July 1, 2012

Why do so many bowlers get injured?

It's not just cricket that suffers this affliction of the uber-fit athlete who is engineered like a Ferrari to the point where they're next to useless when it comes to durability

Eighteen months ago I wrote about the relative fragility of the modern cricketer, and in doing so, questioned the veritable army of medical and conditioning staff that have now become part of any first-class squad.

Hearing today's news that Pat Cummins is out of the England tour with a side strain and Jimmy Anderson is temporarily sidelined with a groin strain, neither injury seemingly an 'impact' injury or accidental, I wonder again how these little niggles keep happening in ultra-professional sporting environments. How do both Cummins and Anderson, supposedly 'prepared' for peak performance by highly qualified conditioners, break down after just 10 overs of work? Not just on game day, but even in the days and months leading up to an international series, these guys have been analysed, cosseted and massaged down to their last sinew. They fly business class, warm up for hours before they bowl, warm down under strict supervision and yet they seem to be breaking down at a rate that just makes a mockery of all the medical support staff.

I'm not necessarily blaming the conditioners; maybe the modern international cricketer is a lot softer than the average common or garden variety playing club cricket anywhere in the world, but it still begs the question of how these muscle strains keep happening at the highest levels. Do the rest of us mere mortals not have the muscles that the Cummins and Andersons of the world strain after bowling 10 overs? Yes, that may be the case but we also don't get the care and attention that these lads benefit from, so what gives? Did the player ignore medical advice or protocols when it came to stretching exercises, hydration, compression suits or whatever else he was instructed to do to ensure he could get through a ten-over spell without having to pull up too sore to play the next game? Most bowlers pull up a bit sore after a decent spell of bowling but 99% of them can bowl again later that afternoon, let alone the next game.

It's an issue that I'm genuinely keen to understand. I'm not doubting that the player is injured and I'm not doubting that he has been declared unfit to play the next game but what I'm trying to get my head around is how it can keep happening in international cricket these days? All the factors should be pulling the statistics in the opposite direction and yet, across almost every international team, these soft-tissue strains seem to be occurring at much higher rates than in the past. Think about it … better quality footwear, compression garments, therabands, ice baths, massages, yoga, sports drinks, you name it. Off the field, most teams have multiple support staff with high-quality diagnostic equipment, video analysis, superior injury prevention regimes that are part of a personalised year-round program. Players sleep in single rooms so their sleep patterns are unaffected by the disturbance caused by a room-mate and they are now more in tune with their own bodies than any previous generation of cricketer through an almost narcissistic pre-occupation with themselves.

It's not just cricket that suffers this affliction of the uber-fit athlete who is engineered like a Ferrari to the point where they're next to useless when it comes to durability. How many professional athletes (pick your sport) do nothing else with their lives other than train, recover, recuperate and perform on the big stage? Some of them don't even get through the pre-season training. The number of cricketers I come across who often can't take the field for the real contest because they couldn't survive the pre-season stuff. How do the conditioning staff explain that to the coach, the CEO or the Board? It happens too often, in all countries, in all professional sports, to be a figment of my imagination. Cricket is especially frustrating because it's not an impact sport in the sense that you're not being subject to the body contact injuries that you would expect from say rugby or football, let alone the obvious injury-prone sports like boxing, cycling and downhill skiing.

I'd love to be a fly on the wall when the medical staff breaks the news of the latest injury to the High Performance Director. "Umm, sorry boss, we prepared him like a pedigree racehorse, started his warm up before breakfast, post-game treatment supervised in the Arctic tundra by a team of ER specialists but pushed him too far - asked him to bowl a few overs in the game. It was all going swimmingly well until then. In fact, the good news is that when it comes to swimming, his lap times are good in the recovery pool".

Flippant I may be, but you'd have to wonder if someone along the chain of command is starting to question whether having a phalanx of medical support staff and attendant personalised programs, diets etc is actually making any difference to the bottom line. It's not like we're trading reliability for excellence, in the same way that you trade a Toyota for a Maserati perhaps. I mean, we're not seeing a whole generation of bowlers exceeding the 160 kph mark, even in short, spectacular careers that burn brilliantly today and burn out tomorrow. They're still not bowling any quicker or more accurately than the Holdings, Thomsons and Tysons of yesteryear. Yes, the standard of fielding is vastly superior and the batsmen seem to be more muscle-bound but their durability is no better than it ever was. In fact, it is arguably worse.

It's clearly not an area that any country will be prepared to cut back on so expect to see even more medical and conditioning staff employed to try to arrest this growing incidence of 'soft' injuries. Looking at it from the perspective of a mediocre cricketer who can bowl a thousand overs of tripe without breaking down every hour or so, I just can't understand where the source of the problem lies. Is it the cricketer who is too soft, is it the medical staff who are too precious with their diagnosis, or is it almost a case of a 'system' that has to justify itself by withdrawing cricketers from action when it might be best to just bowl themselves back into rude health?

I wonder if the central contract system has anything to answer for? If players were only paid for physically taking the field, might we see a lot more bowlers playing through minor niggles and being none the worse for it? More controversially, what if the medical staff were paid according to a system that was based on players being fit enough to play? I daresay there'd be a lot less cotton-wooling and a lot more of the "there's nothing wrong with you that a good ten over spell into the wind won't fix my boy".

On that note, as my typing finger requires the sort of ice treatment that a cold glass of something will no doubt fix, on strict medical advice, this writer has been instructed by She Who Must Be Obeyed to pull up stumps and do some cross-training in the washing-up and drying department. It's the sort of medical advice that will result in injury if ignored!

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