January 13, 2013

Adequate rest resulting in injuries now?

Anyone who has read my recent posts will know that I've been shouting myself hoarse over the injury epidemic that is sweeping through world cricket

Anyone who has read my recent posts will know that I've been shouting myself hoarse over the injury epidemic that is sweeping through world cricket. The last time I wrote on that topic was during the Boxing Day Test when I lampooned the 'system' for resting Mitchell Starc because there was a likelihood that he might get injured while at the same time allowing Shane Watson to play when he was injured. Things have now gone from the sublime to the ridiculous. Starc is now unable to play in the second ODI in Adelaide, suffering calf-soreness. It begs the question: how does one pick up a pseudo-injury like that even after being rested? Was he not rested for long enough? Should he have also been rested for the Sydney Test? Should Watson have been allowed to play when he was injured in a medical culture that rests a team-mate who might get injured? It's just plain ridiculous. At what point are we going to accept that the current system is simply not producing better outcomes?

It's not just Australia that suffers these indignities. Vernon Philander played in Brisbane in mid-November, missed the Adelaide Test due to injury at the end of November, played the Perth decider in early December, had three weeks off before the Cape Town Test against New Zealand and is now unavailable to front up again (after a three-day Test against the Kiwis). Is anyone inside Cricket South Africa questioning why this is happening to a premier fast bowler who presumably is receiving the best medical advice that money can buy? Is his fitness, recovery and rehabilitation so poor that he is unable to play more than one game in succession? And this is his profession?

No point asking the Sri Lankan conditioning staff for any tips. Chanaka Welegedara tore a hamstring bowling at 125 km/h in an early spell at the MCG when fatigue clearly cannot be cited as a factor. The impressive Dinesh Chandimal, forced to sit on the bench for the first two Tests, plays one Test in Sydney that only lasts four days and can't make it through a single ODI without also succumbing to the accursed hamstring strain.

Over in the England camp, Steven Finn rarely plays back-to-back games. The Indian fast bowlers regularly miss games through similar injuries while New Zealand have elevated it to an art-form by having to replace injured players who were in turn, replacing other injured comrades. I haven't heard any bad news from Pakistan, West Indies or Bangladesh recently but I daresay their fitness and conditioning regimes mirror all the other countries. So what is the problem? Where is the problem?

The spate of hamstring injuries in particular need to be addressed. How do players who are (supposedly) massaged, warmed up, hydrated and conditioned to achieve peak performance, keep tearing muscles when performing routine tasks (routine for their job descriptions anyway)? None of these guys were injured doing something extraordinary (taking brilliant catches at full stretch like we've seen recently in the Big Bash). None of them were playing in freezing cold conditions (even if they were, isn't that the whole point of the conditioning staff, to warm them up adequately?). All of them sustained injuries in the course of a normal day's work. So what does that say about their own fitness or the system that prepares them to be so ill-equipped to get through a normal day's work? Is there something that we're all overlooking?

Is it the new type of footwear perhaps? Can that be a common link to these similar injuries across the globe? Are the run-ups and bowling creases any harder than they used to be, thereby putting more strain on the muscles? Unlikely. Are modern bowling actions vastly different to those of even five years ago, thereby exposing bowlers to greater stress on their lower backs, hamstrings or intercostals? They're not necessarily bowling a whole lot quicker than in the recent past so we can discount sheer pace as a contributing factor.

Do we need to take a closer look at the pre-season and pre-match conditioning program? What benefits, in terms of measurable outcomes is it producing, despite the extra expense of employing an army of experts? Here are some questions that need to be asked in simplistic terms (in comparison with bowlers of say 10 years ago).

Are bowlers bowling any faster? No. Are they aerobically fitter? Yes (probably). Is this superior aerobic fitness resulting in less injuries? No. Are they being rested (rotated) pre-emptively to prevent the likelihood of injuries? Yes. Is this policy of rotation/rest making any difference to their propensity for subsequent injury? No. Are they bowling more balls (in the nets and in matches)? No (probably).

Are they being massaged and pampered more? Yes. Are they on strictly managed bowling workloads? Yes. Are they eating and drinking nutritionally balanced meals under strict supervision? Yes. Are they warming up for at least twenty minutes before the start of each day's play? Yes. Are they warming down under strict supervision after play? Yes. Are they flying business class on long-haul flights? Yes. Are they sleeping in single rooms to ensure better sleep patterns? Yes. Are they wearing compression garments, at training, when travelling and in competition? Yes. Are they getting injured more often and playing less cricket as a result of all this special attention? YES!!!

Perhaps that last question can be re-phrased. Are bowlers now not being allowed to play (by management or by their own admission) when they complain of minor injuries or niggles that would otherwise have been ignored in times gone by? Probably, yes. Is this policy of caution resulting in a better outcome for future injury prevention? Clearly, no.

Final searching question: are they training with more intensity, bowling long spells at full speed in the nets? Answer: don't know for sure but I suspect this is highly unlikely. I've rarely seen this in the last few years, despite fairly close observation of training sessions and workloads. What do we need to change in order to make a difference? The current system is clearly not working. Even Blind Freddy (not the Flintoff-type version in a pedalo in the Caribbean) can see this.

If cleverer minds than mine are not asking these questions, they're simply throwing good money after bad. I mean, how do the conditioning staff explain why Ben Hilfenhaus got injured in Hobart after being rested in Perth? How do they explain why Starc gets injured after bowling just six overs in an ODI after being deliberately rested in Melbourne (in order to prevent exactly this sort of injury)? If they have no credible explanation, why not just let the players take the field when they don't actually have an injury and withdraw them when/if they physically get injured? What have they got to lose? Philander, Hilfenhaus and Starc have just proved that the "pre-emptive resting theory" is no more effective than allowing them to keep playing and keeping the body loose and supple.

The number of recent 'victims' is staggering. In the last two months alone, I can think of James Pattinson, Patrick Cummins, Josh Hazlewood, Jacques Kallis, Michael Clarke, the Kiwi lads and Ben Rohrer to name but a few of the cricketers who have had soft-tissue strains (other than the names already mentioned).

If modern sports science cannot provide answers (and outcomes) that can improve the current system, perhaps we should be looking to alternative therapies like yoga or meditation or Chinese medicine? Peter Siddle is as tough as teak and is now a vegetarian. Perhaps a radical alternative might be to let these modern cricketers start taking control of their own destinies. Allow them the freedom (and responsibility) to prepare themselves for 'employment' in whatever way they choose and then hold them accountable for their own future employment prospects. Dispense with the trappings of the central contracting system and simply pay them handsomely for turning up for work fit and ready to perform. Controversial and 'never-to-be-adopted' my suggestion may be but worth the hypothetical question for the sake of friendly debate. It can't produce worse outcomes than the current system where cricketers who are rested when they are fit in order to prevent injuries, then get injured the very next game. If it's broke (or strained/pulled/dislocated/sore), fix it!

PS - latest injury update from Adelaide…Mitchell Johnson ruled out with minor injury. Clearly nine overs at the MCG and no batting was enough to see him off.

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