Glenn McGrath close up

Everything is Broken

In Some Cricketers.. by Bill Ricquier

England have had a challenging – yes, we all know what that means – start to their tour of Australia and New Zealand. Even before they boarded their flight at Heathrow there was the vexatious problem of vice-captain Ben Stokes, whose participation in The Ashes seems increasingly improbable as time goes on. Two other certain picks, fast bowlers Mark Wood and Toby Roland-Jones, had to be left at home with injury problems.

Once the team landed, the injury list started to stack up. Moeen Ali suffered a side strain in the nets at Perth and has yet to be seen in action: Ali is one of those players who never seems to get injured. Steven Finn, a last minute replacement for Stokes, damaged a knee while batting in the nets and has already flown home. Jake Ball sprained an ankle during the match against a Cricket Australia XI at Adelaide.

For seasoned observers of England tours none of this can come as a huge surprise. It is worryingly reminiscent of Nasser Hussain’s tour Down Under in 2002-03. Grahame Thorpe had withdrawn from the tour before it started. For personal reasons. Darren Gough, the only member of the attack with experience of Australian conditions, failed to recover from a knee operation, and returned home early. Andrew Flintoff was literally unable to run when the team arrived. He had had a double hernia operation and flew home in December. Simon Jones suffered a dreadful knee injury while fielding in the First Test and didn’t play again for eighteen months. Ashley Giles had his left wrist broken in the nets before the second Test and flew home. I could go on – opening batsmen Michael Vaughan and Marcus Trescothick were both unfit at the start of the tour, and both Harmison and Andrew Caddick missed Tests – but you get the picture.

England would probably have lost that series anyway – Steve Waugh’s Australians were at their relentless best. This time it might, still, be different; Australia have problems of their own. And injury can strike even the best sides. When England toured Australia in 2010-11 and won three-one, Stuart Broad went home injured after the second Test. There is something approaching an assumption that Broad and the 35-year old James Anderson (who went to Australia in 2002-03 as cover for Caddick) will struggle to get through the series unaffected by injury. It must have been hoped that relative striplings like Ball would have survived unscathed, though Australia does present special challenges especially for fast bowlers.

It is a curious fact though that the greater the emphasis on fitness, the more likely it appears to be that cricketers – especially bowlers – will suffer injury problems. Part of the problem might be – slightly paradoxically – the lack of cricket, other than international cricket. When Fred Trueman was England’s leading fast bowler he regularly bowled over a thousand overs a year, most of them for Yorkshire; he rarely seemed to get injured. Fast bowling is not a “natural” physical activity. Many people will agree that the best way to prepare for it is – well, bowling, as opposed to gym work, say. The big plus of extreme fitness is of course fielding which has improved out of all recognition. Oddly enough, catching – not an insignificant aspect of fielding – has not improved in the same way. Trueman, like Anderson, was, unusually for a fast bowler, an accomplished close fielder. Looking back even further we are almost talking about a different species. England’ number three in the first Test at Brisbane in 1928-29 was the 41-year old Philip Mead, who scored 8 and 73 in what turned out to be his final Test. Mead never got injured. But he did have problems with his varicose veins and was more or less immobile in the field. When Australia meet England in Brisbane in late November, it is difficult to believe that there will be anyone on the ground, let alone the field of play, and allowing for a liberal intake of stubbies and meat pies, who is not fitter than Mead at almost any time in his career.

Injury is an occupational hazard for any sportsman. In cricket, fast bowlers are at the forefront as both victims and perpetrators. Fingers and knuckles are constantly at risk, in the field, behind the stumps and at the crease. It is a rare player indeed who doesn’t miss a few games through injury. But some injuries seem to have a significance that transcends the incident itself.

Glenn Mcgrath’s ankle

When Australia won the first Test of the 2005 Ashes at Lord’s it looked like business as usual. Australia won by 239 runs. At one point England were 21 for five in their first innings and McGrath had all five. Even so there was not quite the usual feeling that the series was all over. Vaughan’s England team had come together as a highly competitive unit. Anyway, as the players were warming up before the start of the second Test at Edgbaston, an incident occurred in the visitors’ camp and it transpired that McGrath had damaged his ankle treading on a ball and would not play. In a controversial decision owing as much to misplaced bravado as cricketing logic, Ricky Ponting opted to field first. Trescothick played his finest Ashes innings and England smash-and -grabbed their way to 407 inside 80 overs. They remained mostly in charge but in the end the margin of victory was just two runs; they went on to win a pulsating series two-one. But it is impossible not to wonder what would have happened if McGrath had not been injured.

Iqbal Qasim’s mouth

In the first Test between England and Pakistan at Edgbaston in 1978, the Pakistan slow left arm bowler Iqbal Qasim was struck in the face by a bouncer delivered by England fast bowler Bob Willis. Of course lots of batsmen have been hit by fast bowlers. This time it was a bit different because the game’s regulators tried – in vain, as it happened – to do something about it. There was a big fuss about this particular incident because Qasim was a tail-ender, and not a recognised batsman. He was hanging around, and Willis, never shy of deploying the short stuff, let him have a few from around the wicket. Qasim was led from the field bleeding profusely.

