and India give their Test specialists full contracts. And England had to effectively end Broad’s white-ball career in 2016 to keep him going in Tests. But in a field where there is a fair bit of uncertainty around form and injury, the general philosophy is to make hay while the sun shines.
Only the Big Three—India, England and Australia—make money playing Test cricket. So, as cricket slowly returns to the field post-pandemic, playing more white-ball cricket over Tests could well become a priority. ICC has shown their inclination towards the money-spinning end of the game, lining up three white-ball World Cups over the next three years. Of course Tests will end up taking a backseat.
Which then ensures that Club 500 will remain a distant dream for the rest of the fast bowling field. In fact there is a far greater chance of Broad getting to Club 600 before a pacer joins him on his current mark. En route to 600 he surely is. The stars have aligned for Broad. Not only does he focus entirely on Tests in a country that plays the format more than the rest, the pacer has also learned the art of longevity. In his column in Daily Mail last year, Broad wrote of how he was inspired to watch from mid-on as Anderson ran in “like a Rolls Royce,” with his “short, rhythmical run-up”.
Broad revealed that he approached New Zealand legend Richard Hadlee and got some “career changing advice”. “He (Hadlee) reckons it gave him an extra six years on his career…If it’s good enough for one of the best bowlers in history, why not me,” Broad added. The new run-up prolonged his career and his new bowling length ballooned his wicket-tally. From being a predominantly back of a length bowler through his career, Broad began bowling fuller—and attacking the stumps more —over the last 18 months and the result? 133 wickets at 26.91, and by his own admission grown out of England’s philosophy of “bowling dry”.
Broad has come a long way since he dismissed Chaminda Vaas to record his first Test wicket. In fact, the modes in which he dismissed Vaas—off a short ball that caught his glove— and Brathwaite to get his 500th shows you exactly how much of a contrast he is to who he once was; or, his metamorphosis as a bowler. They are inseparable as strike partners, but Broad is now emerging from Anderson’s shadow. Anderson missed 10 of England’s last 18 Tests, and Broad has had to lead the bowling unit in his absence. That he did a fine job of it may not be reflected by the fact that he was dropped for the first Test of the West Indies series in Southampton.
But the empty stands of the Ageas Bowl seem a distant memory now, with 16 wickets in two back-to-back Tests in Manchester —including a match-winning 10-for in a series-decider that embedded a landmark that could well not be witnessed again for a very long time.