Were cricketers more hardy in the old days?
I used to be a fast bowler like you, then I took an arrow in the knee
With the first Ashes Test now only weeks away, the Australian selectors are focusing on two different f-words: "form" for the batsmen and "fitness" for the bowlers. Sadly, the various batting options are currently being compared on the basis of limited-overs performances rather than first-class runs, whereas the fast bowlers look like being picked on the basis of "last man standing".
It would seem from reading the views of journalists and retired cricketers alike that the current generation of Australian fast bowlers are the most injury-prone cohort of crocks in history: "Players weren't so soft back in my day: Fred Trueman would have bowled 30 overs a day with two broken legs after spending the entire day down the pit and sleeping in a shoebox in the middle of the road."
Are current players actually treated better by the medical and allied health sectors than in the past or are they simply managed more conservatively? The current Australian fast bowling injury list seems longer than normal, but I wonder whether this is simply another example of looking at history through the wrong lens. How many players in the past had their entire careers ended by an injury that would now just involve day surgery and a few weeks of recuperation while being financially supported by their national cricket board?
The earliest recorded injury associated with cricket is said to be that sustained by Frederick, the Prince of Wales, in 1751. He evidently was a keen cricketer, but sadly is said to have died as a consequence of being struck by a cricket ball*. Sadly also, the recent death of Darryn Randall in a match in South Africa reminds us that our beloved sport can still be very dangerous. Luckily the cricketing world has only had a few other fatalities resulting from on-field injuries, including Raman Lamba, George Summers, Ian Folley and Abdul Aziz. Far more commonplace have been serious injuries that have curtailed players' careers, and in many cases their livelihoods.
Identifying instances of cricketers in the 1800s who were seriously injured enough to miss games is a difficult task. It is not always clear exactly why players were unavailable for certain games or tours. This is particularly the case outside of England, because the lack of professional structures meant that all cricketers had to have external employment and would therefore not necessarily always be able to get leave to play.
If we arbitrarily decide to start looking at injuries from the time of the first Test match, in Melbourne in 1877, there are often references to more minor injuries. Indeed, Charles Bannerman, who scored the first-ever Test century was forced to retire hurt when a ball from George Ulyett smashed his finger, but he recovered quickly and batted in the second innings. There are similar reports of many famous players, including WG Grace and Frederick Spofforth, suffering relatively minor hand or leg injuries that kept them out of one or two matches.
One of the more interesting injuries, and one that has some parallels to the 2013 Ashes series, is when Englishman Billy Barnes suffered a hand injury that kept him out of the second Test of the 1886-87 series after he supposedly threw a punch at Australian captain Percy McDonnell and hit a brick wall after McDonnell ducked.
However, it is harder to identify players from that era whose entire career was finished as the result of an injury or illness that could perhaps be treated easily in the current era. One that immediately jumps to mind is the great English left-arm orthodox spinner Johnny Briggs. He was the first man to take 100 Test wickets, and was widely recognised as one of the leading players of his time. However, Briggs suffered from two serious health issues that had an impact on his career and ultimately his life.
Firstly, in 1899 he was struck over the heart while attempting to field a ball hit by Tom Hayward, and collapsed. Briggs didn't play again that season. He also suffered from epilepsy, although there is some confusion as to whether he had regular seizures prior to this heart injury. In any case, he then had a series of seizures and was admitted to a mental asylum where he died just a few years later, in 1902.
In the 1800s, treatment of epilepsy was often ineffective and options such as bromide seemed to cause as many problems as it cured. One has to wonder whether Briggs may have been able to extend his cricketing career and lead a much longer life, as fellow epilepsy sufferer Tony Grieg was able to do, if he had had access to modern anti-epileptic medications developed during the 20th century.
Another similarly tragic story is that of Archie Jackson. Considered by some peers to be as good a batsman as Bradman, Jackson only played eight Test matches before dying from tuberculosis. He had made a very impressive start to his international career by becoming the youngest player to score a Test century, 164, on debut against England in 1929. However, he soon started suffering from poor health, which curtailed his career to just spasmodic appearances.
In 1932, while being investigated for psoriasis (a dysfunction of the immune system), he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and died less than a year later. Treatment with antibiotics developed during the 1900s has seen the likelihood of death associated with tuberculosis plummet in the developed world, and it is likely that Jackson could have been cured if such drugs were available to his doctors. Also, if Jackson had lived in our times, it is unlikely he would have ever caught tuberculosis, as it has been largely eliminated in native-born Australians.
Unlike Briggs and Jackson, the great Australian allrounder Jack Gregory did not die from any injuries. However, his career was greatly affected by a series of knee problems and he never regained his pre-injury form. Gregory was a genuine fast bowler, who contemporaries such as Wally Hammond compared to Harold Larwood in terms of pace. Gregory was also a hard-hitting batsman who batted in every position in the top six, and he was a brilliant slip fielder whose 15 catches in the 1920-21 Ashes series is still a record for non-wicketkeepers.
Prior to his first knee injury in 1924, Gregory played 13 Tests and averaged 48 with the bat and 24 with the ball. From the start of 1925 until his final match in 1928, he played 11 Tests and his figures declined dramatically into a complete reversal of his first few years. Gregory's batting average over this period was just 25 and his bowling average skyrocketed to 45. He then re-injured his knee trying to take a caught and bowled off Larwood in the Brisbane Test in 1928 and retired completely from the game as there were no treatments that could fix his problem.
