November 6, 2012

Is the fitness support system failing the bowlers?

Michael Jeh
Shane Watson writhes in pain after Michael Clarke's shy at the stumps hit him on the leg, Australia v Sri Lanka, 2nd ODI, Sydney, November 5, 2010
Bowlers are breaking down despite being wrapped in wool  © AFP


It is difficult and unfair to criticise what you do not fully understand. So I write this piece with due respect to the profession that I am about to ask questions of, partly to educate myself when the responses flood in and partly to ask some questions that many ordinary folk are also asking.

A few months ago I questioned the value of the support staff that are now an integral part of any first-class cricket structure. Those pieces attracted some comments from around the world, the general consensus seeming to lean towards the theory that modern cricketers just don't seem to be doing enough bowling to properly prepare their bodies to withstand soft-tissue injuries.

Four months later and it doesn't look there are any answers to this complex issue. Let's contrast the Pat Cummins and Shane Watson cases then: Watson was withdrawn from the Champions League Trophy in South Africa to supposedly help him to rest and recover so he would be fit for the Test series. In theory, that strategy made sense. You can only assume that the combined intellect and experience of the medical staff tailored a program of recovery, sleep, diet and stretching that would ensure Watson would be in tip-top shape for the Gabba. Yet, despite all of this expertise and cotton-wooling, he was unable to bowl more than six balls without incurring a soft-tissue injury. It simply defies belief. Either the preparation was inadequate or he wasn't warmed up properly but the bottom line was that despite all the cossetting, his body was unable to bowl six balls of medium without damaging a muscle. Which begs the question; what more needs to be done to ensure he can get to a point where he can bowl at least two overs?

Contrast Watson's situation with Cummins and you get the polar opposite. Cummins was not withdrawn from the Sydney Sixers campaign in South Africa and was allowed to keep playing, presumably also under the supervision and care of equally knowledgeable and dedicated medical staff. Despite this care, he is now sidelined for a whole season, although a stress fracture is more structural than soft-tissue and therefore perhaps more of a technique issue.

So it appears that neither strategy appears to be working. Mollycoddling a player and wrapping him in cotton-wool does not guarantee that he can get through a single over of bowling in a competitive context. Allowing a bowler to play competitive cricket (albeit still under strict supervision and some cotton-wooling) also results in a season-ending injury. What more can we do to get a professional cricketer, whose sole job these days is to play cricket and look after Body Beautiful, with an army of expert medicos and conditioners, fit enough to do his job? They don't have to work normal jobs like the cricketers of yesteryear, they travel in Business Class with flat-back seats, they sleep in single rooms so they are not disturbed by room-mates, their diet is strictly monitored, they stretch for hours each day, they have ice-baths and massages whenever the experts tell them to. Is there anything that we are missing?

It's the soft-tissue injuries that are inexplicable. You can understand broken fingers, sprained ankles and perhaps even rotator cuff injuries through over-bowling. You can understand cracked ribs when batting in the nets. I simply cannot get my head around how you can possibly get injured after bowling just six balls, presumably after an extensive warm-up routine supervised by experts.

I have bowled a million overs in my life and I have never torn a muscle. Ever. With minimum warm-up routines, no compression garments or therabands and no special diet or hydration. Sometimes I have run straight from the car park, having mowed my yard in the morning and washed the dog, to bowl 20 overs on the trot. My body is still being pushed as far as it can go so the argument that I'm not bowling at 150 kph doesn't really wash. My boots are not new, I do not have hydration drinks brought to me every few minutes and I didn't get much sleep the night before because my baby was crying. You would expect someone like me to frequent the local physio. Admittedly, I have a natural advantage over someone like Watson in the sense that you cannot strain what you do not have. As I have very few muscles anywhere in my body, it would be a medical miracle to find one that was prepared to rip.

I come back to my core question; what does the medical profession need to learn about itself to keep improving in this regard? Clearly the current system is not working. That much is self-evident. So we need to learn from this and come up with a system that produces more durable cricketers. Perhaps they need even more tender care. Or perhaps they just need to swallow a bit of cement and harden up. What's so wrong with going back to a system that just puts the onus back on the players to get fit or get out? Whatever you need to do to do your job properly, just figure it out and we'll just judge you on your performance on the park. If that means surrounding yourself with sleep/diet/medical/yoga experts, then choose your poison. Some may choose to just bowl themselves into fitness and rhythm in the nets, like cricketers of yesteryear who also hardened their bodies (through necessity) by having to work labouring jobs. Whatever method they choose, is it perhaps time to dispense with all the compulsory scientific and medical staff and put the onus back on the individual to do whatever it takes to get himself fit?

I realise that my rhetorical questions are unlikely to be seriously considered but I can still ask the question with an impish smile. The bottom line is that for all those who defend the current system, it is clear that it is not producing results. That much is fact. What is not clear yet is how we can better prepare cricketers for a normal day's work without them calling in sick? I daresay a system that had no central contracts but was based on a "you play, we pay" payment model might just work. Clearly there would need to be an allowance made for impact injuries or accidents sustained at training or in a game situation but for those players who do nothing but prepare for a game of cricket with highly paid experts and the very best care that money can buy and are still unable to take the field, something needs to change. Simply adding more medical staff, more tests, more sleep monitoring and more stretching is not producing better outcomes.

More bowling perhaps? Mow the lawn, wash the dog? God forbid, find a normal job in the off-season? Or is that too simplistic?

