English cricket is facing an epidemic of bowling injuries due to poor training and development policies that threatens to "kill the art of fast bowling", according to one highly respected coach.
Steffan Jones, whose recent spell with Hobart Hurricanes won praise from Stuart Broad and Dan Christian, has warned fast bowlers are not being looked after properly despite the increase in medical staff, physiotherapists and strength and conditioning coaches working in the game. The issue has come into focus again with England suffering a spate of injuries to players who would have been in contention for the Ashes.
While Jones, who enjoyed a long career as a fast bowler and has subsequently coached at Somerset and Derbyshire, accepts that some injuries are all but inevitable in the "massively stressful" pursuit of bowling fast, he fears the "modern-day preparation of bowlers, which has millions of pounds spent on it" is proving counter-productive.
Jones, who has documented his thoughts in a paper titled "The Stress Fracture Epidemic" on his LinkedIn page, believes that a lack of knowledge from strength and conditioning coaches, in particular, is limiting the potential for the game to produce 100mph fast bowlers in the future.
Jones also played professional rugby and is currently director of sport, performance and wellbeing at Wellington School in Somerset. He feels the mistakes start early - for example, bowlers being made to specialise on the game in their early teenage years. So, while some coaches might stop young bowlers playing other sports to prevent injuries, this only delays the "inevitability of injuries due to a lack of athletic robustness further down the line".
"I am genuinely concerned that an eight-year-old coming into the game will never experience the thrill and adrenalin rush of watching a 100mph bowler again"Steffan Jones
"Young bowlers are forced to specialise before they reach peak high velocity and miss out on the large amount of neural benefits that comes from simply playing other sports," Jones says. "The modern-day bowlers are clones and look clunky and robotic in their bowling actions. This is a direct consequence of a lack of athleticism.
"The physical traits they miss out are not inputted into their training programmes. Natural athletic training like jumping, falling, rolling, running are missed out and static, fixed plane, heavy barbell training in a stable environment is emphasised in its place. There is a distinct lack of athleticism developed from a variation of sports and activities."
Jones also warns that the current environment for young bowlers is "utopian" and does not prepare them for the real world. By limiting workloads, he feels there is "a generation of fast bowlers who have no 'work capacity', resilience and body awareness".
"We are building fragile bowlers, not anti-fragile bowlers," Jones says. "Any variation and variability in their training or match days they can't cope with and break down. Physiologically and mentally. It's simply not what they are used to.
"If you [always] run on a treadmill, the first time you slip on a pothole, you tear a ligament. But if you run on uneven surfaces, your ligaments are stronger and you can handle the stress.
"Young bowlers turn to you and say 'What? You want me to bowl with that foot hole, to a batsman who's on 100, without a net stopping it from going for six, when I've got lactic acid in my legs and uphill into the wind. No way, let me check my spreadsheet!'
"I don't think bowling workload management is working. Stopping a fully developed 15-year-old from bowling more than his/her allocated amount is insane. One year they can't bowl more than seven overs but then the next there are no guidelines, which produce a huge workload spike. Which we know is a key factor in injuries. We need to match game regulations based on stage of maturation and not chronological age.
"Developing the ability to drive [through a bowling action] takes repetition, just like any other skill. And guess what? If you don't keep practising it, you will lose it. A good way to get strong through the hip and ankle is to bowl! Unfortunately, with the culture of under bowling due to over monitoring, bowlers have not the ability to 'drive' and severely lack the stiffness, robustness and work capacity to bowl quickly when those 'shackles' of workload directives are removed. When this happens, there is a huge spike in their workload which causes injuries or at least contributes to injuries."
Jones was especially scathing on the role of the strength and conditioning coach in the modern game. Suggesting they are "judged on the improvements their athletes make in the confines of the weight room", he concludes that their influence has "led to a decline in the performance levels of fast bowlers".
"Their 'gym numbers' are through the roof," Jones says. "Until coaches are judged by on-field gains this trend will continue to kill the art of fast bowling.
"The main problem is a lack of knowledge. Due to the reductionist approach to cricket coaching, where coaches focus on isolated traits like technique, strength, power, tactics and conditioning, the preparation of fast bowlers isn't a synergistic process. Everyone is working in different directions.
"What currently is being taught in coach education programmes is not accurate and change needs to happen. I worry for the future of fast bowlers in the game. I am genuinely concerned that an eight-year-old coming into this great game of ours will never experience the thrill and adrenalin rush of watching a 100mph bowler bowling again."
Jones' comments come as England are reeling from a succession of injuries to their seamers. With Toby Roland-Jones (stress fracture), Jamie Porter (stress fracture), Steven Finn (torn knee cartilage), Jake Ball (strained ankle ligaments), Liam Plunkett (hamstring strain), Tom Helm (hamstring strain), Mark Wood (ankle) and Jamie Overton (stress fracture) all currently considered unavailable, the England management called-up 20-year-old George Garton into the Ashes squad as short-term cover in the last few days.
While some criticism from coaches on the fringes of the game might be dismissed as personal frustration, Jones' reputation suggests it should be taken more seriously. He has a huge amount of experience - not least as a player, when he wholeheartedly headed down the 'strength and conditioning' route in the hope it would add pace to his bowling and concluded it would not - and professional qualifications and is generally respected for his easy-going nature and fastidious attitude to his work. Kevin Shine, the ECB's lead fast bowling coach, once said: "Anyone lucky enough to work with him will benefit from this fabulous mindset."