Bond,Cairns,Doull,Nash,Allott,Oram,Franklin… the list of Kiwi quicks with injury-hit careers is too long to be a coincidence. Sandeep Dwivedi tries to solve the puzzle
When in New Zealand,bumping into an injured international pacer isnt a chance encounter but an eventuality thats always right round the corner. Famous faces of former quicks with unfulfilled dreams and painfully shortened careers can be found in commentary boxes,at selection meetings or sitting across desks in cricket offices wearing suits. But only in the land with a curse on pacers could one expect to share the press box with someone who,after five ODIs in a couple of months,quit cricket at 22 with a bad back.
Jonathan Millmow,the sports editor of the Dominion Post,at 41,isnt just the fittest and tallest in the media group but is also the best person to take stock of the medical history of Kiwi pacers. After a discussion that featured former players such as Shane Bond,Simon Doull,Dion Nash,Geoff Allott,Chris Cairns,and present-day stars like Jacob Oram,James Franklin and Kyle Mills,Millmow,who was part of the squad that faced India during Sachin Tendulkars first tour here in 1989,finally pauses for a conclusion. Actually,I cant put a finger on one reason for the problem. But all I can say is that the shallow talent pool makes it look more prominent, he says.
A short domestic calendar,faulty bowling actions and the disparity in home/away pitch conditions are other possible factors for the stunted and staggered careers. But each case has a different story.
It is almost passé to say that pacers around the world are a high-risk injury group. But the New Zealand chapter of the frustrating tales of the high-on-adrenaline men is worthy of a separate study tragic stories of the walking wounded spread over years that have a moral at the end.
Short on options,in big trouble
India have dealt with similar heartbreaks,but the hurt hasnt been as deep. Except for the one-season-old Dhawal Kulkarni,all the pacers in this touring party have had injury breaks and have returned to the fold after rehabilitation. While RP Singh and Sreesanth have dealt with X-rays and MRI scans,Munaf Patel and Laxmipathy Balaji have been hoping that their days of orthopaedic appointments are over. With men on the bench,India can deal with the problem,but for a country that isnt big on head count,a pacers broken back isnt just an individual ailment but something that handicaps the entire team.
If ever there is a book written on the injured New Zealand pacer,it is highly likely that Geoff Allott will be on its cover. Allott had a short three-year career with several highs that his fragile back couldnt handle. By the time he retired at the age of 27 in 1999,the year he was the highest wicket-taker at the World Cup,Allott had endured seven fractures and was used to bowling with pain-killing injections. Today he is the general manager of New Zealand Cricket and his task involves regular interactions with the medical team. Ironically,having a know-how on the background of things when I speak to our medical teams is good. It isnt great,the way I have had to learn these things,unfortunately. But we want our players to play long term, he says.
When Allott is asked about his opinion on the shallow pool reasoning,he responds with a very emphatic Yes. That is a point that people havent picked up before. Teams like Australia,India and South Africa have enough bowlers. When there is an injury,they find a replacement. We had a period when all of us were bowling all the time. We are now starting to see that our team is growing and so,maybe in the future we can rest some players, he says.
The lack of rest might be one of the main reasons New Zealand lost their most potent pacer since Sir Richard Hadlee. Shane Bond wasnt just one of the worlds fastest bowlers,but also the busiest pacer in New Zealand. Constantly changing,mediocre new-ball partners resulted in him bursting his guts in the pursuit of speed during long spells. Five breaks due to stress fractures of the back,feet and a knee couldnt stop him from becoming the fastest Kiwi bowler to get to 50 wickets in both Tests and ODIs. It is still said that if not for the ICL,he could have easily walked into the national team.
Allott also brings up the much-maligned pitches of old. In the past we have had pitches where if you put the ball in a spot it would give you movement. But things were different at international level,where you had to put in extra effort. You would try to use your muscles a bit more and that puts you out of alignment, he says. And the GM in him crops up again as he says that the hard work put in to improve pitches at the domestic level will see that the international jump isnt too high anymore.
Dion Nash is another Kiwi pace underachiever and just another victim of the injured-recovering-fit-relapse routine. Nash,like Allott,was a shooting star who was forced to retire before he turned 30. He has another theory to explain this phenomenon. We have a short summer and a short season because of that. Its really only four months,maybe less. Our grounds are also very soft. We dont play the quantity of cricket that other countries England,Australia,India,South Africa do. Our guys just dont have the bowling under their belts. You go from playing for four months a year and bowling 50 overs a week to playing 12 months a year and bowling 150 overs a week. That jump is huge, he says.
So whats the way out? There is no way out. We just dont have the summer to allow us to play the long season. Giving his own example,Nash says that during his first season in English county cricket,he bowled about 800 overs. I dont think I had bowled over 800 overs all through my career before that. Not used to such a workload,the body revolted,with muscle tears and bone cracks curtailing a promising career. As a selector now,Nash can understand the fears and insecurities of the present-day pacers.
One of the rare Kiwi pacers with a relatively injury-free career was Sir Hadlees long-time new-ball partner Ewen Chatfield. His tough life growing up on a farm helped. Chatfield gives an old-school solution to this modern-day problem. The grooming at the farm helped me. We used to walk a lot. We had a horse but we never used it. I think that built up strength. I did a lot of training. I liked running. I rarely went to the gym all through my career. I just used to run and bowl in the nets, he says.
The pacer from the 80s agrees that the lack of quantity of quality bowlers has aggravated New Zealands problem,but he also casts doubts on modern-day training regimes. The Black Caps do all their training in the gym,on a treadmill. Whether thats the same as running around on the roads,I am not sure. I ran around the roads,around the fields. When I finished the season in March,I used to have three months off and then I would start training in July or September. Also,I used to play squash in the winter, says Chatfield.
The good part…
Despite the complexity of the problem,trust the hard-working pacers with big hearts to see a silver lining. Allott says that injuries make a man wiser,and in an effort to push the envelop,solutions spill out. He speaks of the days before the 99 World Cup,when he was dealing with one of his injuries. Ironically,injuries are situations where you get into a desperate state and try to find solutions to stay positive. You learn a lot about yourself,you get to know your game better. You ask questions,whether you really need to bowl at full pace. I developed an in-swinger during such a phase and that changed my game entirely. That helped me at the World Cup, he says.
He adds that there are studies dealing with workloads,bowling actions and rest periods of pacers on in the country. Allott doesnt want others to suffer the excruciating pain of an unknown stress fracture while bowling at 140 kph. But till a solution is arrived at,the chances of bumping into an injured New Zealand pacer just around the corner will probably remain high.