Cricket Australia’s ‘rotation policy’ could be causing injuries

Could a variable workload have contributed to Ben Hilfenhaus’s side strain? AAP Image/Chris Crerar

Cricket Australia has come under fire in recent years for their contentious “rotation policy” – the method by which players are “rested” despite being injury-free and often in good form.

Representatives from Cricket Australia deny this policy exists and prefer the term “informed player management”, saying athletes’ workloads are carefully managed, with individual players rested from certain games to ensure team performance is maximised.

Whatever term we use to describe the current system, many outside team management find it hard to understand how a player can be both in form and seemingly fit to play, but still be asked to sit on the sidelines.

The majority of the angst in regards to this surrounds the resting of fast bowlers.

Workload management

We agree that an evidence-based approach to workload management is critical. Moreover we recognise that managing players through an increasingly heavy international schedule is extremely difficult.

But problems can arise from incorrect interpretation of load management data and this is precisely what we believe is happening.

Research shows that athletes tolerate constant workloads better than workloads with large variations over short periods. Large variations not only impact on performance but may also contribute to injury.

Therefore, an ideal situation for an athlete would involve a steady progression in workload, combined with periods of slightly lower activity, thus allowing adaptation and therefore greater fitness and resilience to injury.

When a player is rested, there is a dramatic drop in the number of balls bowled, even allowing that the player will likely bowl during training. When the player returns to matches, their load is drastically increased from previous weeks, causing large variations in balls bowled.

In the lead up to his side strain injury in the Hobart test match in mid December, Tasmanian fast bowler Ben Hilfenhaus had a large variation in the number of total weekly deliveries he bowled in matches: 287, 0, 321, 0, 0, and 74.

Hilfenhaus was not selected for the Perth test against South Africa (nearly three weeks before the Hobart test), whether through form or fitness, and therefore had close to three weeks between the 321 deliveries he bowled in the Adelaide test and the 74 deliveries he bowled in Hobart before being injured.

Importantly, Hilfenhaus did not play at state or club level during this three-week period either, thus creating a large increase in bowling load upon his return at Hobart. This increased load could well have contributed to the subsequent injury he received.

Building a base

The issue of better managing workloads for bowlers needs to begin earlier, so our promising young players can be adequately prepared for the high workloads required by international cricket.

Currently, bowling restrictions on underage cricketers hamper this preparation. Rules state that Under-17 bowlers are permitted to bowl no more than 16 overs per day, with a maximum of six overs in a row (known as a “spell”). Under-19 bowlers can bowl no more than 20 overs per day, with eight overs per spell.

On top of these restrictions, both U17s and U19s must rest for a given timeframe before bowling again. This policy seems to have lowered injuries for underage bowlers, but seems to fail to prepare players for international competition.

Patrick Cummins represented New South Wales in first class cricket as a 17 year old, meaning he would never previously have bowled more than 20 overs in a day.

In his first class debut (against Tasmania in March 2011) he bowled only 24 overs for the match after NSW lost by an innings. Five days later he played against Western Australia, bowling 47 overs for the match (33 overs in the first innings and 14 in the second). Four days after that he played in the Sheffield Shield final, bowling 48 overs in the first innings and 17 in the second.

It is quite clear that this is a dramatic increase from what Cummins had previously undertaken, and may have led to an injury some weeks later and further injury in his subsequent debut for Australia.

So, a system that artificially creates large increases in load for younger players, coupled with acute periods of large variation in load seems destined to cause injury.

The challenge for Cricket Australia will be to strike the balance between rest and regeneration and ensuring adequate and consistent load to build capacity and resilience in players.