Fast men pay high price
Mon, November 05, 2012 - 12:05 AM
KEMAR ROACH’S torn right knee tendon is, as Ottis Gibson put it, “a blow” to the West Indies team on the eve of the imminent series of two Tests in Bangladesh.
The injury is just as untimely for the fast bowler himself since it comes just when Roach is at the peak of his game.
His returns in seven Tests this year – against Australia, England and New Zealand – are an impressive 39 wickets at 22.25 runs each. His pace has been sharp and penetrative and, with the exception of a penchant for no balls, was allied to the intelligence needed for success at all levels.
At the age of 24, a long and productive career lies ahead – as long as he can avoid the disabilities that are the bane of his job.
Although Gibson categorized it as “not a major, major injury”, Roach now finds himself among the “young fast bowlers” who a research paper, prepared by South Africa’s Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University and presented at the first World Congress on Sports Injury Prevention in Norway, indicated are those “most prone to injury” among cricketers. Its stated proportion was 41 per cent.
Ironically, Roach’s replacement for Bangladesh, Fidel Edwards, is also in the same category, if with a somewhat different problem.
A fast, dangerous outswinger, his 154 wickets (and 11 hauls of five or more wickets an innings, one in Bangladesh a year ago) make him by far the most successful of the present crop of West Indies bowlers. But his slinging action places pressure on his back and he has been intermittently put out of action, most recently for a year and a half with a slipped disc that required surgery.
Somehow, the list of such injuries to “young fast bowlers” seems to be growing.
The strapping, 24-year-old Trinidadian Shannon Gabriel had four wickets on Test debut for the West Indies at Lord’s in May but couldn’t finish the match because of a sore back. He has only just returned to competition.
Patrick Cummins, the highly promising Australian teenager, has missed a year and ten Tests since his impressive Test debut against South Africa. He now faces further frustration through the forthcoming Australian season when he will have the attention of doctors on a stress fracture of the vertebra and analysts on his bowling action rather than opposing batsmen.
His 22-year-old teammate James Pattinson had to abandon the West Indies tour earlier this year after one Test through injury. He is scheduled to return for the coming series against South Africa.
Shane Watson, their top all-rounder, who seemed to be over the injuries that dogged him earlier, is now in doubt for that first South African Test with a calf strain.
Shane Bond, the classy New Zealander, and Freddie Flintoff, the big, ebullient Englishman, have had to prematurely end their careers. Bond is now his team’s bowling coach and Flintoff has turned his attention to boxing, with considerably less of an impact than on cricket.
Lasith Malinga, the dangerous Sri Lanka slinger, is no longer up to the grind of Test cricket, confined instead to the shorter formats where he never has to send down more than ten overs.
And so on and so forth.
The causes of such setbacks are obvious.
The South African study noted that “the primary mechanism of injury . . . was found to be the delivery and follow through of the fast bowler”.
It added: “Stress fracture of the lumbar spine is a common injury in young fast bowlers. Fast bowling in cricket requires a combination of spinal hyperextension (bending back) together with rotation and side flexion of the trunk. This puts a lot of stress on an area of the vertebra called the ‘Pars Interarticularis’ and this is where stress fractures develop.”
Wes Hall, himself one of the most explosive and electrifying fast bowlers of his time, kept going for ten years until he came to the end of the line at 32 with 192 Test wickets to his name. The long-term effects were to be seen later in life.
He put it more simply.
“The human body was not designed for fast bowling,” he said.
“When you start slowly, you get a little faster until you reach your fastest at the moment of delivery,” he explained. “In the meantime, you’ve turned your body side-on, put all your weight on your back leg before transferring it to the front foot, all in a split second.
“That works out to about five times your body weight coming down on landing. And then, of course, you have to veer off the pitch as the umpires will get after you for running on the prohibited area.”
His verdict: “I tell you, fast bowling is a recipe for excruciating pain in life after cricket”.
So what can be done to negate the effects – especially in an era where there are three versions of the game, requiring three different approaches to bowling?
The West Indies and England are among teams that seek to give their bowlers an expedient rest.
Gibson saw that, with the amount of cricket being played, “especially the T20, which is fast and furious” it wouldn’t be so much having certain bowlers for certain formats but “being able to say to a player or to a regional board, this player needs a break. He’s been going for the last 12 months solid.
“You give him a break (and) you put him on a strength and conditioning programme that gets him back on track,” he said. “We are always thinking about series ahead as well.”
With their present plentiful pool of fast bowlers, England omitted James Anderson and Stuart Broad from the final Test against the West Indies in June, keeping them in reserve for the subsequent series against South Africa.
It was a contentious decision, questioned by some former players who argued that the strongest team should always be picked.
It was unthinkable when the West Indies’ cupboard was even better stocked with quality goods than England’s at present that Michael Holding, Andy Roberts, Malcolm Marshall, Joel Garner or Colin Croft would be rested, even with Wayne Daniel, Sylvester Clarke et al in reserve.
Dale Steyn, the South African presently rated the No.1 bowler in the game, puts maintenance of his fitness down to personal discipline.
“It’s about man management, you’ve also got to know your body,” is his philosophy.
“When I was younger I probably over-bowled myself a lot (in practice) because I just wanted to bowl and bowl and bowl. Now it is about managing myself and knowing my best deliveries. I’ve got to bowl in the game and save all my strength for the game.
“You don’t see Usain Bolt breaking the 100 metres world record during training sessions all the time, and it’s the same thing for me,” he added in an interview with the ESPNcricinfo website. “There’s no point breaking the speed barrier all the time.”
It’s simply common sense. Yet nothing can make every fast bowler eternally injury free.
According to Wes Hall, no matter how much rest or rotation there is, “the human body was not designed for fast bowling”.
• Tony Cozier is the most experienced cricket writer and broadcaster in the Caribbean.
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