April 21, 2011

Crashing down from cloud nine

The portly Yusuf Abdulla was dropped from the Dolphins side because he's no longer fast or fit. But how much does fitness have to do with physique?

April 2009: Yusuf Abdulla, a chubby left-arm swing bowler, was the unlikely star of the IPL's visit to South Africa.

Abdulla had had an impressive domestic season coming into the second season of the tournament. In the local Pro20 competition, he took 10 wickets in eight matches at an average of 17.10. He was the first of a threesome of left-armers unearthed in South Africa since Brett Schultz, the other two being Lonwabo Tsotsobe and Wayne Parnell, and his subtleties with swing, coupled with his angle, were confusing batsmen from Paarl to Potchefstroom.

The Kings XI Punjab signed Abdulla as a replacement for Brett Lee, who missed the first part of the season because of an ankle injury. Midway through the tournament Abdulla was topping the wicket charts, and he finished with 14 scalps at an average of 17.21. That earned him a place in South Africa's squad to travel to the World Twenty20 in West Indies.

April 2011: Yusuf Abdulla, still chubby, still swinging it, is released from his franchise contract. The Durban-based Dolphins, where he started his career six seasons ago, decided not to keep him on their books because they no longer think he is good enough. His career has nose-dived and injuries have left nasty craters in a path that was once lit with stars.

"He suffered a loss of form and had no pace left," Jesse Chellan, chief executive of the Dolphins, told ESPNcricinfo. He was also told he was unfit.

"The problem started when I got injured just after the season started," Abdulla said. "I had a grade-three tear in my groin and was out for eight weeks." The tear didn't occur suddenly; it was the result of a persistent strain that he had carried since the end of the 2009-10 South African domestic season, through the third edition of the IPL and during the first weeks of the recently completed 2010-11 season. Every time the injury was treated, it recurred. "When it first happened, I think the programmes I was put on to recover were not right for me," Abdulla said.

Groin injuries make up 2-5% of all sports injuries and are particularly pesky to diagnose and treat. They even stalled the careers of Shaquille O'Neal and Michael Owen.

"The groin is a meeting place for a lot of different structures and is often the victim, and not the culprit," Dr Jon Patricios, a sports medical specialist based in Johannesburg, said. " The hip joints, pelvis and various other muscles meet there. The term groin injury is quite vague and the pain from a groin injury could be a reason for many things."

Patricios, whose clinic treated Parnell successfully after he suffered a groin injury in May last year, said these types of injuries usually result in about an eight-week layoff for the player. Abdulla was out of action for exactly that period.

"When I came back I wasn't playing that much," he said. Instead of being immediately recalled to the Dolphins, who preparing for their Pro20 campaign, the format Abdulla is most comfortable in, he was asked to play three-day cricket for Kwa-Zulu Natal's amateur side.

"It is estimated that a force of seven to 10 times the body weight is driven through a bowler's front foot at impact. The greater the body weight, the greater the resultant force through the front leg on impact and the greater the wear and tear"
Rob Walters, South Africa's fitness trainer, on the relation between weight and bowling action

His performances there were economical without being penetrative. He took seven wickets for 250 runs at an average of 35.71. More importantly he bowled an average of 20 overs per match, five fewer than the average number of overs bowled by the top five wicket-takers in the competition. Despite making what seemed like a successful return to the game, Abdulla was accused of being unfit, and, while it was never explicitly said, overweight.

Like Samit Patel and Jesse Ryder, Abdulla has been criticised for carrying more weight than he should. Compared with the lean Dale Steyn, Abdulla can appear portly, but he says it has no impact on his bowling. "I am happy with my weight. This weight was with me when I was at my best." For 20-over cricket, his forte, he says his size is no problem. "I agree that for four-day cricket you might need that extra fitness but I have always been a 20-over player."

Most heads, especially South African, would nod in agreement, recalling players like Ollie le Roux, national rugby player, and footballer Benni McCarthy, who played with extra baggage. Now is the time to remind them that le Roux may have played a better game and McCarthy could still be part of the English Premiership if both had been better conditioned. Fitness, form and weight are not directly related, but the subtleties of their relationship cannot be ignored.

"It is estimated that a force of seven to 10 times the body weight is driven through a bowler's front foot at impact," Rob Walter, fitness trainer of the South African team, explained. "Obviously the greater the body weight the greater the resultant force through the front leg on impact, and the greater the wear and tear. Combined with the biomechanics of the bowler's action itself, it can be very stressful on the body." Simply put, bowling is one of the most physically demanding tasks out there, unnatural in many senses and gruelling on joints and muscles.

The more complicated the bowling action, the more the body suffers, like Mfuneko Ngam's as a result of his mixed action. "Some bowling actions place even more pressure on the body, and while I have not analysed Yusuf's action thoroughly I think this could well be the case with him," Walter said.

It's those with such problematic actions who need the extra conditioning and fitness training. "This does not ensure improved performance nor does it ensure injury prevention, but over time the indicators would suggest that it goes a long way in assisting bowlers to perform better for longer," Walter said. Being fit and being in form may not seem to have much of a bearing on each other - Ryder scored runs even when he could hardly run himself - but the two can complement each other on occasion.

Being conditioned, if not slimmer, is something Abdulla will have to think about as he searches for a new franchise to play for next season. He can't pinpoint any other flaw in his game and would perhaps be doing himself a disservice, results-wise, by changing his action to allow for less strain on the body. "My swing was always natural. It didn't matter how I held the ball, it was all my in my action."

The 28-year-old still sounds confident and proud of his abilities and achievements and believes he "just needs one or two good performances" to be back to the bowler who set the IPL alight two years ago. For now, he can do little but watch the competition from a distance and remember how "when I just got a small chance and I took it, suddenly I was a big name".

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent