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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • KEN on February 14, 2014, 1:07 GMT

    Beep tests, ice baths, heart rate monitors etc etc. Total crap. All "methods" invented by the parasites who hang off sporting teams to justify their existence. Players of the 70's & 80's would laugh at all this nonsense, and the statistics clearly show the modern players are injured more often and probably over-diagnosed too.

  • T G on February 13, 2014, 20:41 GMT

    This is an issue I have thought about for a couple of decades. My conclusion is modern injury prevention techniques used, or modern fitness training regimes implemented, by so-called experts don't work. Batting and bowling does not require players to develop pronounced muscles. Bowlers require flexibility and suppleness. They also need to bowl. Nothing prepares a bowler better for bowling than bowling. So, let the bowler bowl and stop this nonsense about "loading" factors. Trueman or Bedser bowled thousands of overs without breaking down or going to the gym. Boyd Rankin, surrounded by experts for weeks, broke down twice within 8 overs. Enough said?

  • Steve on February 13, 2014, 18:09 GMT

    @insult2injury, sorry, was not specifically your point I was questioning, which by the way I thought was an excellent one. Was merely pointing out how injury prone cricket is by its very nature. Actually makes your point about specific programs even more urgent, overcoming specific weaknesses rather than overdoing strength and ' conditioning '. Actually playing, supported by the remedial care the individual needs, would be my ideal!

  • Dummy4 on February 13, 2014, 11:47 GMT

    is it really them getting injured more often. I mean these days a small niggle is picked up and the player is rested for a game. Earlier they would continue playing until they broke a bone. Is it a case of injuries being more realised with a presence of a modern medical staff.

  • Simon on February 13, 2014, 2:55 GMT

    steve48, just clarifying that my comments weren't comparing tennis players to cricketers as far as on field intensity. My point is that as professional sportsmen tennis players are responsible for their own fitness regimes and therefore employ trainers to specifically address the fitness required for their sport and then the way the individual's physiology copes. In cricket terms, you would get your trainer to focus on muscles that drive your wicket keeping squats and then any personal limitations. I get mine to focus on muscles that absorb the impact on delivery, while also focusing on my lower back problems. All of us liaising with Alex Kontouris. Today's cricketers are well paid full time professionals who certainly need a centrally provided physio for game days, but their specific fitness should not be on the CA dime. We're a long way from group calisthenics on the tour ship voyage. Similarly we're past blanket quotas and rotations which don't benefit every player.

  • peter on February 12, 2014, 23:15 GMT

    Maybe the newer methods actually do work and keep injury-prone players in the game, wheras in the past they would have given up/been weeded out far earlier in their careers. Higher wages and contracts have also seen injury prone players more motivated to stay in the game. If a Shane Watson had emerged in the 1970s he would probably quit a age 21 due to financial pressures.

  • Steve on February 12, 2014, 17:18 GMT

    Interesting comments comparing tennis players to cricketers. However, I think that once a tennis player has warmed up he becomes involved in a far more intense sport than cricket, resulting in body heat and therefore greater elasticity in the muscles and joints than a cricketer can ever achieve on the pitch other than in T/20 to some extent. Would be interested to see actually how many soft tissue injuries occur during T/20 as an aside! My real point is that cricket training needs to be carefully tailored to the real needs of the sport, not the least of which is the reality of 3 two hour sessions per day on your feet often not doing much, then suddenly sprinting and diving, back to not very much, then try to bowl at a good pace. Surely gym training needs to supplement playing, because it can't really replicate it!

  • Nicholas on February 12, 2014, 13:16 GMT

    I was amazed to read recently, that Mark Cavendish, the cycling sprinter (25 stage wins in the Tour de France) simply gets on his bike every day, and rides as far and as fast as he can! Cavendish is hardly ever injured.

  • Dummy4 on February 12, 2014, 8:37 GMT

    I guess the issue is more with flexibility that we develop as children. I guess he must do more Yoga and body-weight exercises instead of trying to build those big biceps.

  • K. on February 12, 2014, 3:42 GMT

    Contd... So as with the squat eg. you have stronger muscles ( often unevenly developed compared to their opposing muscle set- hamstrings in this case) pulling on relatively weaker ligaments/tendons. Its a miracle they don't get injured more often actually.

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