Why are India’s at-risk fast-bowlers not better protected: Rudraneil Sengupta - Hindustan Times
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Why are India’s at-risk fast-bowlers not better protected, asks Rudraneil Sengupta

ByRudraneil Sengupta
Aug 05, 2023 08:09 PM IST

They need to be shielded from overwork, from injury. And from training routines that are stuck in the past, says Sengupta. In this week’s The Sporting Life.

The somewhat beleaguered and shaky Team India — still far from fixing on a solid first-choice 11 even with the ODI World Cup just two months away — will exhale in relief at the news that Jasprit Bumrah is, or rather looks like he is, ready to return to the field.

Jasprit Bumrah has spent over a year recovering from an injury. There are specific risks to fast-bowling, that NCA needs to account for. (Getty Images) PREMIUM
Jasprit Bumrah has spent over a year recovering from an injury. There are specific risks to fast-bowling, that NCA needs to account for. (Getty Images)

India have been without their pace spearhead for over a year, ever since a lower-back injury in July 2022. A successful Bumrah comeback could be the difference between winning a World Cup at home and suffering the hurt of defeat. Such is the promise that this deadly fast-bowler holds.

All power to him. May he crash unplayable yorkers at 90mph on to the stumps of hapless batters.

But Bumrah’s struggle is indicative of a much deeper threat within Indian cricket: a plague of injuries has left our league of fast-bowlers diminished. Bumrah, who made his Test debut in 2018, was meant to be part of a new wave; a golden generation with true, express pace. Their careers fast-tracked by the Indian Premier League (IPL), they were to redraw that image of India as a cricketing nation with no genuine quickies.

Instead, the list of our injured fast-bowlers gets longer and longer.

Prasidh Krishna was ruled out for months with a stress fracture earlier this year. Deepak Chahar suffered a hamstring injury last year and a lower-back injury this year. Navdeep Saini had a shoulder injury in 2021 and an abdomen injury last year. Khaleel Ahmed and Umesh Yadav both had injured hamstrings this year. Kamlesh Nagarkoti, who emerged on the scene with the same fireworks, at around the same time, as Bumrah, has been in and out of injury rehabilitation ever since.

Why is this happening? Coaches, experts and former cricketers tend to cite the same three factors. One, is damage from the actual bowling action. The second is that these men are simply playing too much cricket; it is now a non-stop carnival across three formats, with no breaks in the season. The third, and a particularly worrying one, is the theory that there is mishandling and confusion between bowling coaches and fitness coaches regarding what it takes to be fit for fast-bowling.

Cricket coaches in India often scoff at modern strength and conditioning protocols, favouring time in the nets over time in the gym. But the science has shown, for at least two decades, that there is no substitute for strength training and conditioning in elite sports. A sprinter does not become a better sprinter by just sprinting a lot. A footballer will not last the season on practice football alone.

In fact, strength and conditioning alone are no longer enough. One must take into account the precise needs of the sport, and the specific metrics of each player.

This approach has allowed players at the highest levels to enjoy unprecedented longevity, from Cristiano Ronaldo and Gianluigi Buffon in football to the Jamaican sprinter Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, still winning Olympic titles at 35.

Suboptimal training and an unrealistic workload can shrink an elite athlete’s career.

Some of the greatest fast-bowlers in cricketing history extended theirs by opting out of some formats. The recently retired Stuart Broad and the indefatigable James Anderson both avoided the shorter formats of the game and sidestepped franchise cricket altogether.

More recently, the Australian Pat Cummins tackled all three factors listed for our fast-bowlers, with stunning success. Currently the number one bowler in the world, he had career-threatening injuries when he first made breakthroughs into the Australian national team. He went through extensive strength rehabilitation, a small change in action, and juggled formats to accommodate only what his body could handle.

But it shouldn’t be up to the individual player to struggle towards a solution. In the National Cricket Academy (NCA), India has a centralised system for the rehabilitation of injured players. NCA must take complete responsibility for stemming the plague of injuries that threatens to nip India’s fast-bowling dreams in the bud.

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