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FAST BOWLERS and injuries

Oh, my Trueman and my Statham of long ago (who never seemed to get injured)


Currently, there are eight England pace bowlers on the treatment table and unavailable for selection for the start of the series against New Zealand in June. They are: JofraArcher, Saqib Mahmood, Matt Fisher, Olly Stone, Sam Curran, Mark Wood, Chris Woakes and Ollie Robinson. Their ailments vary – some are worryingly long-term – but it cannot be a matter of coincidence and bad luck, surely. Eight! That’s practically an entire team. Step forward the last two standing (and the eldest), the evergreen Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad. It is a pity, in many more ways than one, that Bob Willis is no longer with us. Perhaps his motor could have been cranked up one last time for him to come steaming in for his country’s cause, arms flapping like a fleeing goose. John Snow is still alive, hale and hearty; he could still give one or two New Zealand batsmen the ‘hurry-up’.

I have a theory – backed up by no empirical evident, I admit – why bowlers these days seem to buckle under the physical strain of their trade and succumb to injury. Let me take you back to pre-season training at Hampshire in the early 1970s. Even typing the word ‘training’ brings a smile to my face. It consisted of being sent on a cross-country run around the common in Southampton. I hated cross-country at school and was thus an unwilling participant as we flogged ourselves over the designated course. Joining me as a back-marker was an equally unimpressed Butch White, Hampshire’s fast bowler. “Sod this for a game of soldiers,” he wheezed, “The furthest I have got to run this season is 20 yards.” He was referring to his run-up and anyone who ever saw him bowl will agree with me that he resembled an angry, snorting bull as he charged towards the trembling matador. He was built like a bull too, with muscular shoulders, calves like tree trunks and he must have weighed a ton. Later, over a reviving pint of bitter in the pub, he was still complaining. “Do you know the best way to get fit for bowling?” He was fixing me, the youngest and newest addition to the playing staff, with a baleful stare as if I was to blame for the cross-country run. “By bowling!’ he growled, slamming down his pint for emphasis, Not by fannying about on the common.”

The thing was that Butch never got injured. Well, of course he did eventually, when he snapped his Achilles heel (those of us who were there will never forget the distressing scenes) and he was never the same bowler again, shortly afterwards accepting the inevitable and retiring at the age of 36. Season after season, he would hurtle in, discomposing even the best county batsmen, never dropping his pace and always breathing fire and brimstone in Hampshire’s cause. He was as strong as an ox and every season he would bowl in excess of 1,000 overs, taking near to 100 wickets (on four occasions he did pass that milestone). He practised what he preached. He got fit for bowling by bowling. And let us not forget the number of overs in addition he would have bowled in the nets.Trueman and Statham bowled over 1,000 overs a season, year after year. As did countless others. The question I ask is this: bowlers are undoubtedly fitter now, but are they any stronger?

I claim no expert knowledge of the physical body and regimes of strength and conditioning. But I do know that stamina is built up over the years, bowling over after over….and it starts young. Towards the final few years of my time in charge of cricket at Malvern College, I was assailed by instructions, directives, edicts, rules, regulations and reams of paperwork from local cricket associations, presumably all of which had filtered down from on high (the ECB, I guess), laying out strict limits on the number of overs that were allowed to be bowled by young cricketers, on an ascending scale according to age. Now, it will come as no surprise to anyone that knows me, but I have an instinctive aversion to being told what to do. As soon as I see a ruling, I tend immediately to think of ways to circumvent it. Yet, I had to stop and think about this. The rationale behind the decree, I had to admit, was wholly meritorious. The desire was to protect youngsters from puttinga strain on their - as yet - undeveloped body, thus incurring injury and possible lifetime damage. Well, we can all agree on that, can we not?

However, the worthy objective had unintended consequences. First, nobody advised me how on earth I was going to count the number of balls/overs bowled by 80 boys at nets on Friday evening. Secondly, as with most laid down dictates, it took no note of individual circumstances and gave no room for common-sense manoeuvre. Boys develop at different rates. One boy might be knackered after bowling seven overs (in which case he shouldn’t be bowling); another can bowl all afternoon. Thirdly, it sometimes gave rise to ridiculous circumstances. In one match, my opposite number bustled up to me and demanded that our bowler be taken off because he had bowled his allotted seven overs. The fact that the boy had just taken a wicket had nothing to do with it. Of course not. Furthermore, the wicket-taker was a spinner. I ignored the demand. We’re an independent school, I said, and as such we act independently. Total rubbish of course, but…..

Boys and girls, whenever they get the opportunity, just want to play cricket. Imagine, if they were playing football and in the middle of the game or practice, you strode onto the pitch and took away the ball. Explanations of an FA law governing how long they must kick a ball would receive short shrift. Let them play until it gets dark. Let them bowl until they’re tired. Their bodies will tell them when they’ve had enough. And any half-competent master or coach will ensure that developing bodies will not be over-exerted.

I am not at all sure that by the time the better bowlers turn professional, they have the requisite overs under their belt. They have not built up the necessary stamina, strength and physical resilience to protect them against injury. Of course, fast bowlers, especially Test match bowlers, must have their workload managed; back-to-back Tests (an unwelcome advent to the international schedule) would put a strain on even the fittest. And I’m not sure that all that gym work is terribly beneficial either. Nobody ever learned to bowl an outswinger pushing weights.

Perhaps having eight seam bowlers of international pedigree out injured and unavailable for selection is just an unlucky anomaly. Yet it cannot have passed notice that two bowlers are definitely available for selection (and raring to go); the 36-year old Stuart Broad and the 40-year old Jimmy Anderson. They of course come from a different era, when no limit was placed on how long they could bowl when learning their craft.My nephew, one TJ Murtagh, also in his 40th year, is still churning out the overs for Middlesex, with his economical run-up and repeatable action. His father didn’t step in and abandon games of cricket with his two young sons in the garden for fear of their getting tired and injuring themselves. The only thing looking tired in their garden was the grass. That was before my brother gave up the ghost and concreted over the whole lot.

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