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New Zealand fast bowlers and the injury curse


One of the most striking aspects of cricket's transition from amateur pastime to full-time professional business over the past 30-odd years is the increased role of science and technology. While initially this was limited to various advances in broadcasting techniques, those who play and administer the game soon caught on and this is clear to see in the planning and preparation of domestic and international sides worldwide. The setups for the men's international sides in England, Australia and South Africa often contain almost as many backroom staff members as there are players. Yet for all the advancements in sports science, the match fitness of fast bowlers worldwide seems to have regressed at an alarming rate.

Wistful reminiscing about Alec Bedser, Brian Statham and Fred Trueman ploughing through thousands of overs in county cricket without repercussion has been replaced by a surfeit of stories detailing the travails of the latest fast bowler unable to complete a match or series due to injury. Such a trend intriguingly defies the standard perception that the human body is more advanced physically than it has ever been.

Nowhere is this trend more evident than in New Zealand, who have developed a reputation as the injury capital of world cricket. Shane Bond, Trent Boult, Adam Milne, Hamish Bennett, Brent Arnel, Doug Bracewell, Andy McKay and Kyle Mills are just some of the casualties in recent times on the international scene, with countless more domestic bowlers also struck down. The obvious question on everyone's minds is: Why?

There is an astonishing amount of academic studies from England, Australia, South Africa, the West Indies and New Zealand which have attempted to answer exactly that query. No single factor can be isolated as the sole cause of fast bowling injuries, but there is disagreement regarding the extent to which certain factors are culpable. These factors include (but are not limited to) workload, bowling technique, prior injuries, weather environment, general physical fitness, pitch length (for junior players), season/pre-season durations (which are connected to workload, the most commonly cited cause) and training on artificial concrete wickets. While the first three factors are broadly encompassed by player management strategies, the latter two were cited for special consideration in New Zealand's case by Simon Doull and Dion Nash, another pair of New Zealand fast bowlers whose careers were greatly affected by injury.

A study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2004, which examined 70 mostly adolescent English fast bowlers, found that bowlers with a high workload were no more likely to suffer injury than those with a normal workload. This reinforced an earlier examination of 90 Australian first-class fast bowlers, published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport in 2003, which found that bowlers with a high workload were as likely to sustain injury as those with a low workload, suggesting that poor technique and lack of physical fitness could be more compelling causes. While there was evidence to suggest that workload was a major factor in fast bowling injuries where there had been a sudden and dramatic increase or 'spike' in the workload, this also suggested that a higher workload reached by increases in gradual increments was not generally a contributing factor.

In a similar vein, a paper presented at Cricket Australia's 2010 Conference of Science, Medicine and Coaching in Cricket which examined 43 Christchurch club fast bowlers found that stress fractures of the back "were not related to workload", but did note that premature returns from previous injuries greatly increased the risk of injury. The finding echoed a University of Otago study of New Zealand fast bowlers published a decade earlier, which also noted that "some of the bowlers in the study with 'correct' actions suffered injury while others with supposedly 'unsafe' actions remained injury free...so poor technique may be less of an evil than poor management."

From this voluminous material some tentative conclusions can be derived. Pre-existing injuries,
particularly when coupled with overly fast comebacks, are a clear contributory cause of injury. However, high workload is not the gross inflictor of injury that you might think. Indeed, there is more evidence to support the notion that low workloads are a larger cause of injuries as the body is insufficiently prepared for the demands placed on it by fast bowling.

In the New Zealand context, this intuitively supports the contention of Doull and Nash that short seasons hamper fast bowling, which is in turn backed up by the literature on sudden increases in workload. As the British study found, young bowlers who exceeded the England and Wales Cricket Board's prescribed workload guidelines were at no greater risk of injury. This would suggest that one solution would be to relax the similar guidelines which New Zealand Cricket (NZC), and Cricket Australia, have in place across youth and school cricket. Similarly, the disastrous rushing back of Nash and Geoff Allott, among many, from injury too quickly is something New Zealand must strive to avoid with its current crop.

With bowling techniques retaining an element of individual uniqueness and thus proving more difficult to objectively categorise than workloads, poor technique may well play less of a role in fast bowling injuries than previously thought. There is sufficient anecdotal and empirical evidence though to indicate that coaches should carefully scrutinise techniques and carefully manage players with an awareness of the strain each fast bowler's technique may be placing on their body. If an overly lengthy run-up is found in the individual player's context to be evidence of poor technique and an injury risk, Dennis Lillee's 'running in blind' visualisation technique to reduce the run-up length, sacrificing wasted exertion rather than pace, would not be a bad starting point!

For New Zealand bowlers, any such strain would no doubt be exacerbated by indoor training, a thought echoed by Doull when he said that "going from the hard surfaces and the concrete ones to soft outfields really stuffs your back up". With New Zealand domestic teams forced to train indoors until a fortnight before the season starts, due more to a lack of prepared grass wickets than inclement weather, solving this issue would require significant investment from NZC in more grass wickets which can endure in the off-season. Currently, only NZC's High Performance Centre at the Bert Sutcliffe Oval in Lincoln, just outside Christchurch, and Mt Maunganui's Blake Park in the Bay of Plenty satisfy this need.

The format of cricket played when injury was sustained (20-over, 50-over or multi-day) is a controversial element to consider, due to debate as to whether the format itself causes injury or is merely an additional manifestation of the workload factor. Currently, aside from the brief and fairly obvious conclusion in a 2010 Journal of Sports Sciences article that "the shorter formats...are more intensive per unit of time, but multi-day cricket has a greater overall physical load", a recent collation by the British Journal of Sports Medicine of New Zealand cricket injuries between 2002 and 2008 is the only serious scholarly exploration of the topic.

Helpfully focused on New Zealand for the purposes of this piece, it was found that for match injuries, New Zealand cricketers generally were significantly more likely to be injured in a Twenty20 or List A match than a first-class match. Specifically, New Zealand fast bowlers were three times more likely to sustain match injuries than spinners, batsmen or keepers, and they were also far more likely to do so in international cricket than domestic cricket. Frustratingly, there was no breakdown as to fast bowlers' match injuries by format played, but it would be reasonable to assume from the overall data that the shorter forms were the main culprits. The limitations of the collation though - no record of how many deliveries each player bowled or faced, and no discussion of whether the format or other factors caused the injuries - mean it is only a starting point which needs to be built upon.

While NZC has an 'injury surveillance system' in place as a result of the collation, the reality remains that many fast bowlers may choose to play with injuries which have either been kept between the bowler and team management, or worse, are known only to the bowler, possibly out of fear for their place in the side. Managing workloads, as has been the case with Adam Milne and his domestic Central Districts side, may be distasteful to some supporters, but such an option, coupled with an open culture where fast bowlers are not punished for admitting to injuries, is the best hope of finally ending the scourge of the injury curse which has afflicted New Zealand pacemen.

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