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Former Hampshire batsman; host of Channel 9's cricket coverage

Is rotation the future? Time will tell

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

Mark Nicholas

December 29, 2012

Comments: 28 | Text size: A | A

Mitchell Starc finished South Africa's innings with six wickets, Australia v South Africa, 3rd Test, Perth, 3rd day, December 2, 2012
Had it been the Ashes, Starc would almost certainly have played in the Melbourne Test © AFP

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

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Posted by zenboomerang on (January 1, 2013, 11:15 GMT)

@Mark Nicholas :- "Is rotation the future?"... The wrong heading - it should be that "rotation is the future" as the Oz seam bowlers are breaking down more as we cram the year with multiple forms of cricket to the detriment of bowlers muscle development & bowling form (line & length) as the physical training & mental approach are completely different... CA want Starc as a 3 format bowler (which he is good at) yet expect him to be ready to switch quickly from format to format which is putting undue pressure on his body...

Posted by zenboomerang on (January 1, 2013, 2:12 GMT)

@dunger.bob... You should read up on McGrath & how he prepared for Test cricket - completely different to Marshall & much taller in physique... Actually McGraths approach should be in the tall fast bowlers coaching manual...

Posted by zenboomerang on (January 1, 2013, 2:11 GMT)

@Mark Nicholas... The Marshall anology doesn't work - as fast bowlers go he was relatively short & didn't experience the physical stresses of much taller men... He also didn't have to play T20's as warm-ups before Test series started - i.e. T20WC followed by CL early this season...

Posted by Nutcutlet on (December 31, 2012, 13:27 GMT)

90% of the rotation issue is about fast bowlers, as this article intimates. It is, however, more than fitness that's at issue, it's a lot to do with the different formats that elite cricketers are required to play. The skill set for the quicks in t20 is at complete variance with that needed for Test cricket. The liquorice allsorts that are deemed necessary for the bashing game (how perceptive & clear-sighted of Oz to take the prejudice out of 'bash', when that is what it is!) have little or no transfer-value to TC, & vice-versa. Countries that want to succeed in format cricket might well be advised to consider identifying bowlers for the different forms & keep the two (or three) watertight from each other. The genuine, class acts belong to Test cricket (and, even so, a squad of five for a Test series is plain sensible). Those with a bag of tricks should ply their trade in coloured kit. Thereby, many fitness issues should resolve themselves.Do not ask a steeplechaser to run 5 furlongs!

Posted by   on (December 30, 2012, 23:18 GMT)

Australia have got it wrong. SA aren't going to rest Steyn, England won't rest Anderson, for anything but a dead rubber or pointless ODI/T20 series. Anderson bowled more overs than anybody else this year. He also played all 5 ashes tests in Aus. Some bowlers are naturally fit for bowling and others aren't. You can't just use a blanket policy for every bowler. Some need to be managed, others can keep going.

Posted by   on (December 30, 2012, 21:54 GMT)

I have a problem with the sports scientists and indeed with sports medicine in general. That problem is that most of it isn't evidence based. To a casual observer it appears the more it's applied to cricket the more injuries we are seeing. Either a cricketer is fit to play or he's not. The rotation policy is a joke Selectors that don't pick the best 11 for a match need the sack. I agree with the other comments on how cricketers need to train . As for the requirements for fast bowlers playing in all 3 forms of the game bowling 4 or 10 overs can't hurt them and i can't see why players need to be quarantined ever

Posted by Tumbarumbar on (December 30, 2012, 16:08 GMT)

It's a dreadful shame that the world has become so polluted with sports scientists that we are far more likely to see a Dodo, a Tasmanian Tiger, a Great Auk and an English leg spinner walking together through the streets of Mumbai than we are to see the likes of Boon, Vishwanath and Gatting waddle the cricket fields of the world again. Those three and men like them made me feel that with a little bit of talent, a lot more courage and a few more kilos of padding I too could stare down a West Indian quick.

Posted by righthandbat on (December 30, 2012, 8:30 GMT)

A good rotation policy makes plenty of sense. It encourages good performances every time people take to the cricket oval (knowing that a few bad games then being rotated could make the 'rotation' permanent) and allows those crucial rest days - both mentally and physically.

