Stuart Broad and the tiring chat about greatness

My piece on the great debates and how we see privileged athletes.

Greatness is such a stupid concept. Because - like most subjective things - it's so dependent on what you value. Stuart Broad took 500 Test wickets, becoming the fourth seamer to do it. That will elevate him for some, but not me. He is one wicket richer than he was at 499. That is all that number means to me, but when we talk greatness, that is what we are doing, looking for the things we really rate.

No one who has watched cricket in the last 10 years thinks Stuart Broad is the best bowler in the world. Dale Steyn exists.

But Broad has been running in to bowl for most of his adult life at the top level of cricket. Others have had more natural ability and had to overcome more. But he's come in on bad days, when unwell, delivered through niggles, survived the indignity of being dropped and worked on his game tirelessly. None of that means he's the eighth-best bowler in history. But it means something.

And when most of us think of greatness, that's not what we mean. But to be a fast bowler is to put your body and mind through constant agony. Physically it's a hideous act. Mentally it may be worse.  When a batsman fails, they disappear, when a bowler fails, he has the next ball, the next one, the next one.  These two factors cause players to slow down, lose their edge, and just not want to get out of bed in the morning. Seam bowlers - no matter how much time they spend in unicorn milk between spells - are not supposed to bowl this much. Anyone who rises above that is something special.

Ofcourse Broad wouldn't have taken 500 wickets had he not played for England in this era. But there are thousands of seamers in English cricket, with straight seams, strong front arms, many of them have pace, there are a few tall ones, and some are very skilful. Of the ones who have played for England during his career, Graeme Onions, Chris Tremlett, Ryan Sidebottom, Liam Plunkett and Steven Finn were/are incredible talents. Some were treated poorly by their bodies, others by their minds, and all of them could argue the selectors. But they all had the English system available to them. Tremlett was taller and faster, also with a grandfather who played for England (and a father who played 200 off first class games*). Sidebottom had a left arm, and an England player father. Plunkett and Finn were quicker. And Onions was as skilful. Between them they have not much more than half Broad's tally.

A few years back there was a storm when an ESPN column said Steph Curry was the grittiest player in the NBA. There are plenty of players who had to overcome more hardship in their home life, weren't born into an NBA family and didn't end up at a franchise run by brilliant people. But Curry wasn't handed championships, he made himself great through experimenting and repetition. That was easier for him because of who he was. But players with his kind of upbringing can be harder for the opposition fans to warm to.

We want rags to riches tales, guys like Curry and Broad are sporting royalty. Careers handed to them on the family china.

Stuart Broad isn't just the son of a player, Chris Broad is a proper part of cricket establishment. Add to that Broad had all-round skills, was fast, tall and slid into the team before he had 100 first class wickets. Then the way he acts can grate. He fails to appeal all the time, threw a ball at a player, didn't walk (though that one was mostly Australian hypocrisy), is terrible with DRS, dominates in England and struggles away, plays for the team that most of us are trained to see as the baddies and had this almost regal path to Tests.  All this while playing for the most pampered cricket team in history.

This makes him an easy villain or someone we can downplay. He has had every single advantage a cricketer could ever have, and ofcourse he's made it. For many, his 500 wickets is a testament to a flawed system.

And it's ok to feel some of that if you're not English - and even if you are. You can also decide he's not great, or that he's an England great, but not a great great. Or just a home track bully. You can think he's overrated, as most cricketers from the three major media markets are. And you can even say that he only took 500 wickets because of how much England played. Even if that is an oversimplification to an astonishing degree.

But you can't take one thing off him. 28,440 balls. That is how many times he has run in to bowl. You can give a cricketer every single advantage in life, and they still can't run in that many times in Test cricket. They won't keep getting picked. They won't recover from an injury. They won't come back from being dropped. They won't fit in a new selection policy. They won't want to keep pushing through day after day. They won't; Stuart Broad did.

The conversation about greatness is tiring. You know what's more tiring though, running the 568,800 steps it takes to get in the conversation to begin with.

*Originally this said Tim Tremlett played a Test, but it was his father Maurice who did. Updated 1400 GMT 29/7.