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July 4, 2012

Fitness is the player's responsibility

Michael Jeh
Jade Dernbach could make an emotional return, Nottingham, June, 23, 2012
Jade Dernbach: The latest casualty after a ten-over spell  © Getty Images
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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

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Posted by chris sargent on (July 9, 2012, 7:44 GMT)

My point with the contracts was that the players are still getting paid.Not bad when you consider Cummins and Johnson have only played one game each since the Sth African tour.Maybe if they were on match payments they could put up with the aches and pains.I've always thought if you didn't get sore you weren't having a go.

Posted by chris sargent on (July 9, 2012, 7:44 GMT)

My point with the contracts was that the players are still getting paid.Not bad when you consider Cummins and Johnson have only played one game each since the Sth African tour.Maybe if they were on match payments they could put up with the aches and pains.I've always thought if you didn't get sore you weren't having a go.

Posted by Michael Jeh on (July 7, 2012, 17:19 GMT)

Just to reinforce my point...watching 4th ODI from Durham at the moment and the injury list from today currently reads: Brett Lee and Shane Watson both off the field injured with 3.2 overs (just 20 balls) bowled between them. Michael Clarke with lower back history now taking up the slack, the trooper that he is. Mitchell Johnson apparently not considered for selection with ankle soreness from bowling 8 overs last Sunday. Swann, Dernbach and Cummins out of the series. Gosh, lucky we've got the strength and conditioning dept to keep the rest of them fit!

Posted by Tim Barnes on (July 7, 2012, 6:43 GMT)

There's plenty of reasons why a young bloke couldn't bowl 20 overs in a day. Bowling technique, Bio-mechanical analysis, stability and balance in the individual. The bowling technique in itself is 'radically wrong' as it's loading spinal flexion as stated above.

Popular techniques in strength and conditioning in the past 20 years have been to introduce movement screens which isolate potential injury risk due to imbalances in the individuals, unfortunately too many people write this off or refuse to use critically analysed scientific methods to exercise that work and instead rely on opinion or experience. The unfortunate thing with experience is, it's not transferable across a population.

Every fast bowler breaks down at some point. The only technique to promote longevity in bowlers is perhaps demonstrated by fast bowlers like Glen McGrath who had a very economic bowling technique.

Posted by Meety on (July 7, 2012, 2:50 GMT)

Regarding central contracts & the effect on the amount of "injuries" a pace bowler suffers. I don't think that has a cause & affect. I think that it is more about the support staff being over zealous in their management of the players after a match. The only way fwd in my view, is to have seperate squads for different formats. This would then mean that players get can the right workload for their specific requirements.

Posted by Meety on (July 7, 2012, 2:20 GMT)

Not wanting to go over the same things I said in the previous article. I'd like to do a comparison with another sport. In Oz, in Rugby Union about 15 yrs ago, the ARU in their infinate wisdom, de-powered the scrum at U19s & below age levels. Now I know they were concerned about injury risk (when injuries do occur in a scrum they can be horrific). The consequence of this though, is Oz have about the worst scrum in International Rugby - at least amongst the top 10 teams. Why, because the front rowers of today, don't know any survival skills until they are let loose in the lower grades, it's a minor miracle we get any half decent scrummaging front rowers at all! The Futures League needs to run along the same rules as Shield cricket. I agree with Stewart, that as a young bloke unless you have something radically wrong with your physique or technique, there is no reason why a young bloke (read Cummins), couldn't or shouldn't send down 20 overs in a day.

Posted by Tim Barnes on (July 7, 2012, 0:01 GMT)

If running is to be the primary source of fitness, when in running does the body react to approximately 14x it's own body weight matching the final foot strike of the bowler??? never. Not even sprinting which I compete at with a national level.

Bowlers have always been braking down, because the action is 'back flexion', a movement pattern the human body is un-familar with and un-natural. If you are to improve bowlers most modern evidence for cardiovascular fitness (emulated by the way the best middle distance and endurance runners compete with from training at the olympics) should be intermittent training. Contrast training is perhaps another good medium to improve the explosive ballistic competence of the bowler.

The reality is, if you just spent time after time bowling to improve 'manual labor' you're going to break down more frequently. Because of the increased spinal compression (leading to stress fractures and back sprains) - would like more space here to fully explain science.

Posted by Michael Jeh on (July 6, 2012, 13:59 GMT)

Chris Sargent...hear hear. If you read my previous post which started this discussion, you'll see that I raised this as a possible reason. Glad you think so too. Stewart, thanks for the vote of confidence. Totally agree about the trance-like state. You describe it eloquently. If you're bowling a spell of that length, chances are you've already taken a wicket or two (or else you wouldn't be bowling) and you're in a good rhythm. It becomes auto pilot mode and becomes the action is now repeating itself, injuries are rare. Yes, cramp is sometimes an issue but I found that I rarely got injured when I bowled long spells. That's why I think young bowlers need to learn to bowl long spells to build rhythm, groove actions and build muscle memory rather than build muscles!

Posted by Stewart on (July 6, 2012, 9:40 GMT)

Michael I really enjoy your pieces that you write, even went back and read some older ones recently too.

Bowling 23 overs is quite a strange process, you start off thinking I am all out going for wickets, you then get tired and think you can't keep going, but if you do keep going, after about 13 or 14 overs you go into this zone whereby you can't think about anything else apart from the next ball, almost a trance like state. I've talked about this to a couple of other guys who played before me and around the same time as me, and they said similar things!

Posted by chris sargent on (July 6, 2012, 6:27 GMT)

All valid points made in the comments.But I feel that we have overlooked another reason as to why past players pushed through the pain.Central contracts.If they only got paid for when they played some couldn't afford to eat.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michael Jeh
Born in Colombo, educated at Oxford and now living in Brisbane, Michael Jeh (Fox) is a cricket lover with a global perspective on the game. An Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, he is a Playing Member of the MCC and still plays grade cricket. Michael now works closely with elite athletes, and is passionate about youth intervention programmes. He still chases his boyhood dream of running a wildlife safari operation called Barefoot in Africa.

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