The Ashes will be upon us in less than two months, and Australia would be craving for revenge in front of the home crowd having conceded the urn in England last year.
Injuries, however, have plagued Australia’s preparations, with Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, James Pattinson and Mitchell Marsh out of action with different problems. Pat Cummins is scheduled to return home from India after the One-Day Internationals to ensure there are no further hiccups ahead of the marquee clash, and Alex Kountouris, Cricket Australia’s Sports Science and Sports Medicine Manager, is working overtime to make sure everything is in place.
Speaking to Wisden India on the sidelines of the ODI series, Kountouris discussed the recent breakdowns in the camp, the art of managing workloads, India’s rotation policy and Cummins’s near-miraculous comeback. Excerpts:
Australia, despite their extensive use of science in training, have suffered from a series of injuries of late. It was not the case some years ago, when the likes of Glenn McGrath or Jason Gillespie were bowling…
There are a lot of things involved with that. One of the things is that when we are looking at the bowlers from the past, we are thinking of them when they were at their best. We are comparing them with current bowlers who are at the start or the middle of their career. When you speak of a Gillespie, for instance, he had all sort of injuries – stress fractures etc. – in the younger part of his career. When he hit the age of 25-26, he became more resilient. McGrath started a bit later, at the age of 24, playing for his state, and then moved into the Australian side when he was 25. He had a few injuries too, maybe in the back end of his career. Yeah, you can say he was an exception (in terms of injuries).
“When you train for Test cricket or first-class cricket, you bowl around 300 balls a week. If you are playing T20 cricket, you are only bowling 100-120 balls per week. So obviously, all of a sudden when they drop off and are bowling 100, 110, 120 and then trying to step back up to bowl 300, that’s when they get injured. It’s that switch from bowling lesser balls in T20s that’s causing the injuries. It’s coming out of T20s that’s the problem, it’s not playing the game. T20 cricket is relatively safe, particularly when we are speaking of the bigger injuries.”
But I don’t think it’s fair to compare the young bowlers who are 18 to 20 years old with those guys. What happens is up until the age of 24-25, you go through a lot of injuries, that’s the natural trend. Then the body matures, and gets used to the rigours of professional cricket. Johnson is a good case for that. He had lots of injuries till he hit 25, and then, after even spending a year away from the game, he came back strong and virtually had no injuries till the end of his career.
You had been with the Sri Lankan team for a long time (1995 to 2003) before this. Was working with players from the sub-continent a significantly different experience?
It is not much about the difference in body structures or anything that you usually would think. It is more about how the game is played over here. When you are playing in this part of the world, you don’t use fast bowlers as much. We did an analysis a few years ago, which revealed that playing in Australia, you use fast bowlers for 65-80 per cent of the overs while in the sub-continent, it’s the other way around. Pacers bowl a maximum of 50 percent of the overs here. Basically, the fast bowlers don’t do as much over here as they do elsewhere.
You saw in the last Test in Bangladesh, we used only one fast bowler and three spinners – we would never do that in Australia. In Australia, the wickets are helpful for the faster bowlers, just like it is in South Africa. There is a hardness in the wicket, so there are a lot of forces going through the bowler’s body. But this is the simplest way I can answer this question, though it’s actually a very complex problem. Each player has different levels of breaking points, and it’s important to identify them early to avoid injuries. Over here, the hot weather, even that plays a significant role.
In your fast bowling guidelines for the youth, you have pointed out the importance of players avoiding bowling more than two days in a row or more than four days in a week. Do you deal with the senior national team pacers the same way?
Yeah, that actually counts for all players. There are separate studies in place for young players and adult players, but there are only some subtle differences. Basically, the adult players can cope with more workload. We prefer that the bowlers bowl lots of balls in one session and then give the body some rest for a day or two to allow it to recover and then get back and bowl again. It is a much better approach as opposed to bowling a little bit every day.
Suppose you got to bowl 40 overs at training, you are better off doing it in three sessions than doing the same in five sessions, so your body gets time to recover. It’s like what happens when you go to the gym. You go in, lift weights, and your body is sore the next day. That’s your muscles strengthening from inside. The bones, unfortunately, don’t really give you that same kind of pain that makes you feel good about yourself. The recovery works in the same way though like the muscles. You load it up and give it a day or two, and it gets better. The difficulty in cricket is that it’s a multi-day sport. You are playing first-class matches that require you to play four-five days in a row, which makes it hard to follow the routine. But you’ve got to train your body for that. It’s quite a complex thing to manage the players, but we love what we do.
“One of the variables surrounding injuries is how fast you bowl. Guys who consistently bowl above 140 kmph belong to the high-risk category. I won’t say Pat’s never going to get injured again. He would, at some point in his career, but we are trying to manage him the best we can. We are trying to use what we now know about him and see how he copes with different tournaments etc. We will gradually push him along in all formats. It is a work in progress, but we are very happy to see how he has shaped up after those injuries.”
In another recent study, you have observed that there has been a steady rise in hamstring injuries since the advent of Twenty20 cricket. What is the reason for that?
