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December 16, 2012

How to keep fast bowlers in the park?

Michael Jeh
West Indies v South Africa, 4th Test, Antigua Recreation Ground, St John's Antigua, 6-10 April 2001
The bowling machine: Courtney Walsh hardly ever took a break in his long career  © ESPNcricinfo Ltd
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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

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© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

Posted by chris sargent on (December 21, 2012, 19:19 GMT)

Sometimes it just comes down to the size of your ticker.

Posted by Kunal Talgeri on (December 19, 2012, 13:08 GMT)

It is unfair to compare the current crop with their famed predecessors. Patently unfair. The cricket calendar is loaded with formats and continents in a year. Any professional (not just a cricketer) will tell you the perils of air travel if you are doing over 100 flights a year (even between cities). It does affect performance. Sleep too. So it is hard to imagine a bowler wanting to bowl more and more like a Marshall or Akram demanded. At best, they played three months of cricket in England, and Test tours were not as rampant then as now. The modern-day cricketer has to fly into all kinds of conditions. There are no practice matches to acclimatise. He just has to switch on to the First Test. And a month later, fly to a completely different time zone. First, mend the cricket calendar; then, ask bowlers to bowl more. Lastly, Walsh's or Kapil's body constitution may have been exceptional. They weren't the typical bowlers of their time. Bowlers (Patterson, McDermott, et al) too broke down.

Posted by Robin Hobbs on (December 19, 2012, 12:49 GMT)

Michael, the main thrust of your argument is the sort of pub-talk I often hear from occasional cricket followers, and having read your previous pieces I know you're way better than that. What you're demonstrating is survivorship bias, with the likes of Walsh and Wasim being exceptions to the norm. This issue is nothing new, and has been debated ever since I started following cricket over 20-odd years ago - and probably way before that. During the 90s England could very rarely field their first choice bowling attack as Fraser, Gough, Caddick, Headley etc. were often crocked. Go back to the 80s and it was the same story - how often could we get Foster and Dilley on the park at the same time? Same with other teams - Bruce Reid, Ian Bishop, Shane Bond... the list goes on.

Posted by Steve meikle on (December 19, 2012, 5:12 GMT)

Good article pleased to see some thought put into the reasons for injury problems amongst modern quickies... BUT! glaring problem in the comment "They bowled much quicker than guys like Hilfenhaus, Gillespie, Milne, Broad " Completely untrue .. Milne is mid 140s ( touching 150 ocasionally) Gillespie and Hilfy and Brioad are very similar in pace to the guys mentioned in the article... What all those bowlers ( who didn't break-down) mentioned share is a relaxed action... Courtney Walsh and Ambrose, Mcgrath and Pollock (add Holding and Hadlee from even earlier) all shared relaxed loping run ups and fluent stress - free bowling actions. This goota be at least part of the reason. Look at Milne his action is almost identical to Bond's and they share lightning pace and frequent break-downs.

Posted by Lyndon McPaul on (December 19, 2012, 4:39 GMT)

Quite simply; the bowlers who are prone to injury either by their action or physical weaknesses will get injured, leaving those (a small minority) who by nature are more suited to the repetetive intense strain of fast bowling to carry on. For Australia; at least at the moment, this seems to be bowlers such as Peter Siddle and Mitchell Starc. Both of these bowlers have good balanced runups and smooth actions and never look excessively strained at the point of delivery. McGrath had an easy, repeatable action. Pattinson on the other hand throws all of his considerable weight right behind each delivery. He has quite a solid upper body rather than a lanky; wiry type build which is more ideal for generating pace whilst with less effort.

Posted by vibhanshu on (December 18, 2012, 15:57 GMT)

Michael Jeh's analysis has a survivorship bias. He only remembers those bowlers of the past who had long careers not those whose careers were hampered by injury. I remember Wasim having a persistent groin muscle problem, Jason Gillespie hardly completed a series without breaking down, Javagl Srinath couldn't throw because his shoulder was gone, Darren Gough had knee problems, Dion Nash had a injury-curtailed career, Waqar had a bad back, Ian Bishop's career was interrupted due to injuries. There will always be players with good and bad general fitness in every era.

Posted by Azeem on (December 18, 2012, 6:14 GMT)

Would a selector have dared to tell one of the old West Indian greats that you've bowled too much so you're not playing the next test. Sore jaw may have been an understatement there.

Posted by SUZZANE on (December 18, 2012, 4:49 GMT)

Great comments are written here, but i wanna add a question that, why there is a lack of fast bowlers in INDIA??

Posted by Ash on (December 18, 2012, 2:42 GMT)

"If you don't have muscles you can't pull them." - John Emburey :-)

Posted by Murray Archer on (December 18, 2012, 2:40 GMT)

@ Craig Dengate at December 16, 2012 8:17 AM

Could not agree with you more mate ! The restrictions etc are ludicrous ! They especially do not take into account an individual's strength irrespective of age.

I personally got brought up (lot earlier than you) in a world where only way to be fit to bowl was :-

1. Bowl ! every day in any net till too dark for them to bat.

2. Run ! miles and miles every day - more than 100 miles a week

3. Sprint ! Cyclic 400 meters in less than a minute...... one minutes rest , sprint again ! ( doing 30 of these, showed aerobic/energy readiness for bowling.)

Most importantly what Alec Bedser always said :- to be strong enough to bowl ..... bowl !!!!

Totally apart from being fit enough to bowl...... whatever happened to just doing it when in total agony ? (will we ever see a Lillee against Pakistan '72/3 again ?)

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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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