22 December 2009.
Australia are enduring a devastating injury crisis. In a matter of weeks, the ranks of fast bowlers have been decimated. Almost an entire Ashes attack has been sidelined. Ben Hilfenhaus, Peter Siddle, Brett Lee, Stuart Clark, none of then were available for selection in Perth.
State teams have been fielding second and third stringers. NSW have been denied the services of Nathan Bracken and Burt Cockley. Victoria have been forced to manage without Dirk Nannes and Shane Harwood. Brett Dorey has withdrawn from the Sandgropers line-up. Urgent action is needed. By no means can Cricket Australia shrug its shoulders. Nor can the players’ association take losses on this scale in its stride.
Not that Australia is the only country to suffer. South Africa lost Dale Steyn and Wayne Parnell for the first Test against at Centurion. It’s hard to remember Allan Donald, Shaun Pollock and Fanie de Villiers missing a match. West Indies have been managing without their two most potent pacemen, Fidel Edwards and Jerome Taylor. The great bowlers of the 1970s were rarely away from their desks. It was the same with Glenn McGrath and the Australians of his era. Might be worth studying their experiences.
Fast bowling is a demanding job. Setbacks are inevitable. A charge to the crease with enormous feet pounding on to hard and often rugged ground leads to an explosion of muscle and sinew at release as the speedster seeks that elusive, decisive inch of pace. Fast bowlers push themselves to their limits. But that has always been the case, and previously the treatment rooms were not half as full.
Various theories have been advanced to explain this rash of injuries. In some opinions, bodies have not been unduly protected in their formative years. Alarmed at the plague of back injuries affecting youthful speedsters 20 years ago, coaches and medical experts came together to find a remedy. Numerous kids had been forced to give up their hopes of making the grade as fast bowlers. The experts concluded too many boys had actions that put intolerable pressure on young backs, and youngsters were bowling long spells on hard surfaces such as indoor nets and concrete. Accordingly, an effort was made to avoid twisting at delivery, and to monitor the number of deliveries.
Whether the remedy was right or wrong has long been a topic of debate. In some opinions, the boys were weakened in body, mind and technique because they became soft touches and lacked the knowledge that only experience can bring. Others were relieved to find the injury list declining. Perhaps, though, the problem was not solved, merely delayed. Contrastingly, the great West Indians played county cricket, bowled all the year round. Wes Hall’s biggest regret was the he did not join a county. He felt it took five years off his career.
Some experts blame modern bowling boots. Actually, they are more like shoes, and that’s the point. Nowadays emphasis is put on mobility in the field so the old-fashioned clodhoppers have been ditched. Past pacemen used boots resembling small canoes. Modern fast bowlers are expected to perform all sorts of gymnastics on the park. As a result, shoes lacking ankle support are favoured. Meanwhile, the front foot thumps down with bone-shaking violence 100 times a day.
Others suggest that the demands of the contemporary game have an impact. Fast bowlers are always stopping and starting, hopping on and off planes, bowling short spells and so on. Constant travel can take a toll. Apparently, football players from Perth have shorter careers than their counterparts elsewhere, and scientists blame the numerous long flights involved. Steven Smith’s hurt hamstring might have been caused by his recent trips. Clark has blamed travel and lack of long spells for his current incapacity.
He also wondered whether the wider range of deliveries demanded from modern speedsters put extra strain on the frame. Ask a fast man from yesteryear to deliver a slower ball, and he’d have burst out laughing. Now they are compulsory. Dennis Lillee has suggested fast bowlers spend too much time building muscles and not enough bowling or running in sand. Shane Watson’s experiences back him up. Ever since he stopped trying to develop bulging biceps, and concentrated on aerobics, he has stayed fit. Others are convinced overzealous medical staff cause more complications than they cure. Players are withdrawn with even minor ailments and only allowed back once perfection has been restored.
Whatever the causes, Australia need to get to grips with the problem. The list of crocks is as long as Pinocchio’s nose. Boots? Background? Bludging? Biceps? Bad luck? Most likely it’s a combination. But the losses are sapping the strength of local cricket, leaving it vulnerable to invading forces.