Dr Benita Olivier
I am an academic, a consumer and creator of knowledge, and passionate about it. My interest lies in finding answers for real-life clinical issues through research. I am fascinated about the way the body moves, and my research focuses specifically on the prevention of injury and the enhancement of performance in sport.
One area that I have explored extensively over many years is the movement of the body during fast bowling in cricket. I realise increasingly that there is a need to reflect on what we consider acceptable in the game. Fast bowling is a dynamic action performed at a high speed, where forces four to six times the weight of the bowler speed through the body, which moves into an irregular position with the spine close to the end of its range of movement – the perfect combination of factors to turn a smile into tears.
Some specific body movements that are part of the fast bowling action are associated with injury, such as landing with a straight knee, bending too far sideways, and turning the shoulders extensively in relation to the pelvis. These same body movements are carefully orchestrated to increase ball release speed, one of the main mechanisms used by fast bowlers to dismiss the batsman. The trade-off between ball release speed and injury risk is a genuine dilemma faced by fast bowlers. While athletes are out there to perform at all costs, picking up an injury does not make for good performance. It is interesting that the injury prevalence in cricket fast bowling and rugby league triumphs is 16% for both sports. Considering the fact that fast bowling is considered a non-contact sport and rugby a high contact sport, a similar injury rate seems counter-intuitive. However, this is what research has shown.
Is a 16% injury prevalence acceptable? Some argue that participation in any sport carries a risk. This may be true, but 16% means that two out of every 12 players are going to suffer injury. That does not sound like sport to me. If a specific movement of one body part, the elbow, can be declared illegal because it is responsible for higher ball release speeds, should we not consider banning specific body movements due to their relationship with injury? The performance aspect of the game is protected, but what more can we do to keep our fast bowlers safe?
Research, including my own, has shown that there are intrinsic factors we can work on to prevent injury – strengthening muscle, improving coordination and balance, and building general cardiovascular fitness. Another area to address in the prevention of fast bowling related injuries relates to the management of bowling workload. But I can’t help wondering, in the course of our research endeavours, whether we will get to a point where sporting bodies make the dangerous body movements that are currently an integral part of the bowling action illegal.
Anything – however unexpected – can happen. Sugar consumption is so ingrained in our society that some years ago we could not have imagined a sugar tax to curb its use. Did smokers in the 1950’s ever think that one day smoking would be banned from planes, stadiums and schools? Rule changes to protect cricketers against injury have been made throughout history, from substituting the fenced boundary of the field with a rope, to enforcing helmet regulations to protect the base of the skull. Now here’s my question: If regulations can be amended, why can we not change this inherently dangerous athletic action, the fast bowling action? I also wonder why we ever swopped the underarm bowling action for the overarm one.
Let us think of ways to make our graceful fast bowling action safer. While the possibilities, some radical, simmer in the back of our minds, we need to invest more in research on cricket injury prevention. Much more research is needed on cricket fast bowling and the role of the various factors that predispose athletes to injury. At the same time, these factors must be considered in the context of the role they play in optimising bowling performance. Anything is possible. Radical changes happen. We can shape the future.
*Dr Benita Olivier is an associate professor and researcher in the field of musculoskeletal physiotherapy at the University of the Witwatersrand.