Sunday, 2 December 2012

FITNESS : Fitness for Fast Bowlers Made Simple

This is a guest article from Strength and Conditioning Coach John Cook

Here is a no brainer: speed is one of the most important factors in bowling. By reducing the decision making time of the batsman, you increase your chances of taking wickets and reduce the chances of conceding runs.
An old school of thought is that simply bowling more will increase both your bowling speed and ‘toughen up’ your body to prevent injury.
But over-bowling is one of the primary predictors for injury.
Page of references, all on ‘bowling overuse’ reveal numerous studies that prove this fact.
So if an increase in bowling workload doesn't provide the desired performance boost, how can an increase in pace be achieved?
Whilst technique is vital for optimal bowling velocities, optimal technique is not possible when you lack fitness.
Physical fitness is not just how far you can run, or how many biceps curls you can do. The idea encompasses a range of interrelated physiological parameters, including strength, power, speed, agility, endurance, flexibility, reaction time, body composition and many others.

Train to play
So you must first analyse and understand the physical demands of your sport.
A needs analysis means we can incorporate exercises into our training program that are beneficial to performance and remove those that are not.
So we are not only making our training specific, but also efficient by in essence ‘removing waste’ from the workout.
Just a short example: the widely used bicep curl.
The role of the bicep muscles is to flex the elbow, but since the laws of cricket require the ball to be delivered with a straight arm, do we really need this exercise in a bowling workout routine?
Conducting a thorough needs analysis is vital for success. We use a number of methods to determine the requirements of the sport; simply watching the movements and analysing the positions achieved can tell us a lot, but not everything. Some subtleties of a sports physical requirement are only discovered through laboratory or field research and fortunately for us, this is often documented in journal articles.
So what exactly would you include in your training program?
Let's start with an element of fitness that is overlooked by most young cricketers.

Mobility for Cricket
Your ability to reach a certain posture or position is vital for the fast bowler. The ability to achieve stability in these positions is referred to as mobility. Just look at this picture of Brett Lee for an example.
If Brett Lee had short, tight hamstrings and equally short pectoral muscles, he would not be able to achieve this strong, stable loading position and would not deliver the ball with the same force.
For some individuals who lack this mobility therefore, an aim of physical training sessions may mean lengthening short tissues or reducing tension in overly stiff tissues.
While for others, it may be about establishing stability in the range of motion that one already possesses.
An athlete should be mobile enough to achieve the proper positions in the sport, and be strong and explosive enough to move from those positions.
So given we can see that Brett Lee has a good hamstring range, does research in cricket also find hamstring range is important?
It turns out it does, but for improving performance in a different way; keeping you on the field by reducing injury. Bowlers who have poor hamstring flexibility are predisposed to lower back injury.
Another mobility issue linked to injury is the ankles. Research found that bowlers with a reduced range in the ankle were at a significantly increased risk of injury compared to those with a large range.
So how do we work this into our routine?
One common method is by performing a dynamic mobility warm up prior to your training session. An example of an exercise that I currently use with athletes is the ‘inchworm’ as these work your hamstrings and ankles and you need to maintain stability through a range of motion using your core.
Performing these and other mobility exercises before a training session acts as a good warm up, by raising body temperature, activating muscles you intend to train and improving mobility.
A second attribute of fitness you can work on as a fast bowler is strength.
But where do we need strength and what is the best way to develop this?
This is where examining the literature can aid us. Simply looking at the bowling action may lead you to believe that bowling is an upper body strength activity. What may surprise you then is that the lower body has more relevance.
Research by Phillips and colleagues showed significant contributions by the lower extremities in the way in which bowling speeds were generated. A study in 2006 also highlighted the fact that the higher velocity bowlers had greater lower body strength levels.
More specific to this, analysis has shown that the centre of mass deceleration over the delivery stride phase was the strongest predictor of ball speed in fast bowling groups.
Given that the legs need to absorb forces of around 4 times your bodyweight, it is clear a large amount of strength is required in the legs.
So how is the best way to build strength in the legs?
The squat would be the obvious choice, but can we improve on this?
Bowl on one leg, train on one leg
Looking at the bowling action, we can see that the large forces are distributed on just one leg.
A new study tested the difference in muscle activity and testosterone response to unilateral and regular back squats.
Researchers were surprised that the unilateral squats triggered a slightly greater testosterone response than the bilateral back squats. Both exercises produced comparable muscle activity in the lower body.
Training using just one leg also increases stability and experimental evidence has shown that more weight can be handled using single leg methods.  
Additionally, mobility issues - where the back rounds at the bottom of a squat - are removed by using single leg variations such as the split squat and Bulgarian split squat.
A more cricket specific way of training the legs for cricket therefore may be to incorporate single leg exercises into your routine.