The attempted solution involved Test captains agreeing, before a series, who should be the non-recognised batsmen who were not to be subjected to intimidatory bowling, but the experiment was rapidly derailed by disagreements about the meaning of almost every aspect of the arrangement, between Mike Brearley and Graham Yallop in Australia in 1978-79. There was another complication in that Qasim was batting as a night watchman, and there was a strong and not unreasonable feeling that if he was batting up the order he should expect to be roughed up a bit. The rather distressing image of Qasim being hit shows that, unlike him, the non-striker, opener Sadiq Mohammed, was wearing a helmet. Sadiq was one of the first Test players to wear one. The editor of Wisden noted that “the 1978 season will go down in cricket history as the one when the ugly helmet was used by many players to protect themselves from injury.”

Dennis Lillee – the great Australian fast bowler – walks into the outfield during the 3rd Test at Headingley. © Copyright Anthony O’Neil and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence.

Dennis Lillee’s back

Arguments will forever persist as to who is the greatest of all fast bowlers. There is no shortage of candidates: Trueman, Ray Lindwall, Michael Holding, Malcolm Marshall, Dale Steyn, and others. But any credible shortlist would have to include the magnificent Australian Dennis Lillee. At the start of his career, which lasted a remarkably long time, Lillee was ferociously fast. He was also a highly intelligent bowler and hugely competitive. In the 1972 Ashes series he took thirty-one wickets, then a record for an Australian bowler in England. But on the tour of the Caribbean that followed he suffered a stress fracture of the back. This was not just suspected, but assumed, by almost everyone to be career-terminating. Only Lillee himself thought otherwise. At the time stress fractures were not understood as well as they are now, and it was almost literally miraculous that he was able to return to partner the dramatically hostile Jeff Thomson against England in 1974-75. Lillee was not quite as fast as he had been, but as he got older he got more resourceful and more, rather than less, demanding.

Colin Cowdrey’s Achilles tendon

Does he mean Colin Cowdrey’s arm? I hear you say. There is a famous picture of Cowdrey walking out to bat at Lord’s with his left arm in plaster, broken by a bouncer from Wes Hall. This occurred in one of the most dramatic of all Tests, between England and the West Indies, in 1963. When England’s ninth wicket fell off the fourth ball of the final over, England needed four runs to win and the West Indies one wicket. It was in these circumstances that Cowdrey returned to the middle. But he didn’t have to face a ball, David Allen defending the final two deliveries from Hall.

Cowdrey seemed to be the nearly man of the England captaincy. He had been vice-captain on three successive Ashes tours, led by Peter May, Ted Dexter and Mike Smith. He had led England a dozen or so times over the years when, out of the blue, his real chance came. In August 1967, the incumbent, the Yorkshireman Brian Close, fresh from seven Test victories out of seven, was reported for alleged time-wasting in a county game against Warwickshire. The selectors wasted no time in deciding that they could not entrust leadership of the MCC side due to tour the West Indies to someone as unreliable as Close and opted for a safe pair of delicately manicured hands; Cowdrey led an experienced side to a one-nil victory over the West Indies. There was a largely dull draw in the Ashes series of 1968, ending with the blistering controversy of the d’Oliveira crisis. (Cowdrey was one of the ten men at the fateful selection meeting.)

He handled a difficult series in Pakistan in 1968-69 well and was preparing to lead England in the series against New Zealand and the West Indies in 1969. But in May, batting for Kent against Glamorgan in a Sunday League match in Maidstone he damaged the Achilles’ tendon in his left leg. That was the end of his season. England needed a new captain and they found one in Ray Illingworth, who had only recently left his native Yorkshire to become captain of Leicestershire. He turned out to be an exceptionally shrewd and effective leader whose record as a player was easily to eclipse anything he had achieved for England prior to becoming captain. It was he who was chosen to lead the side that toured Australia in 1970-71; Cowdrey was vice-captain.

Denis Compton’s knee

There have been more famous cricketers than Denis Compton. W G Grace was reportedly the most famous man in Victorian England (the Queen pip pied him as the most famous person). Don Bradman’s genuinely phenomenal achievements gave him public prominence well beyond not just his native Australia but the cricket playing world. And Sachin Tendulkar is almost literally revered as a god in India. But it is probably true to say that none of these – with the possible exception of Tendulkar – was as genuinely popular as Compton. As with so many things, timing was everything. Compton’s greatest years came just after World War Two, and his success brought delight to a nation ravaged by victory. In the glorious summer of 1947 he and his Middlesex “twin” Bill Edrich, broke all manner of records. His unique, though essentially correct style of batsmanship made him a joy to watch. He was exceptionally debonair and good-looking, a celebrity indeed but with something to be famous about. Bagenal Harvey, the first sports agent, got him his famous deal with Brylcreem.

In the last county match of that 1947 season he had to retire hurt with a knee problem. Knee trouble had actually started before the war when Compton played football, for Arsenal, as well as cricket. But from 1947 it got steadily worse. It is fair to say he was never quite the same after that genuinely astonishing year although there were still some wonderful innings. But The Knee was always there in the background, a matter of huge public interest so that Compton’s Knee became almost detached from the individual, like Jenkins’ Ear. This finally occurred, literally, in 1956, when his right kneecap was removed: the surgeon donated it to MCC.

Bill Ricquier

Featured image: Glenn McGrath as seen during his final test series. Source: [ Flickr (User:50ISO100)] Under licence terms [cc-by-2.0]

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