July 4, 2012

Fitness is the player's responsibility

My initial thoughts stemmed from the recent injuries to Pat Cummins and James Anderson, both of them breaking down after a ten-over bowling spell

My most recent blog post has inspired me to write a follow-up piece to further explore the broad themes around why so many bowlers are being sidelined through seemingly minor niggles and soft-tissue injuries. What has really inspired me to write again on the same topic has been the quality of the debate from around the world. Free from some of the partisan, flag-waving, one-eyed, jingoistic claptrap that usually polarises most blog pieces, the comments emanating from the previous article were erudite, educated, thoughtful and genuinely seeking respectful dialogue. I certainly learned a lot from many of the intelligent folk that contributed to that debate so I figured it might be worth taking the discussion to another plane.

My initial thoughts stemmed from the recent injuries to Pat Cummins and James Anderson, both of them breaking down after a ten-over bowling spell. I see today that poor old Jade Dernbach has caught the same virus, a side strain after bowling ten overs for 59 runs. Same questions apply here…was he not properly 'prepared' by the medical staff to get through a ten-over spell or was his (supposedly super-fit) body unable to cope with the demands of getting through those ten measly overs in three spells? Whatever the answer, it is clear that something is clearly amiss here. Either the cricketers themselves are not fit enough to bowl ten overs without straining a muscle or they haven't been prepared well enough to be able to deliver 60 balls in 2-3 spells at fast-medium pace on a mild summer's day without injuring themselves. I'm sorry but it just begs the question - how can this keep happening without somebody questioning the value of having such an expensive and extensive support system that is clearly unable to keep players on the park after a standard day at the office?

Sifting through the previous blog comments, it is clear that I'm not the only one to be pondering this question. There were some really insightful theories from around the world, from those with a medical background to people who understand bowling actions, javelin throwers and biomechanics to just commonsense folk who have fond memories of enduring and durable fast bowlers of yesteryear (some fairly recent) who somehow managed to escape this modern affliction of the ubiquitous muscle strain!

One blog respondent (Paul) asked a most pertinent question that is worth repeating:

In the famous 4th test match of the 1948 series, England batted on for some time on the last morning of the match before declaring, leaving the Aussies the rest of the day to chase 404. In the Australian innings, the English bowlers managed to bowl 114.1 overs before the runs were scored some 15 minutes before stumps. Therefore, about 125 overs were possible in a normal days play - bowled by amateur players supposedly far less fit than their modern day counterparts. How is this so? Somebody? Anybody

Well said sir! I've posed that same question to modern cricketers many times and haven't yet had a satisfactory answer. When you factor in the longer boundaries and the gentle ambling to fetch the ball from the ropes (if the old newsreel footage is accurate), how did those cricketers of old, presumably much less fit and less professional, manage to get through that much cricket in a single day? They didn't have a pre-determined fielding plan designed by the coach/computer so presumably the captain would have had to think on his own about what field-placings to set. They didn't have the pleasure of drinks being run out to the players every few minutes so they must clearly have been less hydrated (leaving aside the magical properties of sports drinks). Admittedly, the video umpire referrals can slow things down a bit so that is a mitigating factor but not many teams get through the minimum 90 overs in the allotted six hours during Tests, even when the spinners do a fair bit of the work. So they can't blame the extra injuries on a workload that is significantly more rigorous than the old days.

Mickey Arthur may have inadvertently alluded to the problem today in his interview with Daniel Brettig. He talked about Cummins' body needing to get used to the workload. I reckon he's hinting at a deeper truth there…the problem as I see it is that the young bowlers coming through have been over-protected through junior cricket where their bodies are simply not accustomed to bowling long spells. Someone like Cummins then gets on the big stage and his body simply cannot cope with the extra workload because he's never done it before, not in the nets, not in a game and not in the backyard. His body has not been hardened by any manual labour, perhaps even simple tasks like mowing the lawn or weeding a garden. It might sound simplistic but I reckon I'm not the only one who thinks that the modern fast bowler is under-bowled, over-analysed and too soft by half.

I'm not necessarily saying it's the player's fault. It could just be the system that does not allow them to get battle hardened. When you read Arthur's comments about the three-year plan they have for Cummins, you realise that there is nothing spontaneous or instinctive about the process anymore. For all his talent, Cummins may end up with a million MRI scans but whether he'll ever complete an entire ODI series is debatable (let's not even dream about a Test series). I'd love to see the kid bowling fast again because he is a wonderful talent but I don't think that will happen in a regime where his workload is managed to the point where he spends more time at the gym, the medical labs and the rehab centre than at the bowling crease. Just put the onus back on the cricketer to get himself fit to do what his job entails - bowl fast in real matches. Not in the nets, not in the rehab pool and not in the gym.

Michael Clarke's asinine interview after the Oval ODI just proves the point. He waffled on about how impressive Mitchell Johnson was in the nets, how his left-arm angle was a real bonus and how much he was swinging the ball etc. Oh really? The off-field stuff can be dressed up any way you like but until that translates into on-field performances, what is the point? Similarly, Alastair Cook gave Dernbach a glowing endorsement after his spell at The Oval and his words just sounded hollow. Dernbach went for almost six an over and generally bowled without much venom (and without luck to be fair) but Cook made it sound as if the kid had just ripped the heart out of the Australian top order. Please…less of the PR bullshit, less of the hypochondriac mentality and more on-field action please. And if you're not fit enough to bowl more than ten overs without pulling a muscle, then there's something fundamentally wrong with your body or the way you've been prepped in the 'workshop'. An expensive sports car that's sitting idle in the service bay doesn't move all that fast. Perhaps it's a case of less Maserati, more Maruti please.

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