As Patrick Cummins' latest comeback makes the news, it remains to be seen whether his body is now more capable of doing what he gets paid to do: Bowl cricket balls. At pace. For long (ish) periods.
It's a simple game, they say. See ball, hit ball, catch ball. Yet when you're close to the professional structure, replete with every type of expert, technological aid and databank, it seems that cricket has turned itself into an unnecessarily complex beast.
Much of this is because the tail now wags the dog. Where sports science/medicine was first introduced as a complementary add-on, it is almost at the point now where the cricket bit exists to justify the growing support staff who are now part of the team. They sit in dressing rooms, wear the team kit, and even shake hands on the field after the game.
For a cynic like myself, meeting someone like Jeff Lunsky in Johannesburg was a "lightbulb" event. Never set eyes on the chap before he picked me up at OR Tambo Airport last week. Jeff is the fitness trainer for Highveld Lions and my only contact with him was via email - he contacted me out of the blue to comment on a previous Cordon piece I'd written, and the refreshing honesty of his philosophies immediately grabbed my attention. I was keen to meet someone, anyone, who could convince me that the fitness gurus who stalk cricket squads were doing more good than harm.
A day in Jeff's company at the Wanderers stadium, watching him work with some of the best talent coming through, was illuminating. Cricket in South Africa is truly a cultural melting pot these days. I met boys of all colours and shapes, all of them utterly at ease with each other, all unfailingly courteous to a complete stranger. Answers to every question I asked them were bookended by "sir", a form of address that is still common in South Africa. Hugely impressive.
I watched Jeff bring a sense of joie de vivre to a gym in the Bullring. Watching him bounce around the room, I immediately wished that my sons could have access to this sort of training, as opposed to the over-training regimen that I despair about back home in Australia.
Jeff is an offbeat kind of guy but he speaks with a clarity that cuts through the BS. He walks the walk, jumping here and there, demonstrating this and that, always with a laugh. His view on the "cricket fitness" thing is refreshingly simple, even for a dunce like me.
If I am paraphrasing him accurately, he believes that cricket is largely an explosive, intermittent sport. Speed and power are required, but in bursts. The bulk of the training should be conducive to speed and power. To use a vehicle analogy, it may be a large 4x4 but one that can accelerate sharply when needed. Yes, it'll inevitably spend a bit of time in the shop getting fixed, but it must be durable and keep coming back.
A fast bowler bowls on day four in November in 35-degree heat in Kimberley. It's unrealistic to expect him to drop his intensity by 10% thinking he needs to keep going all season, till April; he will bang it in regardless. Jeff tries to prepare him to know that he can do that with confidence, because he will recover - if he is prepared properly, he can bowl himself fit. Bowl yourself fit? Whatever will they think of next?
Hypothetical scenario: an off-season training programme for two fast bowlers. One does a brilliantly structured eight-week strength and conditioning programme, but doesn't bowl much. The other bowls steadily, building up, then getting to the right intensity, and does three 20-minute gym sessions a week. Jeff knows who he would back to get through the season with fewer injuries.
We agreed that the biggest problem with fitness training is that trainers try to do too much. The inevitable consequence is that the intensity drops too low, does not mimic match conditions, and therefore does not prepare players for match conditions. Jeff doesn't see how a cricketer's fitness can be judged by either the yo-yo test or its predecessor, the beep test. We had some fun naming player after player, fast bowlers specifically, whose performance was in no way predicted by either test. Neither test is an indication of injury potential either.
Jeff's method is to get players to train at a high intensity for short periods of time, with adequate rest intervals, so that they can still - using the Kimberley example above - bang the ball in repeatedly, even though they probably woke up that morning stiff, sore and grumpy. They will recover and bowl another spell soon.
So in short, he wants them to have the confidence to know that they can push hard when the chips are down and still come up trumps. Compare that to this silly business of forced rest, often followed immediately by "he's injured anyway". Having seen this dynamic man in action, I am now a believer in the whole caper, but only when it's structured to prepare the person to play cricket. I want a cricketer, not a supreme athlete who is on crutches!