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