Australian fast bowlers blow up
In The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe captured American anxiety about the early days of the US space program with the recurring line "our rockets always blow up and our boys always botch it". As Ben Hilfenhaus made his painful exit from the first Test in Hobart and likely the series with a side injury, it was hard to avoid the same kind of pained pessimism that surrounded the Mercury program when thinking of the nation's fast bowlers.
For the second time in three Tests, Australia have found themselves a bowler short less than halfway through a match, a ruinous state of affairs that will cause plenty of knock-on consequences for the hosts, their captain Michael Clarke, and the bowlers who remain fit for duty. Hilfenhaus and Peter Siddle put in enormous shifts in Adelaide after James Pattinson fell victim to a similar side ailment, and now the same sad pattern has repeated.
Hilfenhaus has joined a list of wounded Australian fast men that now includes the following: Ryan Harris, Pat Cummins, John Hastings, Josh Hazlewood and Pattinson. Shane Watson has only recently returned from a calf problem. In the ranks beneath, the seamer Trent Copeland and the allrounder Andrew McDonald are also absent injured, and the rest of Australia's pace bowling options are currently engaged in the BBL - Twenty20 being the least helpful preparation possible for playing the five-day game.
The ways by which they have fallen by the wayside are a rich list of differing episodes. Harris is taking a long time to recover from off-season shoulder surgery, and has a problematic knee. Cummins has suffered a vast array of ailments while his body grows into fast bowling, the latest a worryingly high back stress fracture. Pattinson and Hilfenhaus both have side strains of varying specifics and seriousness, while Hastings is also nursing a tender back.
Hazlewood's recurrence of stress hot spots in his foot are both concerning and perplexing, for they appeared despite the fact he did not even play in the third Test against South Africa but merely rolled his arm over in several net sessions. And Copeland's tale is almost comical in its misfortune, as he was demoted to 12th man for New South Wales and rolled his ankle when tripping on steps from the dressing room while running the drinks.
Cricket Australia's medical and support staff are well aware that more bowlers are breaking down under their watch than should be, and are scrambling as best they can to find ways around the problems presented by two major issues. The first is the seeming inevitability of young fast bowlers to suffer injuries of various kinds until their bodies mature around the age of 24, while the second is the contradiction in training and preparation required for T20 and Test or first-class matches.
Within the coterie of team physios and doctors there is the sincerely held view that the use of substitutes in the game would be of great help to the problem of fast bowlers breaking down either through overwork or too jarring a contrast in formats, whether they be a young stripling like Cummins or a more seasoned purveyor of swing and seam like Hilfenhaus. This position is shared by some bowlers, not by the majority of cricketers, coaches or administrators.
In the absence of such radical change, the staff who work largely around the stated aims of the national team's longtime physio Alex Kountouris are trying to find ways of ensuring bowlers are better prepared for the diversity of the tasks confronting them, commonly described as the equivalent of training runners capable of both a marathon and a sprint. As Kountouris concedes, the lack of an underlying pattern to the types of injuries, the bowlers or the circumstances has made this a vexing assignment.
"I wish it was a simple answer - there's no one reason why guys are breaking down," Kountouris said. "We've got 19-year-olds who haven't played one first-class game breaking down, and we've got 30-year-olds who've been playing for five months. So the reasons why players break down are all different.
"It's not ideal, we've got more injuries than we'd like to have at the moment, it's not perfect, but we're working really hard to try to come up with solutions. The landscape's changed, the schedule and stuff like that, but we've got to get better at managing that. For us it's relatively new and we're trying to work around that at the moment."
Australia's team performance manager Pat Howard recently remarked that the jump from Tests to T20 and back again had provided a challenge of the kind all nations are currently struggling with, though the bowlers down under seem to be the most high profile casualties, if not also the most frequent. Kountouris described the job of finding a way for bowlers to flourish in both as "not undoable", the slightly awkward choice of words reflecting the unhappy marriage of the formats.
"We've got to get better at doing it," he said. "We've put a lot of processes in place, like we had bowlers try to bowl during the Champions League and we did that, Mitchell Starc's an example and he's here, and also Ben Hilfenhaus did it. So we're putting processes in place, we're doing things different to last year trying to make things happen.
"We're winning in some areas and we're not winning in other areas, but we've got to keep evolving and try to work out the best solution for it."
The noisy lobby of former fast bowlers in Australia offers plenty of diverging views, enough to match the range of circumstances in which bowlers have been injured. The simplest arguments from the likes of Dennis Lillee are that young bowlers spend too much time in the gym and not enough time bowling or running. Geoff Lawson espouses the newer age opinion that the chiropractic profession has been sorely under-utilised by doctors and physios who remain suspicious of any techniques they did not study.
Craig McDermott, who was a highly successful fast-bowling coach for Australia over 12 months until April this year, has said that the team medical, fitness and coaching staff are doing a serviceable job of balancing sufficient training with careful management. He also feels that the demands they face are far more complex than those of his time in the Australian Test team.
"A lot of ex-players said our bowlers didn't bowl a lot, but they actually do bowl a hell of a lot at training," McDermott said earlier this year. "Some of the sessions we had last summer, when our bowlers bowl, they bowl with high intensity. Alex Kountouris did a great job of keeping guys on the park who weren't injured seriously, along with Stuart Karppinen.
"There were all sorts of things put in place last year about certain players being rested and so forth but natural attrition took care of that. Blokes get injured. If you look at the injuries that happened last summer through Test cricket, one-day cricket, T20 cricket, we had blokes injured throughout the whole summer.
"Australia's embarking on a massive amount of cricket through to the end of the second Ashes in Australia, and I would've thought it's more like 10-12 bowlers they're going to need to get through that period."
Despite the aforementioned anxiety, the Mercury astronauts of The Right Stuff were ultimately able to complete their missions without a single rocket blowing up, and only the faintest whiff of a botch job. Wolfe described those astronauts as single combat cold warriors in a battle for the heavens. One consolation for Australia's fast bowlers is that in fighting the injury war, they have plenty of company.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here