January 23, 2014

Are central contracts too soft a cushion for elite cricketers?

If they had to play to be paid, would they allow their handlers to rest them so often?

Stuart Broad "worked" under ten hours over a six-week period © Getty Images

Would international fast bowlers be fitter and more durable if they were not centrally contracted and were on a strict "play for pay" salary? In other words, are they less likely to be rested, either at their own request or at the behest of management, if they were individual athletes (a bit like some of the IPL hired guns) as opposed to being part of a team environment with a coterie of physios, coaches, nutritionists and conditioners, who sometimes have to justify their roles by "managing" the workload of a fast bowler and in so doing, lean towards resting them when they should really be fit enough to bowl? In the case of Stuart Broad, here is England's best bowler, resting on the sidelines when his struggling team desperately needs him, supposedly because he is out on his feet after a gruelling Ashes campaign.

As a follow-on question, are fast bowlers (and cricketers) less fit than other elite athletes who play a no-contact sport? It's not quite the perfect apples v apples comparison but let's look at men's tennis and see if they, playing for individual prize money rather than being paid by a board, are either fitter or more robust than their cricketing equivalents. My contention is that fast bowlers are significantly less fit, or the system mollycoddles them far too much, forcing them to rest when they really could be doing more of what they are handsomely paid to do - bowl fast.

If we compare Broad, who is currently ranked tenth on the ICC Test rankings, to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, ranked tenth on the ATP World Tour, and look at their workloads, it may provide us with an imperfect but nonetheless interesting picture. In the Ashes series, Broad bowled a total of 161.5 overs spread out over 46 days and despite this being his sole full-time career, he is now deemed unfit to play in the first few ODIs for his country at a time when they sorely need their best bowler. Yes, he might have bowled a few more overs if he hadn't been struck on the foot in Perth but he also enjoyed breaks of ten, three, eight and four days respectively between Tests, not counting the downtime during matches when England were batting and when the matches finished on days three or four. He has since had about 13 days "rest" and has only just returned to the fray. Judging by his bowling figures in his comeback match, 8-0-61-0 at 7.62 runs per over, you'd have to wonder if the break did him any good at all. Perhaps he'll be given another type of rest soon - being dropped from the team!

Tsonga, meanwhile, played three matches over six days in the first week of the Australian Open in extreme heatwave conditions that are significantly more taxing than even the Perth Test, where Broad only bowled 22 overs. Tsonga has been on court for a total of 358 minutes and played a total of 94 games, made easier by the fact that his first three matches were won in straight sets. (That is to his credit, though a bit like Broad's workload potentially being lessened if Australia had been bowled out sooner.)

The current system has bred a culture of softness that has now permeated the mindset of the modern cricketer, who is not prepared to bowl through a bit of pain and discomfort

If you equate a game of tennis to an over bowled by a fast bowler, Tsonga has played 94 games in six days with roughly a day's rest in between. Considering that a typical over might last about four minutes, and that matches are punctuated by long rest periods (including lunch and tea) but also include fielding duties, Broad typically bowled about 32 overs per Test over a five-day period (162 divided by 5) so 32 x 4 = 128 minutes when Broad was actually bowling in a Test match compared to 358 minutes on court for Tsonga over a similar period.

Let's not factor in practice sessions into this equation because that just muddies the water and isn't essential. Practice is meant to be an activity to help an athlete get adequately prepared to play, so if that practice session actually exhausts the player too much, then they shouldn't do it. In Broad's case, it's a poor excuse to say he's worn out for the real game because he bowled too much in the nets - if he's that unfit, he shouldn't bowl in practice. It's all about training as hard as you need to (or resting) in order to perform on the field/court.

The physical stresses on the body are naturally quite different but you could make a reasonable case that the tennis serving action puts similar stresses on the body to bowling fast. I haven't been able to access any GPS data on the total distance covered by a tennis player but I suspect the violent stop-start, left-right, forward-back nature of their movements would exert significant pressure on joints, much like it is for a fast bowler, except that it's usually all in one direction for the cricketer, perhaps lessening the impact somewhat.

Many tennis players also play doubles and/or mixed doubles - another significant strain on their bodies. There goes the rest period between singles matches. Like cricketers, they too travel extensively but they cross international boundaries more often with all the attendant physical stresses that come with jet-lag, transiting through airports, time-zone changes, weather, and food differences. So it's hard to make a case that cricketers do it any tougher. If anything, the cricketer has most of his travel needs catered for by management, so he simply just boards the bus or plane and follows the team, thereby eliminating some mental fatigue as well.

