With serious injury setbacks to James Pattinson, Pat Cummins and Mitchell Starc in the last month, many people have questioned why our young fast bowlers are breaking down with injury.
It’s disappointing to see these players on the sidelines but the process of managing our young fast bowlers is a complex issue that takes a huge amount of time and planning.
We have a large amount of information on current and past players, and use this to help us manage our players.
For example, recently Cricket Australia collaborated with ACU, to conduct a study into fast bowling workloads through the Centre of Excellence and the states.
This follows a similar study published by CA in 2009.
These studies confirm that spikes in bowling workload predispose fast bowlers to injury and this is something that we all understand very well.
There is similar research in other sports such as AFL and Rugby League.
Bowling workload spikes are a sharp increase in number of balls bowled from one week to the next; and how many bowls are bowled in a certain week compared to the average number bowled in the past 4-6 weeks.
It basically tells whether a player has done more than they are accustomed to.
Whilst this sounds pretty simple, minimising workload spikes is difficult because it requires careful planning and requires enough time to ensure that workloads are built up gradually to minimise the spikes during high load periods.
Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as bowling 12 months of the year or “just get them to bowl more” as some people advocate, because we also know that sustained high workloads also predispose players to injury.
In the recent study by Thulin et al, while generally a higher workload was protective, it also demonstrated that there was also an upper limit to weekly workloads where injury rates start to increase again.
Other studies have also shown that bowling too much or too little can predispose bowlers to injury.
Getting this balance right is complex; the optimum amount of bowling for one bowler will differ from the next.
The key is to minimise the large workload spikes is the lead up period to Test matches.
That is, ensuring players get enough bowling in the weeks prior to high load periods.
This is often complicated by injury that may limit the player’s ability to bowl at certain times or when they are playing other (shorter) forms of the game that make it challenging to achieve adequate workloads.
Through careful planning and preparation, we were able to have our leading six fast bowlers fit and available for the first Test of the Ashes in the UK.
This was challenging because three had major injuries coming out of the back end of the last Australian summer.
This was a good outcome and gave the selectors and Michael Clarke the choice of the best bowlers for the important series.
Losing James Pattinson after two Ashes Tests was a blow to the team and a disappointing outcome.
Match circumstances meant that in the back-to-back first two Tests, we bowled on eight of nine match days and our fast bowlers bowled almost 125 overs more than England in those two games (our fast bowlers also bowled 36% more overs than England in the entire series).
James was the youngest bowler playing those two Tests and unfortunately did not cope.
Even with the most ideal preparation, bowling spikes can still occur.
When they do occur, it is just as important to manage them.
That is, what do we do when bowlers have had that unusually large rise in workloads from bowling in a Test match or back-to-back Test matches?
For example, Peter Siddle bowled 64 overs in the Adelaide Test against South Africa last year and over 117 overs in the first two Tests of that series.
We use a number of criteria to decide on the management of when this happens, such as: how they coped with the high loads in the past, how they feel in the days after a high load game, how they perform in weekly screening (which demonstrates how they physically respond to load), how have others in similar situations (even past players) coped and we even ask them how they feel.
Trying to get the balance between optimal recovery and maintaining loads at acceptable levels is a high priority and a collaborative process between the sports science and sports medicine staff, coaches and the player.
Whilst the majority of the focus has been on workloads, there are also other factors that are just as important and interrelated, in particular; bowling technique and the age.
Cricket Australia has arguably the most comprehensive and longest running injury surveillance system in world sport and helps us understand injury trends.
One of these trends is that younger players (under the age of 25) have higher injury rates (probably because the skeletal system has not fully matured).
After the age of 25, injury rates level out and like most other high intensity sports, increase once athletes are in their 30s.
In the most recent Ashes series, Australian fast bowlers under the age of 25 (Pattinson, Starc, Faulkner) bowled 239 overs, whilst English bowlers under the age of 25 (Finn & Woakes) bowled 49 overs for the entire series.
This demonstrates our reliance on the younger bowlers at international level, which will be great for us in the future once they have physically matured in 2-3 years; they will not only be more resilient but will have the benefit of Test match cricket experience behind them.
It is frustrating to see people write how much more past bowlers bowled and how they were never injured.
This is not a debate I get into, because we have no way of knowing how much, how fast or how frequently past players bowled; or how many injuries they had (our injury data started in the mid-1990s).
We do know that Mitch Starc and James Pattinson have bowled more overs in Test cricket at the age of 23 than most other Australian Test fast bowlers.
They rank in the top four bowlers with Craig McDermott and Bruce Reid, for the number of Test overs bowled at the age of 23.
This again highlights our reliance on the younger bowlers.
The results of the recent study reinforce our belief that managing the workloads of our players is integral to keeping them fit and available to represent their country.
Injuries are an unfortunate part of elite sport but we need to remain patient with our younger players.
Despite the recent setbacks, we will continue to work extremely hard to have as many fit players as possible so that the coaching staff can prepare them to play for Australia.
Alex Kountouris has been working with the Australian team as physiotherapist since 2003
The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Cricket Australia
First Posted 09 September, 2013 2:30PM AEST