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Starc to play in Hobart despite injury risk

Mitchell Starc is expected to play in Hobart despite his limited preparation ahead of the series Cricket Australia/Getty Images

Australia have used Mitchell Starc's imminent selection for the second Test against South Africa in Hobart - in contradiction of medical data indicating he will be at high injury risk - as proof the tail isn't wagging the dog in terms of selection decisions around the national team.

Responding to various strains of criticism about the way the nation's fast bowlers are managed, the team physio David Beakley, the strength and conditioning coach Aaron Kellett and the doctor Peter Brukner spoke alongside the coach Darren Lehmann about the theories behind fast bowling workload management and how much influence the high performance arm of Cricket Australia, led by Pat Howard, has on selection.

Beakley described Starc's recovery from a serious leg wound to play in Perth as "amazing", and admitted that CA had stretched their own conventions around fast bowling to allow him to play. Medical staff work back up to six weeks from the start of a Test match to figure out a steady rise in a bowler's workload to ensure he is ready for the Test, but Starc had only two weeks of bowling before taking part at the WACA Ground.

"It's well known we had two fast bowlers going into that Test who were underdone," Beakley said. "Starcy played the Shield match about five and a half weeks post his knee injury, which is amazing he got back that quickly. Three weeks immobilised in a knee brace, a couple of weeks bowling preparation under his belt to play in the Shield match.

"It's pretty rare in Test cricket to bowl 50 overs in a Test match and we've had two guys do it in this Test match. There's some pretty good research around that showing you are at increased risk of injury after that. The fact he's got through that amount of bowling is testament to him and his resilience."

Lehmann stated that despite heightened injury risk associated with Starc's heavy lifting in Perth, he would be playing in Hobart. That decision follows on from the calculated gamble taken on the fitness of Peter Siddle, who has withdrawn from the second Test squad due to a flare-up of his recently healed back stress fracture.

"We make the final call at the end when we're selecting them, but obviously we take all the info into account for that," Lehmann said. "We've just got to make sure we do the best we can. We just try to pick the best side each and every time.

"You're speaking to the bowler first and foremost as well, if the player's uncomfortable they'll tell us, tell the medical staff first and then the selectors. That's how open we are. Both players were really comfortable getting through the Test match, obviously that didn't happen. That's not an ideal scenario but we're all happy to take that risk.

"It's always a challenge. But it's about knowing your players, speaking to the medical staff and making a call from there. Also it's what's the wicket going to do, is it going to rain, will it be a flat wicket, you've got to take it all into consideration. If we were going to do that [rest Starc] I wouldn't have thought he would've bowled today."

Lehmann said he was careful in working with the medical staff to ensure that injury minimisation did not preclude players from spending enough time working on their skills. "I would only have a problem if our blokes aren't bowling and their skill level's not good enough," he said.

"So that's the biggest thing, their skill level is very good, obviously missing some high profile players at the moment, but the skill level and making sure our batters get to face our bowlers so they can improve. Obviously they probably need to bowl more now. But skill level is very important for me, so in terms of structuring skill sessions we don't miss out."

He also underlined a commitment to put the national team ahead of the interests of the states, after criticism that neither Starc nor Josh Hazlewood bowled enough in their lone Sheffield Shield match before the WACA Test. "I totally understand that [criticism], but we need Australia to win though, that's first and foremost and we don't get the chance to have a pre-season," he said. "So we've got to find one somewhere, wherever we get it. State medical staff and coaches are great, and they understand."

Beakley, who replaced Alex Kountouris as the team's prime touring physio last year, explained the rationale behind managing fast bowler workloads. "The notion that bowling workload monitoring is about restricting bowlers from bowling is certainly not the case from our perspective," he said. "It's about building up their loads in a smart way so they're adequately prepared for what they're going to face in the match. That's the basis behind it.

"How we do that is usually based around some of the evidence that's come out of research that bowlers are far more likely to get injured through workload spikes. If you double your workload from one week to the next, you're far more likely to get injured the following week. We know on average they're going to bowl about 120 balls an innings, about 240 balls a Test match. We work back from that in the preceding weeks to build them up so they've got that amount of workload under their belts so they don't spike too much in a Test.

"The body responds to a dose of exercise by increasing the resilience to the structures that are going to be put under load. Whether that's bone, soft tissues, tendon, ligaments, whatever. This is a process that takes weeks, months or years in some cases to develop. It's not something where you can say bowl this week so you're hardened next week for a Shield match, it doesn't work like that. It takes a minimum of six weeks for that hardening to occur. So we work back through what the bowler's achieved over the previous four weeks to see what will adequately prepare them for the following week."

Sports science studies in the early 1980s showed that fast bowler injury rates were troublingly high - around 50% in Perth grade cricket. Over the past decade these have been reduced to between 15-25%, peaking in 2011 when one in every four fast bowlers in Australian first-class cricket were injured.

Through a greater emphasis on sports science to reduce injury rates, the figure came down to 17% in 2013-14 and 2014-15. Beakley reckoned that had increased somewhat in the past year, though CA figures for 2015-16 aren't yet available.