The point behind this imperfect comparison is to again pose the question of whether the security of a fat contract (assured salary) and the vast support crew who are supposedly there to boost fitness levels actually bring anything to the party. Left to his own devices, the cricketer himself may end up being fitter and more durable than when he is ensconced in a system that has to justify itself by wrapping fast bowlers in cotton wool and "performance-managing" them to a standstill. Literally. Bowling 162 overs in 45 days (approximately 648 minutes work or 10.5 hours over a six-week period) when it is your sole occupation doesn't sound like the sort of workload that requires another two-week rest before you can go back to work. Where do you apply for one of those jobs?

In defence of these world-class cricketers, I was once that young lad who dreamed of getting a job like this but I simply wasn't good enough. As simple as that. I still think, though, that the current system has bred a culture of softness that has now permeated the mindset of the modern cricketer, who is not prepared to bowl through a bit of pain and discomfort. Much of that fault can be laid at the feet of the ancillary staff, who have convinced this generation of cricketers (and their employers) that their input has led to a fitter high-performance athlete.

Faster they may be. More highly tuned they may be. But fitter and more durable? Compared to some other international athletes, they clearly are not. Can any of that be traced back to the security of central contracts, where you still get paid even when you are resting?

When I was a journeyman overseas pro playing league cricket in England, in 12 seasons I never missed a single game because of injury, because if I didn't play, I didn't get paid. Most of my colleagues were in a similar boat. We often bowled 75-plus overs a week, batted in the top order, worked part-time jobs and had to maintain a house or flat, without massages, ice baths, compression garments and special diets. Our very livelihoods depended on being fit enough to turn up to work, even though we may have carried minor niggles and constant aches. It never crossed your mind to miss a few weeks because the body needed a rest. There was plenty of time to sleep on the 24-hour flight back home to Australia in September when you went straight back into grade cricket and had to win your spot back from all the young guns who had been impressing the selectors during pre-season training. No play, no pay. What a quaint idea.

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Aidan on January 25, 2014, 8:06 GMT

    Hmm still remember the OZ mad selectors and 'conditioning' staff resting Siddle and Hiff after a heavy load against SA in a do or die match - they brought in Starc (I rate the guy but it was bad timing) and an all rounder (doing disgrace to the baggy green) - all on the basis "they were tired". It was deplorable. It was a do or die match to decide the series and they unsettled a settled side.

    In saying all this - I understand why Broad was rested. Perhaps he was being a bit of a princess by not bowling with his swollen foot in the Test match though.

  • Jackie on January 25, 2014, 0:10 GMT

    Not quite sure about the comparisons. International cricket is very stressful and lasts for days at a time. When you're not bowling you're fielding. And when you are not playing you are practising every day. Given the amount of injuries fast bowler suffer from the bodies are under great strain. My physiotherapist say the strain comes from putting more stress on one side of the body. Playing for your county is very different, players are much more relaxed and the training is not so intense. Given that two players cracked up during the recent Ashes Tour let alone those getting the yips and losing form and being dropped, then the incidence of stress seems incredibly high. Players are rested for mental breaks as well as physical ones.

  • Dummy4 on January 24, 2014, 14:23 GMT

    England won today so there are no longer any problems in the system :-)

    More seriously, and I am not trying to sound like Fred Trueman, the problem is that the top players do not play enough non-international cricket. On the current tour of Australia there were 48 days schedules between day 1 of the First Test and day 5 of tbe Final Test. 25 days scheduled for Test cricket. Of the other 23 days TWO were spent playing cricket, what did they do for the other 21? How are out of form players supposed to get back into form? Cental contracts have their uses but releasing the top players to play in the county championship once in a while would do no harm.

  • Vinod on January 24, 2014, 12:14 GMT

    What you are basically saying -Foxy - is that there are cricketers who are milking the system....u could be true to a point....well actuallly look at the num of pacers nowadays warming the bench with injuries, and compare that with DK lillee who basically made it on his own through injury and through sheer hard work and determination....any ways, i feel we can have two solutions -one - bring back the rest day ....this will allow lotsa fielders and bowlers to recover.....the human body needs this....secondly i feel that in the greed for the adminstrators for the $$-read eyeballs, advs etc, the outfields are more sand based and hence are lightning fast, but they take a lot out of the body read - the pace men who are pounding in and hence more damages to their bodies, the grounds should go back to what they were previously, which will cushion the bodies of the pacers, and less injuries - my 5 C worth -plz correct me if i am worng.

