Until last week, Toby Roland-Jones looked a pretty safe bet to be on the plane to Australia for that most celebrated of cricket competitions, the Ashes. Opportunities to participate in the oldest rivalry in cricket are rare and, for those chosen, a childhood dream is realised. For the Middlesex paceman however, that opportunity looks like it has been snatched away by the cruel ghost that haunts fast bowlers everywhere, stress fractures of the lower back.
My previous blogs have, with heavy heart, questioned why any young player in the modern era would want to bowl fast? It is the batters who are the pin-ups of the new generation. The fast bowlers that dominated cricket for much of history are now finding it much harder to carve their niche in the game. There is however something so incredibly special about fast bowling that many may find difficult to understand. Parallels can be drawn with racing drivers in their pursuit achieving the accolade of that most beautiful of words; "quick". Unfortunately, bowling fast is a rather unnatural process, putting the human body under forces that no other sport would provide and that means that cricket is unlikely to glean much from other sports such as baseball. Toby Roland-Jones is not of the highest pace but the toll of bowling has caught up with him. Bowling as a whole is a very individualistic practice but to bowl fast, core strength (including your lower back) is of particular importance. It is not powerful arms or shoulders. As Fred Trueman allegedly once remarked, to be a fast bowler you need a big heart and a big a*se!
All young cricket players should be made to study a gentleman by the name of Dennis Lillee. Lillee was the young tearaway that spearheaded the rising Australian team of the early seventies, until disaster struck. Rather like Roland-Jones, the stress fracture of the lower back struck. Unlike Roland-Jones, Lillee was of the highest pace and Lillee was not afforded the advances in medicine and surgery that are available today. Lillee lost some pace certainly but he got back to the top through sheer bloody mindedness and hard work. True he would have had some surgery and physio but cricket was a different game then to what it is today. Dennis Lillee remains an example to all young cricketers and shows what can be achieved despite injury.
What is interesting is that it is difficult to find fast bowlers before Lillee in the early seventies who suffered from these stress fractures. In the modern era, CT and MRI scans will be used but the old fashioned x-ray was (and still is in the right hands) capable of diagnosing this particular injury. Australia appears to have had a spate of young fast bowlers suffering stress fractures and that is despite all the attention, time and money that would have been spent on these bowlers as they have progressed. Another fast bowler affected was West Indian Ian Bishop who burst onto the scene around 1990 with real promise before being cut down. So why in this era of sports science, are these stress fractures still occurring?
Stating that Dennis Lillee was the first to have stress fractures of the lower back is not likely to be correct but in researching the likes of Fred Trueman, Frank Tyson, Ray Lindwall, Keith Miller, Neil Adcock and Peter Heine from the generation before him it is easy to find injuries (knees and feet) but not so much to the back. If one was to go back further generations, Harold Larwood perhaps gives some clues. He was a short man even for the time and did not have the physical training that modern cricketers do. His training was spent down a coal mine and there is a strong school of thought that this manual work may have prepared him, and his body, for fast bowling. The workload in those days was also much greater for a fast bowler, particularly in English first class cricket. There were no two divisions then.
Bowling action, fitness and body type appear in the medical literature as contributory factors to developing these stress factors. This even included the arch of the foot which may not at face value have much influence on the back but does actually have a link. The bowlers who are the fittest and have the best bowling actions however can still get stress fractures of the lower back which is suggestive that we have to return to good old fashioned "luck" in deciding who and who does not get these career threatening stress fractures. Young bowlers would be wise to research their craft and listen to those who may help them avoid injuries, stress fractures or anything else. They have to be safe in the knowledge that even with the best training and the most up to date knowledge, they may still be affected by this curse of the fast bowler.
There may be a school of thought that we are protecting young bowlers too much in restricting their workload. This is not a view I subscribe to but I am of the belief that the best way of nurturing young bowlers is by bowling but bowling under the direction of good coaches. Strengthening the body core would also help as would, I believe, correct footwear. I am afraid Toby Roland-Jones is unlikely to be the last bowler whose career will be affected. One sincerely hopes we will see him back on the cricket field again soon.
Failing all this, maybe we should send all our young fast bowlers for shifts down the coal mines!