Cricket's predictable pact with science, 1998

The appliance of science: a view from the dressing room

Derek Pringle

Until recently, cricket's ties with science had gone little beyond a basic understanding of the aerodynamics of swing. And the use of daring technology peaked with the blowing machine and the cat's cradle - a contraption used for practising slip catching but which doubled, for more usefully, as a place for tired bowlers to catch some shut-eye.

What has science now brought to the sport? The answer is probably not much. Surrounding the players with psychologists, nutritionists, and fitness gurus may seem a thoroughly professional move but, in a game that is still dominated by skill, their effectiveness is hard to measure. And, as even the most inattentive schoolchild knows, science has to be measured by results. In cricket, with its myriad variables and imponderables, this is impossible, and even the converted must see there can be little point in measuring Shane Warne's fitness levels or body-fat content, unless he intends swapping wrist-spin for steeplechasing.

The progressives - among them England coach David Lloyd, South African coach Bob Woolmer and former England captain Bob Willis - have embraced science with enthusiasm. And the change of attitude in the England dressing-room has been dramatic. Actual change has been a bit slower. Tea and coffee (now considered bad for hand-eye co-ordination and the healing of injuries) and a post-match beer (bad for recovering muscles) are out of favour; even Jack Russell is now only a ten-cup-a-day man. Fruit juice and pizza are the latest to be dispensed with science's blessing.

Yet if the theory behind the rehydration and carbo-loading makes perfect sense to those spending their working lives cooped up with laboratory rats, the comfort zone for those who regard cricket as a sport with a social dimension is visibly shrinking on and off the field. As the economic pariahs of professional sport, cricketers have never found it easy to sacrifice their lifestyle; many regard the difference between fitness and fatness as nothing more than a changed vowel.

Individual players have often gone against the herd mentality of the dressing-room. Geoff Boycott swore by ginseng. Willis first used hypnotherapy in 1977 to help him relax between high-pressure matches. Having been injury-prone for much of his early career, Willis then hardly missed a Test until he retired in 1984. Richard Hadlee, another great fast bowler, became an advocate of "visualisation", a common technique beloved by sports psychologists, and a simple one. It involves re-running a personal best performance through your mind in minuscule detail: how you felt; wind direction; what you had for breakfast etc.

But this is never going to work for everyone. It is in the treatment of injuries that science is most likely to work for the average player. In recent years, the physiotherapist has emerged from being an old football-style sponge man into a dominant figure with an arsenal of machines and a say in everything from a player's training regime to his lifestyle. (In the current England team, Wayne Morton even gives guitar lessons.) Indeed, with players' careers now shorter than they were, the physio has more or less replaced the senior pro as the person unofficially in charge of dispensing wisdom. It is a far cry from the days when "Tonker" Taylor, the Essex captain, dismissed physiotherapists with the statement: "Good players don't need them. Bad players aren't worth it."

Scientific advance has also helped to contribute to the fixture overload that now exists, especially at international level. This would be impossible without the powerful anti-inflammatory drugs and pain-killing injections which allow players to feel they have recovered sooner than nature would have intended. These may cause cricketers terrible problems in later life.

Past players insist that serious injury is largely a modern phenomenon. Trevor Bailey bowled fast-medium for England on five long tours, but missed just one Test match out of 29: with a broken thumb. "The cricket was less intensive and we could get our niggles properly sorted out." Bailey bowled in boots the Mafia would consider ideal for sinking unwanted corpses, and says he relied on nothing more technological than a corset to support his back, and a spot of massage. Keith Fletcher, who began his Essex career as Bailey was ending his, remembers the physio rubbing ash into Bailey's back. "I thought it was some kind of voodoo ritual," recalls Fletcher, a view many have taken over England's recent training and bonding sessions, outings which have included scuba diving and driving Land Rovers blindfold.

Most current players are more enthusiastic. They are particularly keen on video as an analytical tool. Mike Atherton, the England captain, heaped praise on the "Statmaster" which kept a record of every ball bowled in the 1997 Ashes series. He requested and was given a video of every short ball Glenn McGrath had bowled to him. It was ready in a day and, despite the gruesome viewing, Atherton found it helpful.

But where does this no-stone-unturned pact with science leave the game? English cricket has found itself wanting as big money has rolled in from television: an amateurish blot on a sporting landscape paved with gold. Science could be seen as the game's response to its guilty conscience. It will not guarantee better results, but at least it shows that the game is willing to respond to external pressures. However, science can only try to create ever-efficient machines out of players. This is a game whose appeal relies on its unpredictability. They may be able to clone sheep. Eleven Ian Bothams would keep the bar well and truly propped up after play, but they would not make the game any more intoxicating.

Derek Pringle played 30 Tests for England as a super-fit athlete, honed to machine-like perfection. He is now cricket correspondent of The Independent.

© John Wisden & Co