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Why do fast bowlers suffer frequent stress fractures these days?

India fast bowler Jasprit Bumrah remains doubtful for the T20 World Cup in Australia next month due to a back injury. What are the reasons for stress fracture and does Bumrah's action make him more susceptible to it? We explain

A stress reaction, akin to a deep bruise, can occur due to pressure on a particular point on the bone due to repetitive overuse or trauma. A stress reaction, if left untreated, can develop into a stress fracture - a small crack in the bone. (File)

Jasprit Bumrah has been ruled out of the ongoing T20I series against South Africa and is doubtful for the T20 World Cup in Australia next month due to a back injury. The Indian fast bowler, who had suffered a stress fracture of the lower back in 2019, had been experiencing back spasms and pain this year as well, causing him to miss the recent Asia Cup.

Over the years, fast bowlers around the world, from Dennis Lillee to Waqar Younis to Jofra Archer and Bumrah, have routinely broken down with stress fractures of the back, brought upon by a variety of reasons, usually related to technique, fitness, workload and training methods.

What is a stress fracture?

A stress reaction, akin to a deep bruise, can occur due to pressure on a particular point on the bone due to repetitive overuse or trauma. A stress reaction, if left untreated, can develop into a stress fracture – a small crack in the bone.

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Commonly, it occurs in load or weight-bearing areas, such as the foot, shin, hip or lower back – in the five lumbar vertebrae, which are part of the spinal column between the rib cage and the pelvis. It is also common in long-distance runners and fast bowlers, in whom immense strain can build up in such load-bearing areas.

“A stress fracture is quite similar to a chip you get on the windscreen on your car,” Dr Pete Alway, an expert on stress fractures, told Wisden. “To begin with, it’s like nothing, but as you keep driving on it, as you keep hitting potholes or speed bumps, that crack gets longer and longer, until the windscreen fails. In the case of the bone, it starts to crack all the way through or to a significant length that then needs to be stabilised.”

Why do fast bowlers suffer stress fractures?

A fast bowler routinely exerts force of eight or more times their body weight on their lower half when delivering the ball. “For fast bowling, the quick run-up is about 2.5 body weight-worth of force on the legs and spine, and that jumps to about 7-8 at the time of delivery. So that’s eight times your body weight being generated for an average delivery of 128kph,” Dr Angus McMorland from Auckland University told stuff.co.nz. If that is the strain medium-pacers are put under, one can only imagine the battering elite international pacers such as Bumrah, who regularly operate at 140kph-plus, subject themselves to.

Such extreme levels of force mean fast bowling is an inherently unnatural activity, which inevitably causes all kinds of injuries among its practitioners. “Your back is designed to bend forward, sideways, and to an extent, backwards. But the back is not designed to twist,” former India pacer and veteran pace-bowling coach TA Sekhar once said. “However, there is bound to be some twisting while bowling fast, and that is why injuries occur.”

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What are the reasons for stress fractures?

The causes are wide-ranging, from improper technique to poor workload management, from inadequate preparation and diet to incorrect training and equipment. It can even be something as basic as a sudden change in the surface on which an athlete is training, such as going from a soft synthetic track to hard concrete. Athlete-specific matters such as age, weight, anatomy can also be contributing factors.

According to Sekhar, a stress fracture means there is something wrong with a fast bowler’s technique, preparation or fitness. Steffan Jones, former pacer and Rajasthan Royals high-performance coach, believes current fast bowlers keep suffering stress fractures – despite advances in modern sports science – largely due to an overemphasis on strength training, indoor preparation and early specialisation, causing them to lose out on the benefits of natural athletic activity in their formative years.

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“Bowling is not about controlled environments in a gym,” Jones had once told this correspondent. “It is about sprinting, being on your feet. You need to train like a sprinter, and a triple jump athlete. It is not about heavy strength training.

“It is about being reactive, springy, because you need to put a lot of energy into the floor in a fraction of seconds. That does not happen with weight training. The fact that most bowlers are doing too much strength training, you lose that reactivity, that bounce, that natural spring in your step.”

Jones has long advocated a combination of jumping, sprinting and isometric exercises (static muscle training, no joint movement) for fast bowlers.

Does Bumrah’s action make him more susceptible to stress fractures?

Fast bowlers with a more open-chested or front-on release, like Bumrah’s, have been known to be more prone to stress-related injuries, especially of the back. Former Pakistan fast bowler Shoaib Akhtar had predicted last year that Bumrah would have to manage his workload carefully or he’d be at risk of frequent breakdowns.

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“His bowling is based on frontal action. Players with that action bowl with their backs and shoulder speed. We used to be side-on, and that used to compensate (for the pressure on the back). A front-on action has no compensation and with that action, when the back gives in, you can’t escape it irrespective of how much you try,” Akhtar had told Sports Tak.

“I saw [Ian] Bishop struggling with his back, Shane Bond too, and both had frontal actions. Bumrah needs to think in this way, ‘I played a match, took an off, and went to rehab.’ He needs to manage. If you play him every match, in one year, he will completely break down. Play him three matches out of five and take him out. Bumrah will have to manage this thing if he wants to last.”

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However, former India pacer Zaheer Khan had opined that Bumrah’s injuries had nothing to do with his unorthodox action. “For a bowler, it is very important that your hips and shoulders move together. You get in trouble when they are not aligned,” Zaheer had told Cricbuzz. “With Bumrah, the hips and shoulders are aligned nicely. I don’t think his injuries are action-related.”

First published on: 30-09-2022 at 07:45:14 pm
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