The only problem is that batsmen are not being rotated around quite as much as bowlers. Even a captain or vice-captain should be rotated occasionally to improve leadership skills throughout a team and really create a larger squad. It's just a matter of coming up with a good model and the current Australian bowling model is working quite well.

Posted by japdb on (December 30, 2012, 3:34 GMT)

Well people forget that Lillee was out with stress fractures for 12 months or so early on and missed a tour to England because he said he had to rest up. So not quite the ironman portrayed. Also I think if you look at the record that Trueman did not bowl flat out all season in England - just enough to keep Yorkshire in front. And bowlers were not expected to race around the field and throw themselves along the ground. And I am sure there were plenty of young fast bowlers that faded away with a bad back or some chronic injury that we have forgotten about e.g. Stuart and Cook from Australia.

Posted by landl47 on (December 30, 2012, 1:07 GMT)

@mikey76: you couldn't be more wrong about Botham. He was among the greatest ever all-rounders for the first half of his career, until overwork caused stress fractures in his spine. For the second half of his career he was ordinary. Check the stats and you'll see.

Everyone is different and everyone needs a regimen tailored to their needs. Ponting and Hussey were fitness fanatics and neither were injured often. Dale Steyn has been maybe the fittest fast bowler out there and he has done weight training from a young age. The key (which this article doesn't deal with) is that training is very specific. Players are given training programs which help their cricket skills (including fielding!), not simply general muscle development.

Time lends enchantment to everything. Players from 50 years ago, playing the way they did then, wouldn't get near a side today. If they wanted to play today, they'd have to train the way players do today. It's as simple as that.

Posted by MrPud on (December 30, 2012, 0:35 GMT)

The first thing to do is get rid of the sports scientist from the scene. Bowlers need to be fit to bowl, so they need to run enough to sustain 25 overs in a day's play and maybe back up with another spell the following morning. The only other training they need is bowling. Either in the nets or match practice. This will train the body to cope with its stresses. Core strengthening from swimming is beneficial. Interesting that Malcolm Marshall's training was only sit ups. If Shane Watson didn't bulk up so much as a youngster, maybe he wouldn't break down as often. Guys like Botham and Willis played County matches between Tests and rarely were injured. Bowlers need strength through the core, legs and bum. They don't need the shoulders of a weightlifter. Dale Steyn is the classic example of a very fit guy who is wiry of build rather than muscly. Has anyone asked Courtney Walsh what his training regime involved?

Posted by Busie1979 on (December 30, 2012, 0:04 GMT)

Rotation is the future - no doubt, at least if there is fast bowling depth. There is a lot of cricket. Putting the injury issue aside, there is very little difference between the top 10-15 fast bowlers in Australia. With this much talent, rotate them through, keep them fresh, pick the right team for the right pitch and keep the opposition teams guessing. I feel sorry for these guys - it is very competitive to get a game, even at state level.

To weigh in on the injury issue, nowadays there is no off season, bowlers need to be dynamic fielders (eg. Courtney Walsh would never get away with jogging after the ball, stopping it with his foot and underarming it in from the outfield these days), there is less time between tests, and players have to train for and play different formats. The modern bowler has far more stressors on his body. This debate is like the climate change debate - where conjecture trumps science. Trust the scientists I say.

Posted by downundermick on (December 30, 2012, 0:00 GMT)

Agreed Mark, that second afternoon was when the game was lost. Along with the series and the world number one mantel. Big John Hastings opened the bowling at 124 km/h and Amla's eyes lit up like a kid facing a tennis ball on the beach. John is not mentioned in your article and I have not seen any criticism of this selection anywhere. Both Jackson Bird and Mitchell Johnson were fit and available.