Yeah, what we have seen with our research data collected over 20 years is that from around 2005-2006, when we started playing a lot more T20s domestically, there was a definite increase in hamstring injuries. That steadily went up over the next three, four, five years or so. Then it stayed steady for a bit and in the last couple of years, it’s come back down again.
T20 cricket is the most dynamic form of the game. Every run counts, so the players are sprinting between the wickets harder, squeezing every run, and taking more risks. Even on the field, the guys are running much harder. T20s probably changed the game not just for the 20-20 format, but also ODIs and Test cricket. Things have changed in terms of how the guys play the longer formats, and you see all the teams in the world are now more athletic. T20 cricket, obviously, has been the driver for that. Back in the day, the players were prepared to do things a certain way – they trained themselves to play one-dayers or Test cricket and then when T20s came along, the bodies just couldn’t cope.
Who have suffered more – the batsmen or the bowlers?
The rise in hamstring injuries were observed mostly in the batsmen. Fast bowlers had the same number of hamstring injuries as before, but the batsmen suffered a rise (with T20s). The dynamic nature, running between the wickets – those were the main reasons. For the bowlers, they have struggled with something different.
All of a sudden, in the middle of a season in Australia, a lot of players now have these blocks of eight to ten weeks where they are playing only T20 cricket. So they don’t bowl a lot of balls during this period. Hence, it’s not like they are playing too much cricket, it’s that they are not playing enough. They are not bowling as much as they usually do. They get just four overs in a game, and then they are travelling, then again a little bit of training, and then playing again.
When you train for Test cricket or first-class cricket, you bowl around 300 balls a week. If you are playing T20 cricket, you are only bowling 100-120 balls per week. So obviously, all of a sudden when they drop off and are bowling 100, 110, 120 and then trying to step back up to bowl 300, that’s when they get injured. It’s that switch from bowling lesser balls in T20s that’s causing the injuries. It’s coming out of T20s that’s the problem, it’s not playing the game. T20 cricket is relatively safe, particularly when we are speaking of the bigger injuries. It’s that spike in workload when you switch back to the longer formats that you tend to pick up injuries.
It’s like running. If you are doing 3 kms regularly and you suddenly attempt a 30 km run, your body won’t cope. There might not be injuries every time, but the risk is definitely higher. We spend a lot of time to make sure the bowlers are bowling more balls than needed during the T20s, between matches, so we can avoid these situations.
In Australia, we play the Big Bash League and switch to the Sheffield Shield straightaway. That’s moving from the shortest to the longest form directly. Ideally, it should be T20s, then one-dayers and then four or five-day games, but that doesn’t happen. Even with the IPL, we might straightaway be playing a Test series in West Indies or the Ashes after the tournament – you just can’t avoid that. That’s the challenge, and the difference between modern-day cricket and the way the game was played 20 years ago. The guys are surely playing more cricket than back in the day, but more than the workload, it’s about knowing how to spread the workload out over more days that ensures longevity.
What are your thoughts on the rotation policy India has recently adopted?
Look, sometimes maybe you have to do that. But what we (in Australia) try to do is plan throughout the year, and try to give the players a break when there is no cricket. That’s what’s ideal. We chalk it out and see when there is an opportunity for a break, and we try to make sure we have our players available for all the tournaments. It is a legitimate thing to try give them as much of a break as possible, but ideally, we need to try and do it when there is no cricket. And there are gaps in the calendar. Yes, the modern player plays a lot of cricket, but you can still find those gaps with proper planning.
“Things have changed in terms of how the guys play the longer formats, and you see all the teams in the world are now more athletic. T20 cricket, obviously, has been the driver for that. Back in the day, the players were prepared to do things a certain way – they trained themselves to play one-dayers or Test cricket and then when T20s came along, the bodies just couldn’t cope.”
Finally, tell us about Pat Cummins. There was a time when people said he will never play international cricket again, but here he is, back to bowling fast in all formats.
Well with Pat, he made his debut at 17, and no one has done that in Test cricket for Australia. So you see he has been in the limelight since a very young age. Even now, he is only 24. McGrath made his debut at 24. We have exposed him to the limelight for seven years, which made everyone say things like. “Where is Pat Cummins? Oh he is injured.” But that’s the trajectory of a young fast bowler.
One of the variables surrounding injuries is how fast you bowl. Guys who consistently bowl above 140 kmph belong to the high-risk category. I won’t say Pat’s never going to get injured again. He would, at some point in his career, but we are trying to manage him the best we can. We are trying to use what we now know about him and see how he copes with different tournaments etc. We will gradually push him along in all formats. It is a work in progress, but we are very happy to see how he has shaped up after those injuries.
We never doubted his credentials, we never thought he will not play again. We have seen many young bowlers get injured, make a comeback, and get injured again. They eventually hit that sweet spot from where they can sustain themselves for longer. He is coming to that age now, and he is a hard working young professional. It feels great to see him on the field but we are certainly not surprised, because that’s exactly what we were aiming to do.