England step up research into back injuries

English cricket's ceaseless search for a solution to stress fractures suffered by fast bowlers has a new ally because of the ECB's partnership with a global leader in athlete analytics.

England teams - both men's and women's - have the opportunity to wear micro-sensors underneath their shirts in a three-year partnership with Catapult, a leading analytics provider.

Raph Brandon, the ECB's head of science, medicine and innovation, and Andy Flower, the former England coach, introduced the system to England Lions at the national performance centre in Loughborough this week and Brandon says the tie-up, which goes through to the 2019 World Cup in England, has already had "major benefits".

"Lower-back stress fractures will always be a challenge for us," Brandon said. "It is particularly important for the U-19s that we monitor them very closely and do our best to protect them from injury.

"Get the insight and then you can change your decisions. It is a series of learning. Thanks to the Catapult data, we have a comprehensive picture now of combined workload and training and we are establishing that joined-up picture for the best England bowlers, whether they are on contract or on the international pathway."

The challenge facing young fast bowlers as their growing bodies comes under enormous strain is the subject of a two-year research programme at Loughborough into how a young player's spine adapts to the rigours of fast bowling.

Evidence already gathered before the Catapult tie-up is that the spine of a successful England fast bowler such as James Anderson or Stuart Broad becomes as thick as any comparable spine in international sport in order to withstand the constant demands it has to bear.

Brandon said: "What we know is if you get to become a Broad or an Anderson your spine on the opposite side of your bowling arm is the thickest spine in world sport. It is thicker than that of a rugby forward or any sports spine that we know. That is based on years of MRI scans with our international group.

"As a young fast bowler, you will have your growth spurts where your spine grows but where it is not fully thick. You have to have a super-adapted spine to become an international fast bowler. The challenge is how to get from this thin piece of bamboo spine when you are 18 and very talented to the super-thick spine of Jimmy Anderson.

"The bone adapts to loading cycles and gets stronger. You need to load it and then you need to rest and recover. The quality of data we can now capture and analyse means we now have far more facts to support the 'feel' we get from the expertise of our coaches in their support of the players.

"We can measure run-up speeds, the amount of acceleration going through the body, the amount of rotation going through their trunk, and so much more - in practice as well as matches. We will always have something to learn about the science behind the elite cricketer."

The decision about when to bring a player back from injury is now also likely to be built on many factors other than the old question: "Do you think you can get through okay?" being asked by a coach.

"Selection is not dependent upon such data," Brandon said, "but selectors are aware that we do have this information now. We are adding facts to the feel and the knowledge and the insights that the expert coaches and the players themselves have.

"We understand the demands on individual players intimately. So when we are bringing players back from injury we know what demands they will face. If they are coming back to a Test match we have to build them up so they can cope with a certain amount of running, a certain amount of time on their feet, the total distance they are likely to travel and the likely amount of high intensity work. This very detailed work allows us to individualise our training for the players and that gives them confidence."

Although the collaboration with Catapult was motivated by the desire for fast-bowling analysis, it has also provided other insights.

"Scoring a century in a one-day international will generally involve between seven and 12 miles total distance on your feet, including many sprints," Brandon said.

Such evidence has informed England's coaches, and indeed the players, of the fitness demands involved. They will continue to give England ammunition when they chose to pull contracted England players out of county cricket - a regular bone of contention - and they are likely they played a part in Mark Robinson's demands for better fitness levels when he took over as coach of England women earlier this year.