Developing explosive power
Strength is important, but to bowl fast we also need power to get the ball down the other end quickly.
When compared to other sports, fast bowling displays similar patterns to javelin and baseball pitching, where by the largest body parts actively accelerate and decelerate smaller body parts.
In such a sequencing pattern, the stronger more heavily muscled proximal joints should become active before the weaker but faster distal joints. This means strength training should be focused on the more central muscles as previously discussed.
While the impact that the lower body must cope with at the is quite high, the relative resistance that the upper body must overcome is very low.
You only get about 0.15-0.18 of a second for force to be generated. As a result training maximum strength development in the upper extremities may be pointless as the fast bowler may not have sufficient time to reach maximum force capability.
In fact for the upper body, slow and heavy resistance training may even decrease maximum rate of force development
Ballistic and explosive type training, on the other hand, increasse maximum rate of force development.
Medicine ball training has been shown to increase the speed at which the upper body limbs can exert force and is a more suitable training method for the upper body than traditional weight training.

Final thoughts
In this brief analysis, It has been shown how analysing a sport and determining the physiological requirements is vital in designing a fitness training program.
This article is only touching the surface, however as this is a massive area to cover but hopefully this will get you thinking about your next workout and how you can make it more cricket-friendly.

BOWLING : Spin the ball to off or leg side.

It's a growing trend these days for spinners at the top level to be able to spin the ball to off or leg side.
This is great but batsmen are now doing their best to read what delivery is on its way. They usually try to read it from the hand, but failing that they must read it in the air.
But if the seam is scrambled during flight then it becomes almost impossible.
The likes of Ajmal and Narine do not bother with making the seam look pretty in flight (like a seamer should). They scramble the seam and make it a mess, as the ball will still spin that way. It’s just that the batsmen do not know which way it will turn.
Tahir from South Africa has a very effective googly as he scrambles most of his deliveries and it becomes very hard to pick.
So, if you have the ability to make the ball go either way with doosras, carrom balls or googlies, then try and scramble the seam sometimes.
If the batsman did not pick you from the hand he will have no chance of picking you in the air with a scrambled seam.
How do you scramble the seam as a spinner?
You can change the angle of the seam on two ways:
<![if !supportLists]>·         <![endif]>Change your grip (the position of the ball in your hand before release), so that the ball is released at a different angle.
<![if !supportLists]>·         <![endif]>Keep the same grip but change the release angle on your wrist.
The best way to practice this is with a two-coloured ball: one with white and red halves. That way you can clearly see if you are managing to scramble your seam in flight.

BATTING : Watch the ball closely !

Watch the ball closely!
How many times have you - and I - uttered those immortal words?
It is great information.
For some of our cricketers; but not all of them.
Research has show that it's about a 50/50 split. Many batsmen will benefit from looking hard at the ball and picking out details (the seam for example); a narrow focus. But at least half will be better with a softer focus on the ball, allowing it to come into their vision rather than forcing themselves to focus hard; a peripheral focus.
How do you determine which category each player is in?
Listen to your batters when they have played well against spin and you will either hear them say either:
"I really watched the ball closely today and could see which way it was spinning from the seam rotations."
or conversely:
"I picked his googly well today as he did something different with his wrist at the bottom of his bowling circle."
Someone who benefits from a narrow focus will say the former. Or something very similar at least.
Someone with a preference for peripheral vision will say the latter.
We all have a preference for one over the other. Using the correct focus makes your batsmen more balanced and more likely to make quicker and better decisions.
The problem comes with a lack of correct visual preference. The narrow focus player gets distracted by things other than the finer details, or broader vision person tries to focus in hard on the seam.
The quick test above is a good start to finding out which focus is best, but here are some more detailed tests you can ask players to complete:
<![if !supportLists]>1.       <![endif]>Experiment between the two kinds of focus. Have a net against bowlers where you only do one and the next net do the opposite style of focus.
<![if !supportLists]>2.       <![endif]>Rate your movement efficiency for each session
<![if !supportLists]>3.       <![endif]>Rate your decision making effectiveness for each session
<![if !supportLists]>4.       <![endif]>Speak with the bowlers and get their views on performance in these two parameters
<![if !supportLists]>5.       <![endif]>If you are being objective and you have been consistent with keeping you focus the same for each ball then there will be a clear winner.
Better still, have each player bat for 30 balls in each visual style and log the player's assessment of each shot against the movement efficiency and decision making effectiveness.
I'm sure this challenges the approach that you have used in the past. I know it has with me. I learned why my words and practices worked for one person and didn't for another.