Fast bowler, James Anderson has just become England’s all-time record wicket taker in test match cricket. When Fred Trueman, a previous record holder, was asked in 1964 if anyone would ever beat his achievement he said “whoever does it will be bloody tired”.
Trueman is both right and wrong in his assessment of the toll Anderson’s achievement has had on his body. There is no doubt that fast bowling is a hazardous business with about one in five fast bowlers out on any given day due to injury. That’s an injury rate comparable to contact sports such as Rugby Union and Australian Rules Football.
The extreme trunk movement involved in bowling fast means that front foot hits the bowling crease with a force of around eight times a bowler’s body weight. So it is not surprising that lower-back stress fractures account for the most lost playing time in world cricket. Fast bowlers are also susceptible to abdominal muscle (side) and hamstring strains, knee and ankle pain.
The most important injury risk factors are bowler workload and physical preparation. While a consistent, moderately high bowling workload is likely to be protective against injury, sudden increases in workload, for example at the start of a season, or when coming back from injury, pose a high risk.
Resistance training, which builds up strength through repeated exercises, is a relatively new, yet essential element of fast bowling preparation programmes. Improved muscle strength, particularly of the legs and trunk will not only allow a bowler to deliver the ball faster for longer, but larger, stronger muscles are also efficient at absorbing the injurious forces produced during the delivery stride.
Other risk factors that are relatively easy for coaches and players to control include ensuring appropriate footwear selection and maintenance, training surfaces, nutrition (a lack of enough calories is a leading cause of bone stress injury) and recovery between bowling spells.
Elite England bowlers are encouraged to adopt a 7-4-2 bowling schedule whereby during the majority of seven-day weeks they bowl a maximum of four times (the four) and on only two consecutive days (the two) once a week. Ensuring some non-bowling days per week allows the body to recover and adapt to bowling stress.
All professional fast bowlers will sustain their fair share of injuries – Anderson certainly has, including a career-threatening lower-back stress fracture in 2006. Thorough rehabilitation, building and maintaining trunk and leg strength and carefully planning his bowling schedule have been key factors in allowing him to consistently play at the highest level over the past ten years, culminating in the breaking of Ian Botham’s England wicket-taking record.
What is evidently the difference between Anderson’s achievement and Trueman’s effort is the emergence of evidence-based exercise and sports medicine support programmes targeted at protecting the game’s most valuable asset – in the modern game, as in the past, there is no substitute for out-and-out pace.
In Trueman’s day, managing a bowler’s workload amounted to nothing much more than on-field conversations between captains and their willing (or not so willing) workhorses: “Come on Fred, can you give me a few more overs?” The longest-known bowling spell in test cricket was by Indian leg-spinner Narendra Hirwani. Though the lower impact and rotational forces of spin bowling reduce the propensity for injury, after bowling the same way (except for scheduled breaks) for 354 balls (59 overs) at the Oval in 1990, he would no doubt have been, in Trueman’s words, “bloody tired”.
A brief comparison shows that Anderson has bowled 22,114 test match deliveries since his debut in 2003, and has a current total of 80,803 deliveries in first-class cricket. This is an annual average of 1,923 test match deliveries. Trueman bowled 15,178 test deliveries between 1952-65, an annual average of 1,167. In his career he bowled a total of 115,865 deliveries in first-class cricket. Given that Trueman’s career was slightly longer, the overall figures actually suggest similar bowling loads.
What is dissimilar is that a support network is constantly at hand to help monitor Anderson’s physical condition. It is unlikely that the curmudgeonly Trueman would have tolerated such an intrusion to suggest when he might do more or less work. In stereotypical Yorkshire fashion, when Trueman was asked by his biographer, John Arlott, what the title of the book should be, Trueman said that it should be called the definitive biography of “t'finest bloody fast bowler that ever drew breath.”
Anderson has a good chance of keeping the record even if greater medical attention is given to the health and longevity of the next generation of England fast bowlers. The reason for this is not related to injury prevention but due to a decline in test cricket and the gradual specialisation of bowlers.
The next generation of emerging fast bowlers are likely to find their niche in different forms of cricket, where Twenty20, which has shorter bowling periods, is likely to take a greater share of the total amount of elite cricket on offer. In such a changed cricketing landscape, if you are a fast bowler, what’s not to like about Twenty20? A day’s “work” involves only four overs compared to a five-day test where you are often one of three fast bowlers undertaking extended spells.