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 Jagger on (January 7, 2013, 3:25 GMT)

Australia's best test line up: Warner, Finch, Hughes, D Hussey, Clarke, McDonald, Wade, Pattinson, Harris, Cummins, Bird.

Posted by Phil on (December 7, 2012, 2:21 GMT)

Too much time in the gym these days which dont make you a much faster of fitter bowler. The other thing is that muscle adds to your body weight and hence puts more stress on the body especially bowling long spells. Cant understand why young guns like Cummins and Patterson are consistently injured at such a young age unless it is the above. Also most of the injured bowlers carry much more muscle than the likes of say Glenn McGrath who was bowling forever. The trainers should be really concentrating on bowling techniques, stamina and mental though/toughness instead of stenthening the whole body.

Posted by Phil on (December 7, 2012, 2:21 GMT)

Too much time in the gym these days which dont make you a much faster of fitter bowler. The other thing is that muscle adds to your body weight and hence puts more stress on the body especially bowling long spells. Cant understand why young guns like Cummins and Patterson are consistently injured at such a young age unless it is the above. Also most of the injured bowlers carry much more muscle than the likes of say Glenn McGrath who was bowling forever. The trainers should be really concentrating on bowling techniques, stamina and mental though/toughness instead of stenthening the whole body.

Posted by toby on (November 29, 2012, 0:29 GMT)

Injuries beget injuries. A torn muscle may heal but it is not as strong as it once was. It may also be less flexible. The muscle may be fine in everyday life but recurrent injuries to the same muscle occur once they begin playing again. I suspect this is one reason why some players are "injury-prone".

Abhijeet - I was also suprised by the (lack of) speed of bowlers in the fast bowling competitions that channel 9 did back in the late 1970's and 80's. Measuring speed from the hand vrs average speed for 22 yards (or speed at the strikers end according to Thommo)is one explanation. Another factor is that they used high speed cameras and not doppler "speed guns". I have no idea what the best way to measure bowling speed is but the speed guns used in matches seem to be more about entertainment than accuracy

Posted by bennett k on (November 20, 2012, 21:47 GMT)

The trouble with cricket injuries isn't that there is no answer; it's that there could be so many answers. We seem to be intent on blaming people who are trying to find the answers instead of encouraging them to continue to find answers.From birth the human body is developing. There are many factors that may come into play that could affect the athlete in the future. The diet of a family, the purity of products eaten, lack of physical activity in the school, are the chairs that students sit on in the class room throughout their years good for the lumbar, school bags getting heavier with more books, not as many children riding to school, genetics – is bone density lighter than in previous decades due to diet. Everything we rely on in the world today is related to innovation, creativity and science. (eg. Medical science has extended the human life expectancy by about 4 times what it was before 1700s). Without it maybe cricket would be far behind other sports compared to how we are andif you learn the truth by learning science, you won't fall for scams, cons, hoaxes, it worked for me in my day and quack medicine schemesI say keep looking and continue to ask the questions!

Posted by Peter M on (November 11, 2012, 20:05 GMT)

one factor might be that in the past many less resilent players just had to give up the game and now they are kept in the game by modern training/recovery techniques but continue largely injury-plagued careers?

Posted by Anonymous on (November 8, 2012, 15:31 GMT)

Before we had scans it was simply called pain.

You bowled through it.

Posted by Meety on (November 8, 2012, 1:51 GMT)

@Melon - some good points. I know in the WIndies they were teaching their bowlers to bowl front on (from about the late 80s) to avoid back injuries! Other sports have a mantra where you mostly train on the surface you'll play on, so I shudder at thinking about thudding in on concrete - although at club mosts nets have concrete pitches. I wonder whether in the good old days - players like Freddy Trueman even knew if they'd have a stress fracture or not when they played. Meaning I wonder how many pro's over the years had some serious injuries & just thought it was a niggle that will sort itself out in the offseason!

Posted by Melon on (November 8, 2012, 0:19 GMT)

Coming from a state age group player whose back was in pieces by 18, I'd say there's a few issues involved. For me, it was over-bowling during the off season on concrete-based indoor surfaces. During the season, as a pro' you play when you can rather than strictly waiting for your body to heal completely, which never happens in some cases. Players also play much more than 30 years ago.

In the two cases you've mentioned, I'd say Shane has had so many injuries that his posture and movements will have changed in a way that puts pressure on other areas of his body. And as a well-qualified coach, Pat Cummins's action isn't safe - it's mixed and will lead to a short career if he doesn't sort it out. A few other points: 1) ask yourself how many genuinely fast bowlers have had extended, injury-free runs. Akhtar, Lee, Bond... all held together with tape. 2) The most ergonomically friendly action is a front on one. How are bowlers taught to bowl? Almost always, they're taught to bowl side on.

Posted by Matt H on (November 7, 2012, 23:05 GMT)

Mr Myx - interesting theory .. no way of knowing of course. Abhijeet - in that test the speed measurement was the average of the speed for the length of the pitch. Now the measurement is at the time the ball leaves the bowler's hand. So you cannot really compare. The change was to allow Shoaib Akhtar to break the world record. I think the lack of an offseason is one issue, but also that 20-20 does not allow a player to warm up into a spell, so a lot of immediate stress is placed on the body. But that hsould be just like basecall I imagine, so maybe we need to look there for answers. and that does not explain Watson, who I think may have been injury prone in any era.

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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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