Posted by Thamara on (December 29, 2012, 21:10 GMT)

Rotation has become an important thing in today's cricket given the amount of cricket played by cricketers both internationally and domestically. In a way, it opens up opportunities for other players to show their talent and also it gives selectors a chance to build up a squad with internationally-tested players. Fast bowlers in particular are likely to get injured more often and therefore it is vital to have group of fast bowlers who are good enough to play international cricket. Sometimes I feel that modern bowlers are not as fit as the ones who played about 20 years ago for some reason. It is difficult to point out a reason for that but in the past, fast bowlers didn't get injured as often. Careers of so many fast bowlers cut short due to injuries in the last 10 years or so. Some bowlers retire from test cricket with the intention of playing a long time without being injured. In the past, these things didn't happen much and fast bowlers were fit enough to play 100 test matches.

Posted by jackthelad on (December 29, 2012, 20:23 GMT)

Absolutely solid criticisms of the daft 'sport science' mania of contemporary cricket. Cricket is not like any other game, as anyone who has played it knows: it involves short periods of intense action interspersed with longer periods of watchful concentration; it involves hand-eye coordination applicable in milliseconds then held in abeyance for seconds or minutes - and this cannot be taught, and only partially improved; above all it involves intangibles like confidence, feeling 'in form', 'seeing it big' and a hundred others - none of which have much if anything to do with circuit training, weightlifting, distance running - or, indeed, with fitness at all, if the fantastic past performances of cricketers with illness, injuries, hangovers, huge bellies and forty-a-day habits mean anything at all. You can only get fit for cricket by playing cricket. Simple and uncompromising as that.

Posted by   on (December 29, 2012, 20:09 GMT)

Each international player is playing more games now than ever before and there is very little rest time for players. Most are on a controlled diet and spend a lot of their time travelling. Back in the 80s 5 days test cricket had a rest day. West Indies England and Australia played 5 test against each other. There were fewer teams to accommodate on the international circuit. Now ICC is forced to give Sri Lanka a number of games as well as Bangladesh: With South Africa in the mix; the ICC calendar is jammed packed. Cricket needs money more so now than ever before. The revenue generated helps teams Like Ireland Canada and Scotland and other associate nations to develop. With out India Australia and England & South Africa playing at any given time Cricket would suffer a huge financial loss which ICC nor any associate teams can afford. So if teams are to accommodate this heavy schedule; Rotation would be the answer. As Bob Dylan once sang. Times are Changing.

Posted by mikey76 on (December 29, 2012, 19:03 GMT)

Ian Botham is a great example of someone who didn't "look" fit but bowled huge amounts of overs every season without getting injured. Fred Trueman famously bowled up to and over a thousand overs a season for Yorks and England. If a modern fast bowler even attempted this they would need to take a year off! Sports scientists, physio's, boimechanists etc have far too much influence on modern fast bowling in my opinion, look at what Troy Cooley did to James Anderson, trying to change what was for him a natural action for one he thought was more efficient, setting his career back 2 years. It's no coincidence that Chris Tremlett looks like he spends every day lifting weights and most of the season out injured, while the wiry Anderson bowls and bowls. Stay out of the gym and just bowl.

Posted by tony122 on (December 29, 2012, 17:23 GMT)

Mark Nicholas is one of my favorite analyst of the game and he discusses very important points here. i will add one more reason why modern players hit the gym so often and players of the past were so slim and wiry. It is not just the prevailing fitness philosophy in cricket, which it is. But also the general culture. look at Hollywood for example or the past politicians,singers - they were all very slim and wiry by today's standards. The modern culture as far as men is concerned is the culture of the gym,protein drinks, weights. Past as they say was a simpler world.

Posted by FieryFerg on (December 29, 2012, 13:41 GMT)

Totally agree with this. You get fit to bowl by bowling - nothing in a gym can replicate this. Best example has to be Shane Watson. Massive physique which he no doubt thinks looks great on the beach but he's as durable as a paper tissue! Take a look at the old photos of guys like Lillee, Willis, Donald, etc stripped to the waist - not a muscle in sight, but they could bowl 90mph + over prolonged periods.

Posted by dinosaurus on (December 29, 2012, 12:28 GMT)

dunger.bob has hit the nail on the head! The emphasis (for the successful teams) nowadays is on the team game rather than the individual. It's not a contrast of franchise versus country but rather a recognition that sustained success needs more than 11 players. I remember Steve Waugh learning from the experience of the Aus women's team in a World Cup, They won every game before the final by such a margin that not all the batters got a hit. Then, in the final, the loss of top order wickets brought people to the crease lacking in recent match practice, so they lost.

