Jason Behrendorff sets his sights on the BBL and beyond, on road back from spinal surgery

The left-arm quick is coming along nicely, having undergone a major operation to prolong his career

Andrew McGlashan
Andrew McGlashan
Jason Behrendorff has not played competitive cricket since August 2019  •  Getty Images

Jason Behrendorff has not played competitive cricket since August 2019  •  Getty Images

While Australia's limited-overs cricketers are ending more than five months without playing, for one man who had a brief but starring role in their World Cup campaign last year it has been a much longer break. Jason Behrendorff, the left-arm quick from Western Australia, has not played a match for 12 months and in that time has undergone major back surgery to prolong his career.
Last June, Behrendorff enjoyed one of his great days out when he claimed 5 for 44 against England in the World Cup group match at Lord's. It was the specific job he had been picked to do, with Australia having homed in on England's issues against left-armers, and on that occasion it all came together. Briefly the hosts' tournament was stumbling off course. As history shows, it all came together in the end for England (just) and Behrendorff did not leave with such found memories of the semi-final at Edgbaston.
Less than two months later, on August 26, he played a T20 Blast match for Sussex against Glamorgan having been signed by the county as a late replacement. A few days after that he was called back by Western Australia due to experiencing back pain and that would set in motion is path towards spinal surgery to try and solve problems with stress fractures around his L4 vertebrae that had plagued him for five years.
The operation, by the renowned New Zealand-based surgeon Rowan Schouten, which took place in October, was the same that James Pattinson, Corey Anderson and Shane Bond had undergone, involving fusing screws and a titanium cable into the lower spine to stabilise the fracture.
There was a high success-rate with the surgery - Pattinson, for example, has returned to Test cricket - but the recovery time frame ranged from the very hopeful six months to a more realistic 12 and maybe even 18. Behrendorff is on track for that one-year mark and has his sights set on the Big Bash for the Perth Scorchers, in whatever form that takes, come December.
"The first goal is getting back on the park and hopefully staying there for a prolonged period. That will be a white-ball focus in the initial period and once I've got some continuity with my body, then hopefully there's some red-ball conversations."
"That's definitely realistic and hopefully a bit earlier than that," he told ESPNcricinfo. "I know potentially there isn't a lot of white-ball cricket before that with some of conversations going on, but here in Perth our club competition will kick off at the start of October and that should be a good stepping stone before the BBL."
Unsurprisingly given the nature of the surgery it hasn't been entirely smooth over the last 10 months, but Behrendorff remained confident. "Sometimes it feels like two steps forward, one step back but on the whole it's tracking nicely," he said.
"When I first had the surgery, chatting to some of the guys, they were back within six to nine months. I thought that would definitely be me, but it has not quite 100% gone to plan in the sense that I'm not back playing cricket yet, there's been a few little niggly things and some technical things that have not gone exactly to plan but certainly nothing derailing the train so to speak."
In a blog for his management company shortly before heading to New Zealand, Behrendorff wrote: "There have been times when I haven't been able to pick up [his son] Harrison. That's been really hard. There's more to life than just cricket. Going forward I'm really hoping that my back is a lot better for life in general and life after cricket. In the short-term it's about cricket, but in the long-term it's hopefully about quality of life and that I'll have a more robust and stronger back to keep me going well through life."
Now, with his mind firmly focused on his playing return, he said: "I 100% made the right decision, no doubt. I had dealt with the same stress fracture for about five years and it got to the stage where enough was enough. Knowing that if it gives me another chance to keep playing cricket at the level I want to, then I was all for it. Now I'm hoping to reap the benefits of it."
In February Behrendorff posted on Instagram as he started to walk through his action in the nets - captioned: "First steps to feeling like a cricketer again" - and by March, when the Covid-19 lockdown had started, he was coming in off a longer run in isolation between fitness training at home.
While regaining his fitness, he has taken the opportunity to recalibrate parts of his bowling - something that is not without its challenges for a 30-year-old so ingrained in his action compared to a younger player. He has worked closely with Matt Mason, the Western Australia bowling coach, on balance in his delivery and position at the crease. Currently he has stepped back from pushing towards full pace to ensure the changes have settled down.
"I found as I was starting to get faster some of the technical work that I've been doing wasn't holding exactly as I would like it to, so we've taken this chance - especially not knowing how the season will pan out - to make sure everything was how I'd like it to be in my mind before I press go.
"Matt Mason pointed out a few things after watching me bowl and seeing some stuff in the World Cup. It made a lot of sense to me - in terms of being a fast bowler you want to be as efficient as you can to give you the best chance to bowl fast. I took his views away and married it up with where I'm trying to go as a bowler and a lot of that crossed over, which was nice."
While tweaking his action was not a direct requirement of the surgery, Behrendorff wants to do everything he can to ensure once he's back in the middle he stays there. "The biggest thing for me is knowing just because I've had the surgery it's not a miracle cure and [so] you can do whatever you like and your back will be happy with it. So I'm trying to be as smart as I can going forward."
Whenever the recovery has felt slow, he has been encouraged by advice from those who have either gone through it or helped others. "Speaking with one of the physios who has dealt with a lot of the New Zealand-based guys, they said basically what I'm experiencing is normal and my progress is pretty standard.
"Chatting to James Pattinson, he took a really slow, gradual approach, probably around 18 months before he was back playing fully and doing everything he wanted, so everyone seems pretty happy with how I'm progressing."
His ambitions for the comeback also stretch much further than the Big Bash. Before undergoing surgery he said he hoped it would allow him to resume first-class cricket - a format he last played in 2017 and stepped away from to manage his workload, but where he has a career-best of 9 for 37 against Victoria in 2017 - and while he knows that's a longer-term aim, he retains that optimism.
"The first goal is getting back on the park and hopefully staying there for a prolonged period. That will be a white-ball focus in the initial period and once I've got some continuity with my body, playing some cricket, then hopefully there's some red-ball conversations that can be had down the track."
The ultimate aim, however, is to have more days like the one at Lord's against England. There is certainly plenty on the horizon with three World Cups - two T20s and the next ODI event - in consecutive years from 2021. "That's exactly where I want to play my cricket," he said. "The opportunities I've had playing for Australia have been some of the best of my life. Those are the experiences I'll treasure and want to get back to."

Andrew McGlashan is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo