November 8, 2012

Too much Mercedes, not enough Maruti

A strong theme that seems to be emerging is this notion that young bowlers are just not getting the workload under their belt these days to ensure durability

The Gabba. First Test starts tomorrow. As a Brisbane local, I can vouch for the fact that it hasn't been too hot over the last few days, hinting perhaps at a pitch that may have a tad more moisture in it than if it had been burned off by a few days of 30 degree plus sunshine. Which naturally brings the whole topic of fast bowlers into sharp focus.

South Africa seem to have a slight advantage, only in so much as they now have four quicks to play with, whereas Australia will feel Shane Watson's loss when the other three quicks get a bit weary. My most recent article on the fitness of fast bowlers elicited a lot of comment from friends connected to the local cricket scene, coaches, administrators and bowlers themselves, who gave me more food for thought with regard to this vexing issue of why fast bowlers seem to be breaking down so much these days.

A strong theme that seems to be emerging is this notion that young bowlers are just not getting the workload under their belt these days to ensure durability. An excellent analogy provided to me by a local motor mechanic was that some of the most reliable engines he services are diesel-powered vehicles that do a lot of miles (taxi's and delivery vehicles). He is sceptical about the theory that the car owned by the little old lady who only drives it to church on Sundays is necessarily a better purchase. Similarly, he was of the view that young bowlers were simply not grooving their actions and getting enough miles on the clock to grease the moving parts, so to speak.

One must of course be mindful of young lads with stress fractures, who might just exacerbate the injury if they kept bowling, but his point is well made. I hark back to my formative years in grade cricket in Brisbane and it was almost mandatory to bowl for a couple of hours at close to 90% intensity a few times during the week. It was before the era of compulsory limits on under-age bowlers and I'm sure the science around this edict has a valid medical basis so I won't fly in the face of expert advice.

I know for a fact however, that as a relatively untalented cricketer, my improvement was down to one single factor - a massive workload that was primarily based on bowling. Not much gym work, not much fitness work, just a sheer volume of cricket balls bowled at any decent batsman who was prepared to bat against me in the nets. I went from fifth grade to first grade in a single season on the back of hours of skill-specific training (bowling at a speed similar to what I served up in a match situation). There was very little of these '25% intensity' run-throughs that I see so many elite bowlers doing these days, with all the analysis on techniques and video camera angles. I suppose I almost bowled myself into form. The cricket-specific fitness I subsequently generated was not much use to me when doing beep tests but I rarely went missing at 4.30 pm on a hot Saturday afternoon. The ball often went missing though as I was regularly deposited into the creek behind the sightscreen!

I know of an excellent young fast bowler knocking on the door of representative cricket who recently complained of mild back soreness. He was immediately withdrawn from all bowling. His gradual recovery now has him driving half an hour across town to a supervised training venue, where a coach allows him to bowl six balls one day, 12 balls the next, 18 balls the day after and so on. To my untrained, unqualified eye, that just seems like a monumental waste of time, but to be fair, I'm not aware of the rationale behind this approach. Cleverer brains than mine have clearly decided that this is the slow path to rehabilitation. By the time he gets to bowling a normal spell, he'll have Alzheimers.

These young lads have rarely bowled long spells by the time they get to senior cricket. They've had a heap of technical and video analysis but in terms of sheer miles on the clock, they're virtually brand-new. I sometimes wonder if it's paralysis by analysis - they're forever talking about their bodies using anatomical jargon that would do a medical student proud. They watch themselves endlessly on slow-motion replay and spend hours adjusting their hips/elbows/hairstyles by a degree here or there but I very rarely see them bowling to the point of exhaustion. And then … being asked to run in again for two more overs at full pace, just like they will be asked to do in a match situation when the second new ball is taken at 5.30 pm and there's a chance of knocking over the tail. It's almost as if medical science has decreed that it is a crime against humanity to ask someone to reach deep into their physical reserves and bowl two more overs flat strap when the tank is almost empty.

Their fitness levels per se are not in question. These young cricketers are super-fit and can do a triathlon before breakfast. What I'm suggesting is they are not bowling-fit. Maybe they haven't been allowed to test themselves because every time they reach a certain workload level determined by a boffin in a white coat, they are automatically sent off for a massage, ice bath or recovery session. Every time they feel an ounce of pain, sometimes brought about by aching muscles looking for a rest but still perfectly capable of another quick burst, they have been conditioned to immediately throw down the ball and engage in a series of stretching exercises that could get them an audition for the new Kama Sutra film. They simply do not (or are not allowed to) bowl through the mild pain or exhaustion barrier. After a while, they almost self-diagnose their own bodies to the point where I reckon they begin to imagine serious injury where none exists. Is the pain of injury the same as the pain of weariness?

Perhaps I am doing them a disservice. I recognise that to ignore chronic pain for too long is to risk not diagnosing a serious injury that could have long-term effects. Perhaps I am a dinosaur stuck in a time-warp, brought up in an era when hard work was thought to be the cure-all for any ailment. I concede that the truth probably lies somewhere in between these two extremes but I fear now that the system is breeding a generation of fast bowlers who are too much Mercedes and not enough Maruti.

A few years ago I was down at Allan Border Field watching Shane Watson going through a bowling session. The session lasted forty minutes, during which time the bowling coach spent a few minutes at the top of his run, messing around with his elbow, shoulder, hip, beach muscle etc. Watson would then run gently to the crease, a picture of athletic symmetry, get to the release point and then freeze. Another two minutes was spent analysing this frozen statue before the whole process was repeated again. He did this a total of eight times that morning, never once bowling a ball in anger and then packed up and went home.

Now this may well have been one training session taken out of context but listening to the dialogue between coach and bowler made me realise that it was a high-level biomechanics conversation that was way above my limited intellect but did not require any actual bowling to take place. Whoever heard of actually bowling a ball? How terribly old-fashioned indeed. It would never have worked for a plodder like me - apart from the likelihood of being bored stiff, I always got more out of a practice session that involved bowling to a real batsman with an imaginary field-set and a run-target. Even the batsman got something out of these sessions because he wasn't just hitting gorgeous cover drives - he was looking to hit gaps and pace his run-rate. We bowled in six ball installments with a short break, trying to simulate a long spell of bowling with sweat dripping, clammy clothing and muscles that had to get used to cooling down and warming up continuously.

Perhaps there are cricketers all over the world who still practice like this, playing imaginary Tests with their mates and simulating the exhaustion and pain of a long bowling spell. They will soon learn that the system will not allow them such simple pleasures. It's all about workload management, rest intervals, hydration thresholds and program specificity. I'm not quite sure what any of it means but I reckon late tomorrow afternoon at the Gabba, all of that will be forgotten. It will come down to someone's ability (and willingness) to dig deep and find an extra yard of pace when his team needs it most. It requires guts. And heart. How do you train for that in the gym?

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