Posted by anuajm on (December 29, 2012, 11:13 GMT)

With the kind of riches Australia possesses in the fast bowling department, it makes total sense to rotate the bowlers and try to keep them injury free. Rotation against lesser teams makes total sense, and will also help Australia to identify the best bowlers for important series. They are not rotating bowlers and compromising with the wins. All these bowlers are good enough to get into most test sides and do well. Bird is case in example. When they start losing, rotation will also reduce. For now this is the way forward.

On a lighter note, India, SL, and a few others might want to get a couple out of the amazing Aussie bowlers - Harris, Johnson, Cummins, Bird, Pattinson, Siddle, Starc, Hilfy, Cutting, Bollinger, Counter-Nile, Nannes, Faulkner, Tait, Mcdermott, Hastings, Mckay, Hazlewood and others!!

Posted by   on (December 29, 2012, 11:05 GMT)

I don't agree entirely with this, Glenn Macgrath has been saying that strength work during the "off season" (which barely exists these days due to t20) was the reason he stayed largely injury free. Makhaya Ntini used to run 10 kms every day or so and he was never injured. The problem is too much cricket, Pat Cummins broke down after playing both the world t20 and the t20 champions league, right before the tests. If he had stayed home and done some fitness and strength work he would have been fit.

Posted by AdityaMookerjee on (December 29, 2012, 10:37 GMT)

Rotation? Will South Africa play one Test series in Australia, so that Australia can host the Boxing Day Test, and will Australia return the favour?

Posted by dunger.bob on (December 29, 2012, 9:06 GMT)

@ Nadeem1976 on (December 29 2012, 05:44 AM GMT) : If T20 is the future of cricket then cricketers will become softer and softer until they finally just melt into puddles of fat and ego. Playing 40 overs of cricket requires nothing like the stamina and fitness you need to play a first class or Test match. .. haven't you noticed all the old, retired Test players extending their careers in T20. Generally speaking they can't handle even a 50 over ODI but they can still get a gig with a T20 team. Think about it. ... if India or any other country wants to focus on T20 rather than test cricket that's their business, but T20 is definitely NOT the future of the game where I come from (Aust). We'll play T20 of course but for any Aussie youngster playing for your country in a Test match is still the ultimate honour and test of your skill as a cricketer. T20 is a bit of fun and that's about it. It definitely is not the pinnacle of cricket skill.

Posted by ygkd on (December 29, 2012, 8:30 GMT)

Yes, I totally agree with this article. I would also maintain that a Malcolm Marshall-type would struggle to be selected for Australia today, because he'd be seen as too short to be seriously considered. And yet, his lack of real height was probably one of the things keeping his back, legs and feet in working order. He remains the best that I reckon I've ever seen and the things that he did, therefore, remain worthy of replication.

Posted by raghavan88 on (December 29, 2012, 7:32 GMT)

Alan Border or Kapil Dev never missed games due to injury at a time when there was no sports science or such.Anil Kumble bowled in a game with a jaw injury.There are many examples like this.Players of earlier days were fitter than most players today.In all the fad of Sports Science, people are forgetting about basic fitness skills.

Posted by Nadeem1976 on (December 29, 2012, 5:44 GMT)

you gave the example of may be the greatest fast bowler ever played in cricket. Not all cricketers are that lucky and naturally that fit and above all genius. 90% of cricketers are regular cricketers and they need to maintain their fitness to stay in the team. medical science is very good for the future of cricket because future is T2020 cricket and it's demanding and so much competitive. Don't criticize science admire it.

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Mark Nicholas A prolific and stylish middle-order batsman for Hampshire, Mark Nicholas was unlucky never to have played for England, but after captaining his county to four major trophies he made his reputation as a presenter, commentator and columnist. Named the UK Sports Presenter of the Year in 2001 and 2005 by the Royal Television Society, he has commentated all over the world, from the World Cup in the West Indies to the Indian Premier League. He now hosts the cricket coverage for Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in England.

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