How much is too much?

Cricketers today probably PRACTISE much less than internationals in other sport. The argument is that they play so much that they need a rest. But one can't go along with this. It is only practice that makes perfect and too often first class teams don't practise perfection, writes BOB SIMPSON.

It is suggested that Test cricketers these days are the fittest ever in the history of the game. If that is the case, why are so many of them getting injured? I can hear those who support the `fittest ever' theory priming their ammunition and suggesting that it is because the players take part in so much more international cricket today.

Is this really true? Certainly they have more Test matches and one-day internationals are comparatively new, but I have no doubt they play less cricket overall and certainly do not bowl as many overs as those who played some 30 or 40 years ago.

At present players have a restriction of 15 Tests and 30 one-dayers each year. In all that is 75 Test days and 30 ODIs per year. Not a huge load by any means and even less when you consider that Test matches are generally over in four days. So the total days of international cricket are probably closer to 90 than 105. In addition, of course, with first class matches requiring only 90 overs per day it is far less than in the past.

While I have no doubt that most of the first class cricketers of today — through better understanding of diets and fitness training — are generally more fit overall than those of the past, I have great reservation whether they are really cricket-fit.

It is interesting to reflect on the number of overs that were bowled in the past. In the 1930s, a good English bowler sent down, on an average, over 1300 overs per season. That included county and Test matches.

C. T. B. Turner (the Terror), an Australian paceman of the late 19th century, bowled 2472 overs in 1888; E. A. (Ted) McDonald, a tearaway Australian fast bowler playing for Lancashire, bowled 1249 overs in 1925; Maurice Tate, the great fast medium bowler for Sussex and England, bowled 1694 overs also in 1925; Bob Appleyard of Yorkshire and England bowled 1313 overs at either medium pace or off-spin in 1951; Alec Bedser and Freddie Trueman in the 1940s and 50s always reckoned on bowling over 1000 overs per English season. In those times many more first class matches were played in England than the short programme of today. Australian tours were long and busy and until the early 70s the Australians were still playing around the counties, six weeks after the final Test.

In the 1930s, Clarrie Grimmett, the Aussie leg-spinner, twice bowled over 1000 overs on the English tours. Bill O'Reilly, inevitably bowled around 900 overs on these tours. Ray Lindwall, one of Australia's greatest and fastest bowlers, normally bowled around 600 overs in England. In the 50s and 60s, Australia's topline bowlers such as Benaud, Davidson and company were also close to the mark.

On the 1961 tour of England I scored 2060 runs and bowled 569 overs, while in '65 the tally was 1714 runs and about 400 overs. I never felt tired or overworked and just enjoyed every second of those tours.

It is interesting to look at Graham McKenzie's 18 months beginning with the Australia season against South Africa at home in 1963/64, the 1964 tour of England and the West Indies tour of early 1965. In England he bowled 838 overs and in those 18 months bowled nearly 2,000 overs without missing a beat.

Gradually, since that time, tours have shortened and overs delivered reduced. In 1989 when Australia under Allan Border regained the Ashes, Geoff Lawson bowled the most overs with 522, while Terry Alderman, who took 41 wickets in the Tests, bowled 411. Since 1989 the tours are not as long as the ones that helped develop so many great Australians.

Shane Warne in 2001 bowled the most overs on the English tour and that was just 263 in five Tests and three county matches. He also played in five ODIs and delivered 45 overs. Hardly a heavy load by any standard.

I have been very much a doubting Thomas when I read stories about overworked cricketers, the bowlers in particular. Perhaps the most durable Test bowler in recent history has been Glenn McGrath and he puts it down to the fact that he bowled a large number of balls at practice. He contends that the only way you can get fit for bowling and retain or develop the skills necessary to bowl accurately and to a plan is practise, practise and practise.

I go along with this and am aghast when I attend international practice sessions and see a team of practice bowlers there to relieve the burden of those who will be playing in the Test match. This reliance on practice bowlers works against a team's interest because the bowlers don't bowl enough deliveries to be pinpoint in accuracy and tactics and the batsmen, too, are robbed of the opportunity of practising against tough bowlers. Cricketers today probably practise much less than internationals in other sport. The argument is that they play so much that they need a rest. I can't go along with this. Anyway, it is only practice that makes perfect and too often first class teams don't practise perfection.

I couldn't help thinking of this as I watched the Doral golf open championship on TV recently. After the second day's play Thoms, who was 12 under par, one behind the leaders, headed straight to the practice fairway after his round as he wasn't happy with his driving. Vijay Singh, 4-under, beat him there and spent two hours trying to regain his best form.

As I watch Test cricket today, I despair at the inaccuracy of the bowlers in most of the matches. The fact that teams are scoring so quickly is not a testimony to great batting, but a condemnation of the bowling. In my 50 years association with first class cricket, I can't recall a time when I have seen so many loose balls delivered in international cricket.

Australia have dominated cricket for the last decade or so because of the accuracy and skills of their bowlers. They are mean and seldom give the opposition too many loose balls. Pressure builds up and eventually the batsmen cave in. Obviously, Warne and McGrath have special skills, but it is their accuracy that creates the problem. When you couple this with their unique talent, wickets will fall.

Unfortunately, today, too many bowlers throughout the world have forgotten that accuracy can be learnt by a fair technique and a great deal of effort. It appears that too many bowlers worldwide lack enthusiasm. They are also not prepared to be patient and persistent. While on this subject, it is probably a good time to look at the restriction on the number of overs young cricketers are allowed to bowl in match and practice. The reason for this is to cut down on injury. I am all for this, but how was the information obtained to come up with this restriction.

Certainly there have been a lot of injury problems with youngsters, but is this through too much cricket or aren't the youngsters of today naturally as strong as their predecessors used to be?

Life is certainly easier and the distractions are more. Few youngsters are allowed to roam free to climb trees, throw stones and take themselves to sports. Parents generally drive them everywhere and youngsters seldom walk or even cycle to fixtures, as we did in our youth.

The experts have decreed the injury to bowlers is because they bowl too much in their developing days. I have yet to see a study comparing the overall fitness of youngsters today, to say 20 years ago.

In addition, of course, we have had biomechanics for many, many years recommending that fast bowlers will have less injuries if they bowl with a more open-chested action. Now the more enlightened biomechanics will admit that this analysis has caused many more injuries and are recommending youngsters to copy Jeff Thomson's side-on delivery action. I go along with this and in fact will go along with anything that allows youngsters to bowl as many overs as they like. For, without the ability to bowl thousands of deliveries they will never develop the skills and accuracy to be top bowlers.

It is a catch-22 situation and has been that way for far too long. It is time we stop forcing bowlers into a particular mould and allow them to develop their own natural style. This will not only cut down the number of players who have been injured after trying to change their action but also allow them to develop the strength and flexibility to bowl "their way".