February 8, 2008

The test arena

Plenty of athletes come to the School of Human Movement at the University of Western Australia. Only cricketers do so with their hearts skipping a beat

Daryl Foster: in the business of studying injuries Siddhartha Vaidyanathan

The School of Human Movement is at the southern tip of the University of Western Australia campus, beside the Swan river. Footballers, rugby players, athletes, swimmers and even ballet dancers have approached the school but it's cricketers whose hearts skip a beat when they come here.

For it is cricketers alone who walk in needing a certificate, one that confirms them as legitimate participants in the game. Other sportsmen are only interested in studying their body movements to enhance performance. Footballers are usually interested in the movement of the ankle and knee, athletes want to test the dynamics of their run, and swimmers try to calibrate the movement of their shoulders and feet. Ballet artists try to study their position, to gauge the angles that will help them perform.

We're standing outside the famous laboratory where bowlers are tested for the legality of their actions. "I still remember the day Murali was here," says Martin Anderson, one of the members of the staff. "The whole international media were stationed outside the laboratory. That was probably the first time I have seen such a frenzy here."

Daryl Foster, the former Western Australia coach and a specialist in the science of body movements, has lectured at the university for a number of years. He talks about the department and tells us how its genesis had nothing to do with testing the extension of the elbow.

"It all began in 1973, when Dennis Lillee was the first recorded bowler to break down with stress fractures," he says. "Dennis was rehabilitated in the Department of Human Movement, where his action was refined. Because Dennis broke down and received publicity, we got a lot of calls from parents saying, 'My little boy has broken down, can you help?'

"And it all developed from there. Our first emphasis was lower-back injuries from fast bowling. We initially went by the MCC coaching book, which basically said, 'Thou shalt bowl with a side-on action'. But in the early '80s you had a number of West Indian fast bowlers bowling with a front-on action. We then slowly realised that side-on was fine and front-on was fine but when you mixed it you were likely to get stress fractures in the lower back. Most of the research in the university concerns mixed actions and lower-back injuries."

Studying injuries still forms a large part of the research at the School of Human Movement, but in the mid-90s the focus shifted to bowling actions. "I was coaching Kent in 1995, and met Murali through Aravinda de Silva, our overseas player then," Foster says. "Later that year Murali was called by [Darrell] Hair and [Ross] Emerson. I got in touch with him then and brought him to Perth to take a look at his action. We've tested Murali in 1995, 1999-00, 2004-05, and every time his offspinner has been fine. The doosra had a considerable degree of extension but the ICC changed the law and it's within the limits now. I think we've tested a dozen bowlers since."

Since the whole testing procedure takes just two or three hours, bowlers can afford to fly in, be tested, and fly out again. Amity Campbell, a PhD student at the university, remembers Johan Botha, the most recent visitor, coming in jet-lagged, bowling, and leaving immediately. She goes on to show us a crack in the door, when a ball from Jermaine Lawson hit it.

The lab is the size of an indoor badminton court, and contains equipment straight out of a Star Wars film. The bowler, markers stuck to his body, is analysed at the time of delivery, with his action simulated on a computer screen for analysis. "We have 12 cameras here and each can capture five times the number of frames that you see on television," Campbell says. "We also have gauges for ball velocity, ensuring that the bowlers stick to their actual pace in the lab conditions too."

Spin bowlers have it easy but the fast men need to run in from the field and into the lab. "We needed to open up both the gates for Shoaib Akhtar," Campbell smiles, pointing to the distant horizon to indicate from where he ran in. "But we only need to do the testing when he actually delivers the ball, so how much he ran didn't matter."

A graphic representation of Murali's bowling action for his doosra, as analysed at the UWA Siddhartha Vaidyanathan

Until May 2004 the ICC's tolerance level for bowlers straightening their arms read: five degrees for slow bowlers, 7.5 degrees for medium-fast bowlers and ten degrees for fast bowlers. "It was ludicrous," says Foster. "It's not the type of bowler but the amount of acceleration he generates during the point of delivery. Murali generated as much as acceleration as some of the quicks.

Also, what about a fast bowler bowling a slower ball? What about a spinner firing one in? "A research of many bowlers around the world showed 15 degrees will encompass most bowlers around the world breaking the law," says Foster. "It's a common misconception that the rule was changed because of one bowler (Murali). That's not right. All bowlers around the world extend their arms to some degree."

We're shown the graph for Murali's doosra. The flex-angle is plotted against the distance moved by the arm and it's clear that the angle goes from a maximum of 61 to a minimum of 50. "That's only 11 degrees," says Foster, "and I think we found a few cases when it was 10.5 even."

What of Shoaib? "I can remember Shoaib didn't use an up-and-down motion for his front arm but opened himself up and generated all the speed through the chest. Looking at him initially, all we could say was, 'You need to get your arm a lot higher.' Lillee said it would take a long time to adjust to this change but I was confident he would manage - simply because he had begun to bowl fast only when he was 17 or 18. And he's mainly tried to keep that action since 2001.

"I was with the team as a consultant in the World Cup in 2003. I still remember Shoaib saying to me, 'In the sixth ball of the fourth over, I'll bowl 100 mph'. I laughed. Stunningly, he actually did it."

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is an assistant editor at Cricinfo