No sooner had Rob Key expressed concern about the injury crisis in England’s bowling ranks than Jofra Archer became the latest to be struck down by a stress fracture of the lower back – ruling him out for the summer, and possibly beyond.
The most recent inclusions on a sorry list have been the Curran brothers, Tom and Sam, Warwickshire quick Olly Stone, who was ruled out of the Ashes, and – only this week – Saqib Mahmood and Matt Fisher, who both made Test debuts in the Caribbean in March.
ECB insiders say the high number of stress fractures, which occur when the density of the spinal bone can’t handle the strain placed on it by bowling, has been on the medics’ radar for a while.
Jofra Archer is the latest England bowler to be struck down by a stress fracture of the lower back
The most recent inclusions on a sorry list include the Curran brothers, Tom (L) and Sam (R)
But a combination of Key’s admission that this fresh spate of injuries is ‘something we need to look into’, and the latest blow to Archer’s career, have lent urgency to a solving difficult problem.
Medics at Loughborough University believe the average stress fracture sidelines a bowler for 250 days, with those aged under 25 at greatest risk because the spine is still growing. Recent research found that bowling more than 39 overs a week accounted for two-thirds of cases.
But not everyone is convinced by the science. Former England quick Steve Harmison argued on TalkSPORT’s ‘Following On’ podcast that a tendency to ‘wrap bowlers up in cotton wool’ is causing more harm than good.
‘Do I blame bowlers? Yes. Do I blame the system? Yes. Do I blame people who don’t understand the art of bowling or bowling actions, ie sports scientists and medical teams who just see numbers on a piece of paper? Yes.’
Saqib Mahmood (R) and Matt Fisher (L) were also added to the list just earlier this week
ECB managing director Rob Key admits the spate of injuries is ‘something we need to look into’
‘Sorry, but there was only one way I got fit for bowling, and that was by bowling more and more,’ he said. ‘Every time you give a bowler 10 days off, he’s putting the rest of his body at risk when he comes back. Our coaching system is miles wrong.’
Alan Richardson, bowling coach at Worcestershire, agrees that increased bone density, brought about through sheer repetition, may be one way of combating the injury. He points to Jimmy Anderson, who missed most of the 2006 season with a stress fracture but remodelled his action and has not suffered since.
But Richardson and others emphasise the importance of alignment, whereby feet, hips and chest are all pointing in the same direction. The danger comes, he says, when there’s ‘flexion through the spine at the point of release’. This is the product of what used to be known as a ‘mixed action’, with the hips side-on but the chest front-on, or vice versa.
Richardson, who suffered the injury at 18 while on Derbyshire’s books, wonders whether the relative lack of an outdoors lifestyle in the UK means young sportsmen build up bone density less quickly than overseas peers – though that wouldn’t explain why Archer, born and bred in Barbados, should suddenly succumb.
Steve Harmison argued a tendency to ‘wrap bowlers up in cotton wool’ is causing more harm than good
Alan Richardson agrees increased bone density may be one way of combating the injury
Then there are the advances made by medical technology. Where once a bowler with a pain in his back might have put his feet up for a few weeks, Archer underwent a scan soon after complaining of discomfort – and a small crack was revealed.
In truth, there is no single cause for the epidemic among England’s bowlers, which may explain why Loughborough is currently asking for applicants to write a fully funded PhD on ‘physical characteristics of lumbar stress fractures in fast bowlers’.
Meanwhile, Mark Wood has dealt England’s hopes this summer a further blow by revealing he won’t be available for Test cricket until the ‘back end of the summer’ – probably the three-match series against South Africa starting on August 17 – after undergoing elbow surgery.
Wood, who managed just 17 overs in the Caribbean before injury ruled him out halfway through the first Test in Antigua, had hoped to return for Durham this month after having a bone impingement removed from his right elbow in March.
Mark Wood has revealed he won’t be available for Test cricket until the ‘back end of the summer’
But, speaking at a LV= Insurance event to promote their joint #Funds4Runs venture with the ECB, he admitted he was making ‘slow progress’.
‘I’m just struggling to get over that half-run-up tempo at the minute, because every time I bowl there’s still a bit of swelling,’ he said. ‘The back end of the summer is where I’d be looking at for Test matches, nothing early doors, and build up through one-day cricket first.
‘It’s frustrating to have had probably two years of not many injuries at all, playing a lot of games and feeling pretty good, to now having a sustained period off. I felt like maybe I was coming up to the best part of playing for England, bowling consistently quick and taking wickets.’
Mark Wood and other England cricketers surprised Leicester Electricity Sports Cricket Club during an inter-squad friendly game organised by Test partners LV= Insurance. The club will receive support to train a new coach and relaunch their women’s team as part of LV= and the ECB’s commitment to support 4,000 coaches through their #Funds4Runs community initiative. Visit https://www.lv.com/gi/cricket-funds4runs for more information