Two role models... Kapil Dev missed one Test match in his 131-Test career (the miss coming as a result of a disciplinary action!), while Courtney Walsh bowled 40,000 balls for the West Indies and a further 85,000 for Gloucestershire and other first-class sides without ending up in a wheelchair! © Getty Images

 

By Akash Kaware

 

When it was announced that the recently-concluded Test series between Australia and South Africa would be a two-match affair, there was a big hue and cry about the marginalisation of Test cricket. When the two Tests produced riveting cricket, but no winner, the cries grew louder. While I’m certainly with those who called for a third Test between these two sides who seem to have a knack of providing some stunning contests, I wonder what a third Test would have done to the two sides, injury-wise.

 

Even in such a short series, as many as five Australian players managed to pick up injuries and will miss the first Test against New Zealand. Shane Watson (hamstring), Shaun Marsh (back), Ryan Harris (pelvis), Mitchell Johnson (foot) and newcomer Pat Cummins (heel) are all walking-wounded since the Johannesburg thriller. Even if there was a third Test, half the first-choice Australian side would have probably missed the game, turning it into a no-contest. So in a way, I’m almost glad it was a two-Test series!

 

Virtually every player’s injury is followed by platitudes like ‘it’s all part and parcel of the game’ and ‘these things happen’, yet there is no denying the fact that players in this era seem to get injured more often than their predecessors. It is often pointed out that today’s players play much more cricket, but that doesn’t ring true. Remember, many of the stars of the yesteryear bowled thousands and thousands of overs for their county sides in addition to their national duties. International stars’ turning out for their states in domestic competitions was not as unheard of as it is now either. If anything, I think bowlers these days get injured more often precisely because they do not bowl as much as their predecessors.

 

Bowling, fast bowling in particular, is one of the most unnatural physical activities one can put their body through. Just try to sprint full-throttle for 30 meters, then jump, land heavily on your foot, and then bend forwards while turning your arm over your head. Do this 20 times and all of a sudden, muscles you didn’t know existed will make their presence known through the language of pain. For such an activity, fitness and bowling fitness can sometimes be completely different things. It is a kind of activity that time in the gym cannot train you for. There is only one way for a bowler to gain bowling fitness, and that is to bowl as much as he can.

 

Bob Willis once said that the only training he ever did was run laps of a cricket ground like a madman to build up stamina, and bowl as much as he could. He did not miss too many Test matches in his career. Kapil Dev missed one Test match in his 131-Test career, and it was because the selectors thought he cost India a match due to rash batting. It is hard to imagine he had access to as many fitness facilities as a Zaheer Khan does. And Courtney Walsh should probably donate himself to some kind of a fast bowling research institute to find out just how he bowled 40,000 balls for the West Indies and a further 85,000 for Gloucestershire and other first-class sides without ending up in a wheelchair! It wasn’t as if bowlers from the past did not suffer from injuries. Dennis Lillee, Richard Hadlee, Imran Khan all suffered career-threatening injuries at some point or the other. But these days, you would be hard pressed to find a bowler who lasts a full series, much less a full season.

 

Very often, fast bowling is an exercise in rhythm. Why else is it that we often see men built like pit-bulls barely touching 85 miles an hour, while there are wiry little fellows like Ajit Agarkar who managed to repeatedly hit 90 miles an hour (though, of course, he suffered plenty of breakdowns while doing it)?

 

Michael Holding once said there were days when he would exert every sinew of his graceful body, but still could not operate at full pace. And then there were days when it seemed like he was ambling towards the crease, but the ball would still thud into Jeffrey Dujon’s gloves. That perfect symphony of every muscle that helps to achieve optimum pace without putting undue pressure on the body can only be achieved by doing it over and over again out there in the middle and in the nets, not in even the most high-tech of gymnasiums.

 

These days there is a lot of talk about preserving talented bowlers, but that is a part of the problem. If bowlers are rested too often, and brought in from the cold straightaway in the cauldron of a Test match, their bodies are unlikely to withstand the strain of bowling 20 overs a day.

 

Also, sometimes the best of sports medicine and support staff that today’s bowlers have access to can be a hindrance more than a blessing. No doubt once a player is injured, he gets much better treatment and rehabilitation than players from the past ever did. But such excellent facilities also mean that little niggles which would probably be ignored in the past, now have a serious-sounding medical term for it. While the Lillees and Hadlees and Bothams probably chose to play on through the pain on many occasions, the Johnsons and the Steyns and the Cumminses are pulled out of the ranks at the first sign of discomfort as the support staff is loath to aggravate a niggle. Admittedly, if the decision is left to the players themselves, current players would probably also play through pain as the admirable Ryan Harris so often does, but the decision is mostly out of their hands these days.

 

There have been enough injuries and enough early retirements from the fast bowling department of the game to label them ‘Handle with care’, but greats of the past would tell you, one aspect of that care needs to be bowling more, not less.

 

(Akash Kaware is an Indian IT professional, who would’ve been a successful international cricketer if it hadn’t been for an annoying tendency to run towards square-leg while facing tennis, rubber or leather cricket balls hurled at anything more than genuine medium-pace! Watching Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid convinced him that breaking into the Indian team was not going to happen anytime soon and hence he settled to become an engineer and MBA, who occasionally wrote about cricket. A few months ago, sensing his uselessness and constant use of cricket websites at work, his company banished him to Canada. His hopes of playing international cricket have, thus, been renewed!)