February 11, 2014

Modern injury-prevention techniques are not working

It might be time to go back to more traditional methods of preparation: long periods of batting and bowling in place of hours spent in the gym, in ice baths, and on the massage table

Surely someone in Cricket Australia must realise that whatever is being done to prevent Shane Watson from succumbing to soft-tissue injuries is not working? © AFP

My two most recent pieces questioning the value of support staff within the professional cricket framework elicited much interest offline. One of the points made by an eloquent and informed sports-medicine professional was that forced rest periods could sometimes be counter-productive if the athlete in question had the sort of physical profile that benefited from constant motion. Glenn McGrath for example was a fast bowler who seemingly thrived on a steady workload that kept him chugging along, with occasional long breaks for an engine overhaul. He is the taxi where Shane Watson is the Formula 1 race car that looks good at high speed but costs a fortune in maintenance.

Watson's latest injury is indeed a mystery that must be equally frustrating to all involved: player, medical staff and management alike. After a none-too-rigorous Ashes campaign that saw England fold meekly on days three or four in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney, Watson's workload was carefully managed to ensure his fragile body got enough rest to be firing on all cylinders to take on South Africa. Since January 5, when the Sydney Test resulted in an indecently hasty finish on day three, Watson has been virtually wrapped in bubble plastic, presumably as a precaution against soft-tissue injuries. His two ODI appearances were hardly taxing for a full-time professional athlete who has no other occupation except playing cricket (or getting fit enough to play). Two innings, six balls faced for 0 runs and a total of 11.4 overs with the ball, plus a bit of fielding for a maximum of seven hours. That was the sum total of his month's work at the office between January 5 and February 12.

It is hard to comprehend how an injury can flare up if he has been under such expert care in a supposedly scientifically proven medical environment. What more can the dedicated and hard-working staff do (that they are currently not doing) to keep players like Watson and Shaun Marsh from succumbing to soft-tissue injuries? I would like to be a fly on the wall when the latest injury is explained to senior management and selectors, given that the entire point of the enforced rest period was to prevent this very thing from happening. One can only presume that Watson's injury-prevention programme has been mapped out by highly qualified and intelligent people with the backing of all the latest sports-medicine data and yet he once again pulls up with an injury after almost five weeks of doing virtually nothing. It is inconceivable that this can keep happening without someone in Jolimont Street twigging that there must be a better way.

Perhaps it is just one of those inexplicable things that brook no rhyme or reason. Watson may just have one of those bodies that goes twang every time he reaches for the hairdryer. The success thus far in managing Ryan Harris' dodgy knees is proof that these people know what they are doing, although Marsh's injury record suggests that it may just be luck rather than science. It would be disingenuous to claim a victory for all the Harris-type stories and then blame it all on bad luck for the Watson/Marsh repeat episodes.

It's a global phenomenon. Abdur Razzak, a slow left-arm bowler, bowled a mere four overs on the first day of the Chittagong Test before succumbing to a hamstring strain. Unless the injury occurred as a result of impact or a desperate fielding effort gone wrong, it is extraordinary that his fitness, preparation or warm-up routine could have been so poor as to allow this to happen to a full-time professional sportsman. Sri Lanka too were missing two of their best bowlers in in Chittagong, presumably through workload-related injuries that arguably cost them another Test victory. No country is exempt from these mystery injuries, despite having in place systems and staff that are specifically charged with doing exactly the opposite.

Perhaps the answer lies in reverse logic or counter-science. If preventive injury management is not working satisfactorily, the answer may lie in going back to the McGrath model of just keeping the engine running for long periods without switching off and allowing the oil to cool and muscles to seize up. Rest and recuperation is no doubt the answer when there is a real injury but I am yet unconvinced in the worth of the current system of pre-emptive "cottonwoolling" of players when some statistical programme indicates the possibility of an injury. It clearly has not worked for Watson. He had five weeks of virtually no cricket and all the care in the world, and despite this, picked up an injury. Is it a training injury? Is it a travel injury, despite business-class travel? Or is it simply a lack of hard work doing actual "cricket stuff" like batting and bowling, as opposed to gym work, and receiving massages, treatment, ice baths and compression garments?

Managements may now be so far committed to a system that doesn't work where they refuse to concede that, despite the best intentions, the softly-softly approach is not producing results. Darren Lehmann was made to look slightly foolish (or disingenuous) when he flatly denied there was a problem with Watson only a few days ago, only to then have to concede that the injury rumours were indeed accurate. If the journalists on tour could sense that, why was it such a surprise to the staff who know each of Watson's muscles intimately?

Lehmann is the sort of chap prone to throwing away the rule book and governing by instinct, so don't be surprised if he eventually starts to disregard the boffins and returns to the old-fashioned way of preparing for Test matches: lots of miles under the belt, get your body loose by batting and bowling for long periods of time, do whatever you need to do to get fit and we'll judge you on runs and wickets, not body/fat ratios, beep tests or heart-rate monitors. It might go back to being that simple. You can almost hear him say, "Elementary, my dear Watson".

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