The case of the brittle Kiwi
The summer of 1999 was a good time to be a New Zealand supporter. In the World Cup, Geoff Allott and Dion Nash made an exciting combination, Allott getting the wickets with his swing, Nash keeping the pressure on, hitting the pitch hard, giving nothing away. Allott finished as the tournament's top wicket-taker, and it was no surprise New Zealand made it to the semi-final. Exciting times seemed in store for New Zealand, with a new-ball combination as good as any going around at that time, and Simon Doull waiting in the wings.
A year later, in Zimbabwe, Allott and Nash were queuing up for fitness tests. Allott had missed the England summer the previous year with a stress fracture in his lower back, and Nash already had a history of a collapsed disc. Both were making comebacks for the tour, but would have gone back midway in ideal circumstances. However, the team was desperate because of injuries to Daniel Vettori and Chris Cairns. The year 2000 was not a good time to be a New Zealand supporter; the team's most exciting fast bowlers had been brought down by injuries. That somehow has been the story of New Zealand cricket, more than that of any other team.
Allott, Nash, Shane Bond, Doull, Daryl Tuffey, and in the present day Ian Butler, Brent Arnel, James Franklin, Jacob Oram, Kyle Mills and many others. A comprehensive list is difficult to draw up - New Zealand has lost so many fast bowlers.
Fast bowlers are born to get injured. Very few escape. They are perhaps the most injury-prone breed in all non-contact sport. India, for example, in recent times have had their fair share of injures: Zaheer Khan, Sreesanth, RP Singh, Munaf Patel have all spent time off crocked. But in India's case, or that of most other teams, it doesn't look as bad as it does with New Zealand, who have a limited pool and not many replacements.
"The likes of Australia and India and South Africa have enough bowlers," Allott says. "They drop out one or two of their bowlers and the rest are prepared. They get another one and then another one in. We had a period when all of us were bowling all the time."
In doing so, the injured fast bowlers are brought back too early, and the rehabilitation process is not always complete. Allott and Nash more than once made unsuccessful attempts at comebacks.
Doull says there was never any undue pressure on him to come back; but when you see there are places up for grabs, you tend to hurry back. A study by the University of Otago in December 2000, about three months after that Zimbabwe tour, saw a recurrence-rate of 78% in bowlers who had suffered previous breakdowns. Bowlers who had suffered serious injury in the previous two seasons were 2.5 times more likely to have a recurrence of the same injury than those who had remained uninjured in that time. And 61% of the injuries occurred within the first month of the cricket season, including all spinal stress fractures, which were 14% of total injuries. Graeme Nuttridge, who worked with the New Zealand board at the time, and was also one of the researchers, pointed out how the high rate of injury in the first month of competition suggested that injured bowlers were probably returning too early.
Why do New Zealand's fast bowlers get injured so much in the first place, and most commonly sustain stress fractures in the back?
One of the reasons is a short summer, which means a huge increase in workload by the time they start playing high-level cricket. "You go from playing four months a year, and maybe some club cricket, bowling 50 overs a week, to playing 12 months a year, bowling 150 overs a week. That jump is huge," says Nash, who bowled 800-odd overs in his first year in county cricket. "Before that I don't think I had bowled 800 overs in my career."
With short summer comes indoor training, on concrete. "Going from the hard surfaces and the concrete ones to soft outfields really stuffs your back up," says Doull, who, too, mentions the short summers.
"I guess we have a lot of rain during winter. If you wanted to do any sort of training for cricket you had got to do it indoors. If you didn't do it indoors, you had got to do it in England or county or league cricket. For a long time New Zealand cricketers didn't have the money, so they had to go overseas and they had to earn the extra money in county cricket. Therefore you had to bowl eight-nine-10 months in a year, and then you got injured."
Moving up to the higher levels, apart from the quantity the intensity of the work increased. In the nineties it was easy for medium-pacers in New Zealand to get wickets. They just had to put the ball there and the pitches would do the rest; but at international level there was much more hard effort involved.
"Pitches have played a huge part," Doull says. "Right through the eighties and the nineties our pitches were too green at first-class level, and bowlers didn't have to strive hard to pick up wickets. Then you go to Australia or the subcontinent and you have to bowl every ball with a 100% intensity. Then you would find yourself breaking down."
Allott agrees: "At international level, you had to put in extra effort. There you tend to muscle a bit more and that put you out of alignment."
Their mixed actions didn't help Allott and Nash, but the common view is that it's better to manage an action than change a ripe one. "You are bowling at 140 and swinging it away, bowling with your natural action. You can't change that and still expect that wonderful art," Nash says. The University of Otago study concurred. "There's been a big focus internationally on technique as a major cause of injury in fast bowlers, but some of the bowlers in the study with 'correct' actions suffered injury while others with supposedly 'unsafe' actions remained injury free," the research said. "So poor technique may be less of an evil than poor management."
All three bowlers think things are improving now. Players have started going to Australia before the season, as opposed to training indoors in New Zealand. There are many more A tours. The exposure to the best training facilities and the availability of money will make a difference. Allott thinks the wickets have improved a lot; in the current series alone we have seen that they are nowhere close to what they used to be. Doull is hopeful that the new breed - the Tim Southees, Trent Boults, Mitchell McClenaghans - will be much less prone to getting injured.
But a whole generation has been lost. Allott retired when he was 29. Neither Doull nor Nash took 100 Test wickets. It is frustrating to think of what could have been. New Zealand had a world-class batting line-up then - Nathan Astle, Stephen Fleming, Craig McMillan, Roger Twose, Chris Harris and Adam Parore - but they did not have the services of a couple of fast bowlers who could form a tag team for anything like a sustained period.
For the individuals involved, the pain was more literal. Doull remembers the frustration of four operations on the knee, and several stress fractures, and the slipped disc. He remembers waking up and not being able to get out of bed or tie his shoelaces, and still playing. Allott remembers games after which he would physically collapse. "I recall one such night in South Africa. I remember my team-mates looking down at me in astonishment on the floor. That was when they came to know about the reality of how much pain I was suffering. There was a stress fracture I didn't know of, and I bowled at 140kph. It was quite excruciating."
Nash describes the lot of a bowler who has lived with injuries best. "I was in the beach cricket recently. I saw Shaun Pollock there," he says. "Shaun Pollock I always admired - he was a wonderful cricketer. I always tried to compete with him, Jacques Kallis and Lance Klusener. There were days when I had good days against South Africa. But when I saw his record, it was something like 400 Test wickets and 7000-odd runs. I saw it and thought maybe I should have done a bit more. Then again, I think he had just one heel injury towards the end of his career. But that's the way it is. Better to have done it than not."
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo