December 29, 2012

Australia's injury scenario a bizarre tale

Following on from my most recent piece I now have cause to feel even more aggrieved for Mitchell Starc

Following on from my most recent piece, written on the first morning of the Boxing Day Test at the MCG, I now have cause to feel even more aggrieved for Mitchell Starc. Not only did he miss out on a chance to get some cheap wickets on a bouncy deck against some woefully inadequate batting, the relatively small workload would probably not have taxed his body too much anyway. Mind you, those observations are much easier to make in hindsight of course. What is really puzzling though is how the team culture could have allowed one player to be rested on the basis of the likelihood of him being injured whilst another player sat by silently and watched this unfold when he now admits that he went into the game carrying an injury (Shane Watson).

Not a possible injury that was a mathematical possibility but a real-life, actual injury that he took into the game knowing that a team-mate was missing out on a boyhood dream of playing a Boxing Day Test at the MCG because the medicos were of the considered view that he might get injured. Have we now got to the stage where we allow injured players to take the field and rest uninjured players based on the probability that they might get injured?

History has shown that Sri Lanka capitulated meekly and that Watson was not required to bowl in the second innings. In fact, he was almost surplus to requirements in the first dig but that is all very convenient in hindsight. It was entirely possible that Sri Lanka might have shown more spine in either innings, in which case, Watson's inability to bowl would have left Australia in an exposed position. How was this injury not detected by medical staff before the Test? Why did Watson not disclose his calf soreness when the team selection was still being discussed? Imagine the irony of the situation if Watson was unable to bowl having taken an injury into the game whilst Starc was carrying drinks, uninjured but deemed liable to be injured. Actually, no imagination required - this was fact.

If Watson had picked up this latest injury during the Melbourne Test, one could argue that it was just bad luck. He has now admitted that "leading into this Test it started to play up a little bit and unfortunately didn't hold together throughout this Test match". Assuming he hasn't been misquoted, this suggests that he knew he was likely to get more injured based on real symptoms rather than Starc's likely injury based on statistical probability. Luckily for Australia, the Sri Lankans did not bat long enough in the second innings to expose this ridiculous situation. With Melbourne's notorious weather and the reasonable expectation that Sri Lanka might have shown as much fight as they did in Hobart, that extra seam bowler may have been called upon to bowl 30-plus overs in the match. At that point, Watson or the medical staff may have had some explaining to do if it became apparent that a known injury was taken into the game whilst a fit bowler was sitting idle for fear of being injured.

It's a domino-effect that goes back a few Tests. James Pattinson was unable to complete the Adelaide Test which put extra strain on Ben Hilfenhaus. That may have contributed to Hilfenhaus breaking down in Hobart which in turn was an extra burden for Watson. The poor guy who eventually misses out is Starc who has shown no sign of injury but pays the price for everybody else's lack of fitness or preparation.

The hapless Sri Lankans just can't take a trick either. There's not much anyone can do to prevent the finger injuries to Kumar Sangakkara and Prasanna Jayawardene. Impact injuries are part and parcel of cricket, especially when confronted by a hostile Mitchell Johnson. Chanaka Welegedara's tour-ending hamstring injury only goes to prove that the strength and conditioning regimes of all teams are equally useless at preventing the sort of injuries that should come as a surprise to a bowler in the first session of the day when fatigue is not a factor and who has allegedly warmed up and prepared for a bowling spell in the modest 125-135 kmph range.

If it does not come as a surprise to see athletes routinely pulling muscles when performing normal tasks (as opposed to an extraordinary diving catch or at full-stretch to avoid being run-out), that is an even more damning indictment on the experts who are clearly more expert at predicting injuries than preventing them. Imagine if my family doctor was able to more accurately tell me when I was going to fall sick rather than being able to offer any proven strategies to stop me from taking ill. If that were true and fortune-tellers were allowed to bulk-bill Medicare, they'd make a killing (pun intended).

Michael Clarke, too, is perhaps guilty of gilding the lily ever-so-slightly. At the toss in Melbourne, he was adamant that he was 100% fit. It has now emerged that his fitness is once again under a cloud and that he is an uncertain proposition for the Sydney Test. That doesn't sound like a cricketer who went into the game 100% fit, by his own admission mind you. And if he was 100% fit and this is a new injury, what does that say about (a) his fitness and (b) the fitness regime/staff/conditioning program that sees a player get two separate soft-tissue injuries in consecutive Tests? Hardly a ringing endorsement of the system that is meant to turn out superior athletes who are at the peak of their physical prowess. It is a credit to Clarke's skill and form that he could still peel off another century even when encumbered by hamstring soreness.

Johnson and Jackson Bird are not complaining though - a Man of The Match performance and an impressive Test debut are deservedly theirs to savour and all credit to them. Ironically, Starc's superior batting skills might have led to Johnson's second Test century, equalling the number of hundreds scored by Watson. If he keeps batting like that, perhaps Johnson should consider giving up his bowling and just concentrate on his batting!

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