  • Aaron on January 24, 2014, 2:27 GMT

    The problem is the not the workload itself - it's the advice the players are receiving from the experts. They may well have the latest research at their fingertips but is the study of human physiology finished yet? have they discovered everything there is to know?

    Because until they have discovered everything there is to know the best expert on a players body is that player themselves - that's the difference between the old players and the new players and it's also the difference between tennis and cricket. Being an individual sport tennis players don't have the same number of experts around them and are consequently forced to be more self reliant. They get to know their own bodies and then they know whether they can handle the next tournament or if they need a break.

    All these cricket experts are doing is distracting the players from being tuned into their bodies and stopping them from being self reliant.

  • Michaeljeh on January 24, 2014, 1:21 GMT

    Thanks for the comments. Like I said, it's not a perfect comparison because there are so many other factors like fielding etc which can't be accounted for. Fair point too. It was only meant to provoke some discussion. My tenet is that the cricketer himself may be fitter than his 'handlers' allow him to be. I reckon the system may be doing him an injustice - rest is important but I reckon there's far too much of it. Naresh, if 12 overs of bowling fatigues you to the point where you are breathless to the point of barely being able to speak (even allowing for exaggeration to make your point), you're unlikely to "get" this piece. I've bowled 20+ overs three days running and still managed to walk back to my college room, fix my dinner, study for exams, visit the student bar and even cut some shapes at the nightclub! If I was paid NOT to bowl, would I have given in to the aches? That's my point. These guys may actually be very fit but the medicos convince them to rest too much.

  • Balaji on January 24, 2014, 0:36 GMT

    Apples and oranges, when it comes to comparing Tsonga and Broad. But as for the workload, I'd have to agree with Michael Jeh. The great West Indies fast bowlers of the past played county cricket, and by all accounts of their contemporaries, shouldered an enormous workload, and were still champion bowlers. Another example would be McGrath, he bowled a lot. Duncan Fletcher started restricting the workload of England bowlers, a practice that is still around. Maybe that idea has run its course, and England need to look at something new. Overwork cannot be an excuse, England had nearly 2 months off. It was Australia which played in the interim, and rediscovered a rejuvenated Johnson.

  • Paul on January 23, 2014, 22:46 GMT

    A better comparison may have been baseball or basketball. Those guys play all of the time.

    Central contracts are a good idea. Otherwise you end up like Pakistan for example. If a guy breaks down for 12-18 months because he was injured playing cricket, he's on his own. That doesn't work.

    Central contracts didn't stop Glenn McGrath playing every game he could. Nor do they stop the All Blacks being as hard as nails.

  • naresh on January 23, 2014, 19:26 GMT

    So the tennis guy put in 6 hours of work on the court over 6 days. Broad bowled 22 overs over 469 minutes (say 8 hours for simplicity) in the first innings. Say 22 overs took him 110 minutes - that leaves 6 hours.

    contrary to "popular perception" - 1. He was NOT sleeping for those 6 hours 2. He was fielding and probably running around a lot too 3. Even just standing in the sun for 6 hours can take a lot out of you

    So, like most things in life, you cannot take a "lets solve this stupid simple linear equation and go home" approach to it. I am no cricketer, but I did bowl 12 overs in a day in a college match once (35 over game) - I could barely shout "good throw" at the end of it.

    Cricket is tough because its played over an entire day. The longer you stay, the longer your body is denied a chance to fully recover - tennis you get to sit between each game - cricket did away with the rest day long back.

    Surely you know that much Michael?

  • Dummy4 on January 23, 2014, 18:08 GMT

    I remember a time, not that long ago, when England struggled to put together a first choice XI because of injuries and fatigue brought on by a crowded fixtures list in County cricket. Central contracts were introduced for a very sound reason: It helped avoid the situation of having to pick the 8th choice bowler because the other 7 higher up on the list were all injured. Australia have central contracts so you can't lay the blame on England's recent performance on them.

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