December 16, 2012

How to keep fast bowlers in the park?

So what's changed in the last decade since the heyday of McGrath, Pollock, Vaas, Courtney Walsh, Wasim Akram and that genre of fast bowlers?

So what's changed in the last decade since the heyday of Glenn McGrath, Shaun Pollock, Chaminda Vaas, Courtney Walsh, Wasim Akram and that genre of fast bowlers? It wasn't that long ago so one can only assume that medical science, strength and conditioning, warm-up routines and hydration practices were pretty similar to the system that is currently in place. If anything, it would probably be safe to conclude that all of these allied medical services would actually be more advanced today, augmented by a much larger support staff and a much more rigorously managed workload. Yet, it seems utterly clear now that something has changed, for the worse and no one seems to have the answer. It doesn't really matter which country we're talking about - they've all got pretty much the same systems in place and none of it seems to be working when it comes to keeping fast bowlers on the park.

Anyone who has followed my recent articles will know that this is a particular frustration of mine. I've written on this topic extensively recently and the most common-sense responses have come from seemingly common-sense folk who think that most bowlers are just not getting enough miles on the clock. They spend far too much time in the gym as opposed to bowling at intensity in the nets and that the extra athleticism required in the field is one of the main contributing factors to their breakdown.

Let's look at the most recent cases then; Ben Hilfenhaus bowls 34 overs on the last two days of the Adelaide Test in November. There were a few raised eyebrows when the selectors, presumably with some advice from the medical staff, decreed that he would not be fit enough to bowl in the next Test in Perth, despite having the extra seamer in Shane Watson to help shoulder the burden of bowling into the wind. He was then "rested" from the Hobart Hurricanes' first T20 game, presumably because it might have been too much to ask him to bowl four overs a mere eleven days after his long spell in Adelaide. So, twenty days after his most recent bowling spell in match conditions, he picks up a side strain in Hobart and is probably now sidelined for the rest of this Test. One can only assume that he followed all the usual recovery procedures after his late afternoon spell yesterday, he presumably had a good night's sleep, was well-hydrated and had an extensive warm-up this morning under the exclusive supervision of at least one dedicated support staff member. Despite all of this, he still picks up an injury that has nothing to do with any impact or an unfortunate accident. The injury can almost certainly be attributed to something that relates to his body simply not being ready for the fairly routine task of bowling a few overs, having been "prepared" for this task since play finished last night. 18 hours of preparation and it still makes no difference. Unbelievable!

Across the Tasman in New Zealand, Adam Milne is ruled out of the South African tour with an Achilles injury incurred while warming up. A dangerous business, this "warming up" stuff. Good thing for NZ that they discovered how soft he was before they left for SA. If you can't survive the warm-up, what chance of getting through the real action on-field? Let's replace him with Mark Gillespie - he should be fit and rearing to go after a nine-month injury lay-off. With that length of time in the care of the medical staff, he should be as good as new. Unfortunately, that plan goes pear-shaped when Gillespie himself then picks up a side-strain and has to withdraw from the tour. Another side-strain for a fast bowler who has presumably been prepped, stretched and massaged before he took the field but was unable to complete the task for which he was specifically prepared for. Maybe it's a trans-Tasman Side-Strain Bug that was transported on the trade winds from Wellington to Hobart and poor old Hilfenhaus was infected.

Over in India, Steven Finn, who missed the first two Tests, played a starring role in the Third Test and that was all she wrote! One solitary Test and his back's too sore. Stuart Broad meanwhile was ruled out of the rest of the tour with a bruised heel. James Pattinson understands what it's like to be ruled out for the rest of the season - he couldn't get through two consecutive Test matches without picking up a soft-tissue injury. At first, I thought it might have been an injury to his mouth, after watching him use those muscles liberally on the South African batsmen but the wonders of medical science now confirm that his brain, his mouth and the rest of his body operate totally independent of each other apparently.

Let's go back to those great bowlers we mentioned at the start of the article then; what was so different about their bodies, diets, preparation and support staff that afforded them so much more durability? McGrath's most significant injury came when he trod on a ball on the 2005 Ashes Tour and twisted his ankle. All of the other bowlers rarely succumbed to injuries at the current rate. So what's changed? Medical science must surely be even more advanced, there's even more dedicated one-on-one attention during warm-ups (and warm-downs for that matter) and the workloads are so strictly managed that one wonders if some of these guys can be classified as part-time employees of their respective cricket boards.

To me, someone like Courtney Walsh provides the obvious answer. The guy was a machine. He virtually played cricket 12 months a year, either for the West Indies or for Gloucestershire. He loped in and bowled at pretty much the same pace whenever he bowled. I suspect he may not have taken kindly to ice baths at the end of play and I'm not sure if he was closely supervised every morning when he warmed up to bowl another 20-over spell. He just bowled and bowled and bowled, much like Akram who also played for Lancashire and Shaun Pollock who was a regular for Natal and Warwickshire when he wasn't plying his trade for his country. They bowled much quicker than guys like Hilfenhaus, Gillespie, Milne, Broad et al so their bodies were under more stress in that respect but yet they just kept keeping on.

The current system seems to subscribe to the theory that "less is more". Less bowling + more rest + more pampering = less injuries. They might be better off with a slight variation on that theory. Less pampering + less supervision + less bulls**t sports science mumbo jumbo + more bowling = more time on the field, doing what you're paid to do. Perhaps that is just too simplistic but it's clear that the more complex and advanced things get, the less we get back in terms of a performance dividend. It's got to the point now where the army of medical professionals are arguably producing results that are counter-productive. At least with Broad and Finn, their injuries were diagnosed before the Test started which allowed a replacement to be selected and England were not disadvantaged. The Australian system seems to have it all wrong. They pre-emptively rest players on the basis of unproven assumptions about how fatigued they might be and once they are supposedly fully rested and prepared for action, they break down in the middle of a game. Is anyone higher up in Cricket Australia asking some serious questions yet?

Can you imagine telling any of those great bowlers mentioned at the outset of this article that despite a heroic bowling effort in Adelaide, the selectors (on advice from medical staff) think that they'll be too tired to play in the decider in Perth? There'd be every chance of an imminent injury after that conversation - selector nursing a sore jaw!

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