Repairing a damaged knee cartilage with current medical techniques such as keyhole surgery can often see a successful return to the field within a few months. It is just supposition at this point, but Gregory may well be remembered as one of the greatest allrounders in history had he had the opportunity to have his knee fixed after it was first injured in 1924.
Keith Miller, who was initially seen as the next coming of Gregory before he became a legend in his own right, suffered from chronic back complaints. It is believed that this problem stemmed from a crash landing during the Second World War, in which Miller was a fighter pilot for the Royal Australian Air Force. Miller was largely able to maintain his career, though, as his batting was of a high enough level that he was still selected even if his back problems prevented him bowling.
A few years after Miller retired, a number of players contracted hepatitis on Australia's 1959-60 tour to India. Gavin Stevens was so sick that he never played first-class cricket again. Similarly, Gordon Rorke, a highly promising (but controversial) fast bowler who had debuted against England in 1958, was never able to regain his full physical health and retired from first-class cricket at just 25. The transmission of hepatitis is now far better understood and managed, and cricketers are rarely placed at risk during tours. However, back in the 1950s and '60s, it was a real concern and had a potentially long-term impact upon the careers of anyone who caught it.
It can sometimes be the timing of a relatively minor injury that completely derails a career. After Rod Marsh retired from Test cricket in 1984, Australia trialled a succession of wicketkeepers over the following few years, including Steve Rixon, Wayne Phillips, Tim Zoehrer and Greg Dyer. After Dyer's career was effectively ended with a disputed catch involving New Zealand's Andrew Jones, the Australian selectors chose Ian Healy, who went on to play a record 119 Tests.
However, Healy had played just six first-class games (two in the 1986-87 season and four in the 1987-88 season) up to that point, and was only in the Queensland team due to an injury to Peter Anderson. Rated by many of his peers as the best pure wicketkeeper in Australia, Anderson had broken a thumb standing up to the stumps to Ian Botham at the WACA at just the wrong time. Healy took his chance and jumped over Anderson straight into the Test team. Healy never looked back, and Anderson never got a chance to show how good he may have been at Test level.
Of course, there are also some injuries that, no matter whether they occurred now or in the past, would cause significant problems. For example, the loss of sight in an eye, such as that experienced by Colin Milburn or the Nawab of Pataudi through car accidents, would be potentially just as difficult to treat now as it was in the 1960s.
However, even in those two cases, Milburn's career was effectively ended by his injury, while Pataudi adapted to batting with just one eye and went on to play 46 Tests. It has been argued that the difference in these two situations was that Milburn's loss of sight was in his left eye, while Pataudi's was in the right. This may not seem major, but for a right-hand batsman the left eye is closest to the bowler and the slight difference in visual perception and ball-tracking speed may have been enough at the top level to finish a career completely.
It should be noted that not all modern-era players have made totally successful returns from injury. Some, such as English fast bowler David Lawrence, who suffered a horrific knee injury that saw his left patella shatter, never managed to get back to international cricket. The South African fast bowler Mfuneko Ngam is still only 34 years old but hasn't played since 2007 due to a series of stress fractures in his spine, feet and legs. Mohammad Zahid from Pakistan was heralded as one of the world's fastest bowlers, but he only played five Tests before experiencing a serious back injury from which he never fully recovered. Ian Bishop, Bruce Reid, Waqar Younis and Jeff Thomson all managed very creditable Test careers of varying duration, but it is arguable that their post-injury performances never quite lived up to their earlier potential. Shane Bond and Ryan Harris are examples of modern players for whom the next injury always just appears to be a matter of time.
The general consensus appears to be that the present era of medicine is better at diagnosing a variety of conditions and a chance of a comeback from a previously career-ending injury is now greater than ever. However, there is some dissent about what treatment protocols should be followed, particularly in relation to stress fractures of the back. Shane Watson had a long series of back problems before prominent Adelaide surgeon Professor Robert Fraser proposed a radically different rehabilitation programme. Watson was back bowling far sooner than expected and has been largely free of back injuries ever since. Fraser argued that Cricket Australia over-diagnosed stress fractures and was too cautious in recommending very long periods of time on the sidelines to recover.
Whether the current Australian fast bowlers are "softer" than their predecessors, or whether they are simply managed more conservatively, remains an interesting question. It is feasible that promising young players like James Pattinson, Mitchell Starc, and Pat Cummins might simply have drifted out of cricket in the previous centuries, and it is only now with more money and better medical support that they are being facilitated to remain in the game.
In previous eras, young bowlers who suffered a serious injury would have been forced to work for a living rather than relying on compensation, and without appropriate medical treatment, they never would have recovered enough to get back to pre-injury performance.
Perhaps we are simply now seeing the first generation of cricketers who are financially and medically supported at a level that sustains their long-term participation in the game once injured. This gives an impression that previous generations may have been more hardy, but that may be more reflective of the fact that the equivalent injury-prone players in the past never sustained a standard high enough to be remembered.
* Exactly how Frederick died is the subject of some debate. It is said that he was struck in the chest by a cricket ball during a match on the lawn at Cliefden House in Buckinghamshire, although other scholars believe it was a tennis ball. The result was an abscess. He also caught pleurisy at around the same time, and was confined to bed. Ultimately, on March 20, 1751 the abscess burst and Frederick died soon afterwards. The post mortem assigned the cause of death to suffocation as a consequence of the burst abscess; however general opinion was that he actually died of complications associated with pneumonia.
Stuart Wark works at the University of New England as a research fellow