India’s preparations for the forthcoming International Cricket Council (ICC) T20 World Cup, scheduled to commence in Australia on October 16, suffered a serious setback when it was announced that fast bowler Jasprit Bumrah was ruled out of the tournament due to a stress fracture to his back. Bumrah is the second Indian player who is forced to miss the tournament on account of injury- the first being all-rounder Ravindra Jadeja. The absence of these two top class performers has cast a big shadow over the prospects of India lifting the trophy, which they had won in style in its first edition, held at South Africa 15 years ago.
Bumrah has been the spearhead of the Indian pace bowling ever since he made his debut in international cricket in 2016. He belongs to the new generation of fast bowlers at ease in all formats of the game. He is capable of consistently hitting speeds in excess of 140 kms per hour and possesses an enviable ability to hit the blockhole with unerring accuracy. His yorkers are so fast and deadly that many a time his own teammates have been at the receiving end and even suffered injuries to their toes during practice sessions. His haul of 128 wickets in Test matches at an average of 21.99, 121 scalps in One-Day Internationals (ODIs) at an economy rate of 4.63 and 70 victims in T20 Internationals at a strike rate of 18.3 stand as evidence for his effectiveness and versatility in all versions of the game at the highest levels. More importantly, his presence is a key factor in determining the overall performance of the side as other bowlers invariably return with improved pickings whenever he is in the playing eleven.
The first aspect about Bumrah’s bowling that strikes an observer is his unorthodox bowling style. He has a very short run up for a fast bowler and depends on his action, where he uses his shoulder and height to good effect to impart considerable speed to the ball leaving his hand. The sling arm action, similar to that employed by Jeff Thomson of Australia in the 1970s, helps the bowler to send deliveries at high speeds but they also place a big load on his shoulder muscles. Bumrah also has the ability to deliver the ball late, almost in front of his body, which is disconcerting to the batsmen. He possesses a wicked bouncer and his yorkers invariably find the target with deadly accuracy. All these traits make him a fast bowler dreaded by the opposing batsmen, the sort of bowler who they would prefer not to face.
Bumrah could not play in the Asia Cup held in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in September due to a stress injury to his back. He was advised rest and rehabilitation for four weeks after which he joined the national side during the T20 series against Australia. He played in two matches in that series and was preparing for the first of the three T20 matches against South Africa at Thiruvananthapuram, when he felt pain in the back again. He was rushed to Bangalore where it was found that he had a stress fracture of his lower back, which would require at least three months of rest for recovery.
The brings one to the question as to what is a stress fracture and how does it happen. A fracture, in lay man’s term, indicates a break in the bone. This can range from a complete division causing a bone to break into two halves to a crack, which is essentially a damage to the cortex, its outer layer. One usually associates fractures with some form of accident that cause considerable physical injury to a person or a fall, especially in the case of the elderly. In some instances, damage to the cortex can also occur from accumulation of inflammatory cells around it on account of prolonged physical activity. A stress fracture results when a break occurs in the cortex of the bone due to localised inflammation.
Fast bowling is an intense physical activity that places a huge amount of stress on the body. In the first place a pacer runs a considerable distance after which there is a leap as he enters the delivery stride. Prior to delivering the ball, he arches his back and uses the full power of his shoulder and wrist to impart speed to the ball. All this requires a strong skeletal system that is supported by powerful muscles. It is when there is a decoupling between the load on the bones and the joints and the support provided by the muscles that propensity for injury develops, to which the body reacts by releasing inflammatory cells locally. When the injury is limited to inflammation it is called as stress injury but when the inflammatory cells damage the cortex of the bone, the stage of stress fracture is reached.
As stated in the previous para, the bones and muscles of the back, leg and shoulder bear the brunt of the stress in the case of a fast bowler. The bones of the lower back are placed under strain when the bowler first stretches, then arches (flexes) the back to one side followed by compressing the spine and finally bends to the other side while delivering the ball. Similarly the full weight is brought to the shin of the leading foot at the point of release, which again brings a huge load on the bones there. Though all fast bowlers develop excellent set of muscles to hold up their bones and joints, there could be times of fatigue, when they fail to provide the required support to the skeletal system. It is at such junctures that injuries tend to happen leading to inflammatory reaction.
Dennis Lillee, one of the greatest fast bowlers of all time, suffered from a stress fracture of the back during his early days in Test cricket. During that period, stress fractures were virtually unheard of and hence it took considerable time to diagnose it, while Lillee carried on playing the game, despite being in severe pain. After the condition was diagnosed, Lillee was required to take complete rest and forced to wear a plaster cast around his whole torso for months to ensure complete immobilisation. It is a tribute to Lille’s determination that he faced these tribulations stoically and returned back to competitive cricket within two years. This incident made him realise the importance of physical fitness in the life of a fast bowler, a lesson that he passed on to successive generations of cricketers who trained under him. Imran Khan developed a stress fracture of the shin bone in early 1983, which forced him to miss playing cricket for nearly two years, when he was at his peak.
The injury to Bumrah should open the eyes of players and officials to the consequences of playing cricket round the year. Andrew Leipus, a physiotherapist who had earlier worked with the national side, has opined that this injury is “less likely to be technique related and more a function of training and workload”. The near constant manner that cricket is played these days, with hardly a break in between international commitments and events like the Indian Premier League (IPL), gives the players little time either to provide some much needed rest to their bodies or recover from accompanying niggles. The net result is that they carry on playing ignoring fatigue and niggles, thus exposing themselves to the possibility of more serious injuries. It is high time the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) devised a calendar which provides adequate break for top cricketers to refresh their minds and bodies and where emphasis is placed on performing duties as a member of the national side than turning out for an IPL franchise.
One hopes that the stress injury to Bumrah is not so severe as to lay him out of action for a long time. At the same time it should be stressed that both he and the BCCI should resist the temptation to make an early return to the game without completing the healing and rehabilitation process in full. Further, his workload should be controlled in future so that a recurrence of this injury does not occur. As in life, in cricket too injury is an eminently preventable occurrence and Bumrah is too precious a talent to be lost to Indian cricket on account of this mishap.
(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)