December 29, 2012

Is rotation the future? Time will tell

The sports scientists now seem to be driving selection every bit as much as the selectors

This morning, December 29th, the Australian newspaper has a strap headline "Australia's Got Talent", a notion fuelled by the thumping innings-and-201-run victory over Sri Lanka at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. It goes on to ask, "So who gets dropped this time?" Good question, given an assurance to Mitchell Starc that he was rested from the Boxing Day Test as a precaution and would play in Sydney.

Only the other day, Australia were well beaten by South Africa in Perth. The game was taken away from them with such ease on the second afternoon by Graeme Smith and Hashim Amla that the question then was, where is Australia's talent? Injured was the answer. Both Pat Cummins and James Pattinson - bowlers with pace, strength and skill - were in the hands of the medics. (Peter Siddle, exhausted after a Herculean effort in Adelaide, had a hamstring hotspot.) Pattinson, aged 22, returns to the field in club cricket a fortnight today. Cummins, aged 19, is not rated much of a chance to tour England in June. These are the years when you roll out of bed, check the skies and bless the Lord for another day without rain. The age when cricket is your everything. Hearts bleed for these guys.

Cricket Australia is so concerned about the constant stream of injuries that the sports scientists are now driving selection every bit as much as the selectors. Green zone, amber zone, red zone: fit to play, iffy to play, at risk. The management of players' workload has been the most talked about subject in Australian sport since the decision to sideline Starc, who claimed six-wicket- and five- wicket bags in the previous Test matches. Due to a minor ankle niggle, Starc was red zone. Had it been the Ashes, he would surely have played. But it wasn't, it was Sri Lanka.

The policy is working well for the selectors, even if the party line is not to mention the "r" word - rotation. The fact is that the present crop of fast bowlers are much of a muchness. Pattinson and Cummins have impressive potential, Siddle is a paragon of honest virtue, and Mitchell Johnson has a touch of magic when the force is with him. The pack marginally behind them are difficult to separate; thus the selectors get a good look. Understandably there is a strong desire to have the Ashes back, and establishing the best five or six has become paramount.

Workload management is a sensible enough theory but tricky in practice. Starc's Boxing Day dream was stolen by Jackson Bird. Starc, apparently, was shattered, and there was a general sense that the award of an Australian cap had been devalued. If he plays in Sydney, Starc will not have bowled for 16 days, enough time to steady the ankle but lose rhythm. Bird may have his wings clipped to accommodate the tall and talented left-arm speedster but at least the selectors know they have another bowler able to adapt to the spotlight of international cricket. Starc's performance at the Sydney Cricket Ground in a week's time will be highlighted. He better be good or the vultures that circle will begin to feed. The view that a nanny state does little for the development of a hard, consistent Test match cricketer is one proven over time.

Rest and considered management is no bad thing, as long as it does not provide escape for a weak mind. Cricket is a test of character as much as of anything and character is built by highs and lows, patience and intolerance, action and reaction, agreement and disagreement, pain and pleasure

The clue may be in the preparation. Malcolm Marshall never trained, not in the athletic sense of training. He did 500 sit-ups a day, every day. That was it. No running to speak of, no gym work, ever. He just bowled in the nets, hour upon hour. And then, at the start of each season, he bowled over after over for his club, island and county. Cricketers were fit for the game, not for the beach or for football.

The development of muscle confuses the body. What is it for? Both batting and bowling are awkward, unnatural activities that require specific flexibility and durability. An ironman's upper body and legs do not necessarily equate to hours at the crease with short, sharp movements, or to long spells of fast bowling on hard ground. The body prepares itself best for these activities by rehearsing these activities. Old footage shows cricketers to be mainly slim, almost wiry, their bodies built in the nets. The more highly strung a calf muscle, the more likely a stressful reaction to sudden unexpected movement. It is impossible for cricketers to stay warm and stretched because the pattern of the game follows inertia with action and vice versa over long periods. Reverting in time - not always a wise thing to do - many fine bowlers, other than Marshall, ran long distance to develop stamina and then went to the nets for the truly hard yards. Other cricketers were splendidly chunky, even podgy. Think back to them and try to recall if they broke down much or required rest.

The changing, generally faster, game in its three different formats has left little room for the immobile or unathletic. It may not sound much to bowl four overs in a T20 match but each ball bowled, if taken in isolation and with reference to its overall impact in the match, creates an altogether different pressure. Equally the demands of one- and two-over spells after sudden chases, sprawls and dives that tweak, twist and twang sinew, muscle and joint provide unresolved stress on the human form.

As a corollary to the job, there have always been bad injuries. The sideways action of bowling damages the back, almost by definition. Side, or intercostal, problems have been plaguing bowlers since the very moment they worked out they could terrorise. Ankles and knees are at the mercy of delivery strides and footholes. Planning for this is nigh on impossible. It comes from unnatural and extreme exertion.

Therefore rest and considered management is no bad thing, as long as it does not provide escape for a weak mind. Cricket is a test of character as much as of anything and character is built by highs and lows, patience and intolerance, action and reaction, agreement and disagreement, pain and pleasure. Treat cricket with respect and it will return the favour. Treat the game lightly and it will take revenge.

Two years ago England won the Ashes in Australia with five fast bowlers. Partly by design and partly by luck, a combination of first James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Steve Finn, then Chris Tremlett and Tim Bresnan, retained freshness and form through the five-match series. With two tranches of back-to-back Tests and no rest day, the modern Ashes series are a special case. Five bowlers are a minimum requirement. Cricket Australia is on to something but need to finesse or modify the application. The jury is out. Not till a year from now, after series abroad in India and England and then England again at home will we have a better idea if that something will change the way cricket teams are selected forever.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK

Comments