Pace, it aches

When they should be up and running in Sri Lanka,Sreesanth and Zaheer Khan are nursing injuries back home.-K.R. DEEPAK

Fast bowling is a very demanding pursuit. It has been so in every era. There is no fast bowler who would not have been plagued by aches and pains, writes Vijay Lokapally.

In the good old times, fast bowlers could run in and bowl the whole day. It did not matter if you ran in from 10 yards or 20 yards and your follow-through ended within a whispering distance of the batsman. Fitness and a conscious preparation for the grind were always the key and what stood out was that most bowlers could produce long spells.

It is different now.

Fast bowlers are breaking down regularly and captains have learnt to use them sparingly. True, injuries are supposed to be a part and parcel of the game. “No good bowler would invite an injury,” says Kapil Dev. “But no good bowler would stay unfit either. If you want to bowl fast and bowl fast regularly, you have to be strong and fit,” he is quick to add.

Fast bowling is very demanding. It has been so in every era. There is no fast bowler who would not have been plagued by aches and pains. Sports science has contributed immensely to athletes enjoying a healthy life and fast bowlers over the years have come to learn and improve. Yet, concerns over their fitness have increased and the recent cases of Zaheer Khan and S. Sreesanth only confirm the fears.

This is an area that needs to be addressed urgently by the administrators who are accused of whipping the players mercilessly to fill their coffers.

The causes for injuries vary. Some can be accidental and some stem from poor fitness standards. “It is a combination of both — average fitness and too much cricket. It is not humanly possible to produce scorching pace for long spells of time. There are times when a bowler lets himself go, but such phases are rare in a day's play. Much depends on the playing conditions too,” observes Kapil, who was a champion when it came to excelling even on placid pitches.

It is not that only Indian fast bowlers have been struggling to maintain match fitness. Shane Bond, Shoaib Akhtar, Andrew Flintoff, Brett Lee and Lasith Malinga, to name a few, have also suffered from injuries at different stages.

“Too much stress from too much cricket,” was how Michael Holding once put it.

Not that fast bowlers did not get injured in the 1970s and 80s. “We had our share of injuries but we would hide them. Playing was more important but it did not mean that we would play half-fit. We would bear the pain and play,” reflected former Test all-rounder Madan Lal.

Bruised heels, a sore body and pain under the ribs were all forgotten by fast bowlers wanting to bully the batsman into submission. Dennis Lillee was a supreme example of how a cricketer could overcome crippling injury to bowl with amazing distinction. In his ‘Art of Fast Bowling,' the great Australian speedster wrote, “I learnt to live with minor pain because I realized that is one of the penalties I have to pay to achieve what I want to achieve in cricket.”

Lillee also believed that if his body was not protesting in some way he would tend to think that he was not putting enough into his bowling. His case remains an inspiration for the young fast bowlers of today. For five years, starting 1972, Lillee battled a back injury, missed 13 Tests during that period, but returned to flatten the best of batsmen.

Kapil Dev, India's champion fast bowler, preserved himself admirably even as he crossed swords with the world's best, Viv Richards in this instance.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

According to Kapil, modern day bowlers are guilty of spending more time in the gymnasium than on the field. “They do more training and less competition. They concentrate on the upper body and not their legs. A fast bowler should have the legs of a horse. I remember doing a lot of running and I didn't have the kind of technical support these guys have today.”

Kapil also suggested a balance in the body. “By balance I mean proper training. I used to throw the ball 40 times from the boundary to the wicketkeeper on days when I would not have bowled in a match. Sachin (Tendulkar) used to be my partner and the little fellow would throw it with either hand. Amazing. This balance of exercise for the arms was achieved by shining the ball with my left hand. You would see the red on my trousers on the left thigh. These are little things but they went a long way in helping me maintain my fitness.”

Over-bowling also leaves the bowlers tired. “Coaches also tend to suggest too many changes,” notes Kapil. “There is so much of cricket being played today, you are bound to suffer injuries.”

“Too much cricket,” is what former bowling coach Venkatesh Prasad also says is one of the reasons for bowlers pulling out of contests regularly. “A captain and the coach have to be smart enough to understand the potential of a fast bowler. His physical attributes are so important. He needs to be monitored properly in the ‘nets' and match,” says Prasad, who never shirked bowling in the ‘nets' despite having to carry the burden of bowling long spells in a match.

What is the solution? “It is not rocket science,” says Prasad. “You have got to be smart. You have to train and bowl smartly. It is up to the bowler to understand the situation and recognise his limitations. He alone knows how far he can push himself. Proper rest is as important as training and competition. You can't be running in hard every ball if you want to be serious about your career.”

Prasad spent a lot of time with the bowlers when he was the coach of the Indian team. “I know the mindset of our bowlers. I used to advise them how to hold yourself back sometimes and yet keep the pressure on the batsman. Your second and third spells are important and you need to study the pitch and act. Fast bowlers are bound to get injured because fast bowling is the most tedious thing in cricket. You can be injured if you bowl too much or you bowl suddenly, which is without having bowled much in the run-up to that game.”

Prasad was apt in his assessment. “There is too much dependence on coaches and trainers these days. There has to be some individual understanding of the game too. I learnt it by bowling, bowling and bowling. Running was equally important to improve strength and endurance.”

What would he suggest? Prasad is candid, “Today the youngsters have some amazing support staff for treatment and rehab, but it would boil down to nothing without that personal understanding of your own body and your limitations. Honestly, I must say that we have some fantastic youngsters around who can do wonders if they understand their body better. They have to follow proper diet and training. I would also suggest that the NCA (National Cricket Academy) should not be used for rehab purpose. I would like all the contracted players to train regularly at the NCA and not just when they get injured.”

For Paras Mhambrey, one of the first to qualify as a coach in 1999 when he was still playing, it narrowed down to the individual. “To an extent the fault lies with the bowler himself. You can do nothing if you dive and injure your shoulder but not if you break down because you are striving for something extra on placid pitches. This is where the coach and trainer come in. You have to strike a balance between playing and resting.

The key lies in understanding your body. How much can you push yourself? Technical aspects also have to be followed. If you have back problems repeatedly then obviously you need to study your action. It also could mean that you are not strong enough. The problem is the workload differs from trainer to trainer and the poor bowler suffers because he strives to perform. After all, performance is what counts.”

In times when bowling speed and strike rate define a cricketer's potential, a quality fast bowler would increasingly become difficult to find. “It is all about how fast you bowl or how hard you hit. So fitness becomes the most important aspect. Survival of the fittest as they say,” Mhambrey put it simply.

In the opinion of a veteran cricketer, who requested anonymity, the attitude mattered a lot. “When Sunil Gavaskar once reported with fever on the morning of the match, he went out and hit his only one-day century (1987 World Cup). Today, if you have fever, the physio rules you out (Yuvraj Singh in Colombo). The problem is that the players today have become dependent instead of being independent.”

True. Mohinder Amarnath and Sandeep Patil left their hospital beds to don the gear and bat on in Test matches. Kapil took painkillers and bowled with a torn hamstring to win a Test match. It is the attitude that matters. As Kapil, Prasad and Mhambrey observed, bowlers need to understand their body and decide how much to push themselves. It is not rocket science at all!