November 6, 2012

Is the fitness support system failing the bowlers?

It is difficult and unfair to criticise what you do not fully understand

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 Let's contrast the Pat Cummins and Shane Watson cases then: Watson was withdrawn from the Champions League Trophy in South Africa to supposedly help him to rest and recover so he would be fit for the Test series.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 Cummins was not withdrawn from the Sydney Sixers campaign in South Africa and was allowed to keep playing, presumably also under the supervision and care of equally knowledgeable and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