Michael Jeh January 23, 2011

Massages, ice baths, and you still get injured after a first-ball duck?

A month away from the start of the World Cup, with no clear favourite emerging and all squads announced, I'm throwing out the form book and looking at the list of 'support staff'

A month away from the start of the World Cup, with no clear favourite emerging and all squads announced, I'm throwing out the form book and looking at the list of 'support staff'. I'm starting to favour the Contrarian Theory that the squad with the least medical staff, specialised fitness regimes and massage therapists will end up victorious. They might be the only team left standing!

The recent spate of injuries in the Australia and England sides is utterly baffling for two teams whose cricketers are totally full-time professionals. They have no other jobs, their every movement is monitored by a coterie of medical experts, their diets are specified by nutritionists and a team of masseurs work on their tender muscles all day long. They wear the latest in compression clothing, they wallow in ice baths, sports drinks are consumed by the gallon and yet … they keep finding new ways to miss games and new injuries. Has there ever been a more precious generation of cricketers who do nothing else with their lives except look after their bodies and yet are arguably the least 'fit' players of all time?

I'm not referring to 'fitness' in terms of their ability to run marathons or break records in an exercise physiology sense. I'm sure their fitness levels, as measured by machines and PhD students, would put the rest of us to shame. Yet, even humble club cricketers like myself manage to get through many seasons of cricket without so much as a single massage or gym session, without missing a game with an injury to a muscle that we didn't even know we possessed.

We get through our allotted overs comfortably, even without constant sports drinks, showers at lunch-time and changes of clothing. We arrive at a game with barely enough time to warm-up, having already umpired at junior cricket, mowed the lawn at home and made our own soggy sandwiches. When the ball gets smacked past the boundary, something I have become quite an expert on when bowling, I have to chase it all the way to its resting place, quite often in a dense clump of reeds that doubles as home to a family of irritated brown snakes. No boundary hoardings or ball boys to ensure the ball gets returned immediately.

Cricketers like me are hardly very talented, nor are we deemed particularly fit, but year after year, week after week, why is it that we don't seem to suffer the same ratio of injuries that modern cricketers do as a matter of routine. And it's not even my job anymore!

I speak slightly tongue-in-cheek because I know that professional cricketers these days have a higher workload and, of course, that puts more pressure on their fragile bodies, but I still think that they are now like Formula One cars that are capable of ridiculous levels of performance but utterly useless on normal streets. It's almost as if their bodies are now so protected and highly tuned that the slightest bump in the road damages a muscle group that the rest of us don't even have.

For a group of professional 'workers' whose sole occupation is to look after their bodies (with an army of medical experts to assist them), they seem to have a remarkable propensity to be unable to turn up to work fit and healthy. If the rest of the working population, many of whom have to endure hard manual labour or do extra jobs after work (unlike the cricketers who rarely have to mow their own lawns, hang out their laundry, do the grocery shopping or mop the bathroom floor), are as fragile as the modern-day cricketer, our national productivity would be shot to pieces.

I'm not referring to the freak Nathan Hauritz type accident where he lands awkwardly on his shoulder. These things can happen to anyone; likewise Ricky Ponting's broken finger. But how does Kevin Pietersen pull a groin muscle on the way to getting a first ball duck? Why does Shaun Tait (who claimed to be as fit as at any point in his career) hobble off with a muscle strain in the middle of his third spell; spells of only two overs each mind you!!! He's a professional athlete whose body is his livelihood and he can't be used in spells longer than two overs without breaking down? How does the medical staff justify that sort of 'preparation' in their KPI's? Imagine if a mechanic prepared a motor vehicle that could not be driven for any more than two laps without a break?

Tim Bresnan can't get through a ten-over spell - a normal day at the 'office' - without pulling a calf muscle. Is anyone holding the athlete or the medical staff responsible for putting out players on the park who are not able to get through a standard day's work without breaking down with the most basic injuries? Were they not warmed up properly, were their muscles not capable of performing standard tasks, did they not have enough sports liquids in their system to prevent cramping/dehydration/muscle fatigue? With all these 'experts', is anyone held accountable?

Their fitness levels are so poor that they cannot bowl 50 overs in the allotted time, despite having refreshments rushed out to them at the fall of every wicket. On Sunday, we had the ridiculous sight of a wicket falling in the first over of the match in Sydney and drinks being taken to the players during that break in play. Bowlers who've been told that they are about to start a bowling spell are unable to get warmed up in time to start their spell without delay - instead, they wait till they get to the top of their mark and then do more stretches and bowl a few warm-up deliveries to the fielder while the captain needs more time to adjust his field, despite memorising the computer-generated field placing for that batsman. And, clearly, it still doesn't stop them from getting injured.

Yes, they will argue that they train a lot more and there are a lot more demands on their body, but isn't that just a part of their chosen careers? They fly business class, they stay in five-star hotels, they have the best equipment and medical treatment that money can buy, they arrive at the ground hours before the start of play to warm up, they have ice baths and massages after play to help them recover as best they can. And yet, despite all of this, they still seem to be breaking down at a much higher rate than professional cricketers of yesteryear. Or else, they have a lower pain threshold and cannot (or are not allowed to) play through minor niggles. Maybe carrying their cheque books put undue strain on their tender bodies!

For that reason alone, I fear for Australia's World Cup campaign. Their bowling attack is liable to fall apart at any time with just about every bowler having missed long periods of cricket in the last 12 months with injury or fitness issues. Playing in the subcontinent in February and March will sorely test their fitness levels, especially now that we know that no amount of ice baths, sports drinks or exercise physiologists have any real impact on their ability to not get injured.

Many of their batsmen are carrying recent injuries (Ponting, Hussey, Clarke, Haddin, Marsh) and it's not going to get much easier in Chennai, Chittagong or Colombo. If the old rules of ODI cricket were reinstated, where teams who failed to bowl their 50 overs in the allotted time only received the number of overs that they had bowled at the prescribed finish time, Australia (and many other teams) would rarely get their full quota of batting overs, or they'd have to rush things so much that they'd get their field placings wrong, or the bowlers would be too fatigued to bowl effectively because of the rush to bowl 50 overs in the prescribed three-and-a-half hours. And these guys claim to be the best in the world?

Back to my original theory - I reckon the team with the smallest medical support squad and the most battle-hardened bodies might end up winning the war of attrition next month in the subcontinent. Clearly, the size of the medical team has very little to do with the fitness levels or injury prevention. So let's just dispense with the extra 'baggage' and see which team can handle the day-to-day rigours of playing tough cricket without falling apart in the dressing room, hotel room or department store. I mean seriously, how do you strain your groin after a first ball duck?

Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane