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The toughest test of all

As winter nets at clubs around the county continue to progress, some of the pre-season cobwebs should be starting to shift themselves, writes Alex Stockton. For some, though, February marks not the start of indoor nets, but simply another month closer to the start of the season. Young cricketers up and down the country who train with their county or district sides will already be well into the swing of things. In fact, some of them have probably been netting since October.

Whether or not such lack of respite has a positive effect is a matter for some debate. Certainly, it is good to encourage young players to play a lot of cricket. As long as they’re enjoying it, they’ll continue to improve, after all. That said, young fast bowlers can often do more harm than good by netting too much. Stress fractures and muscle strains are all too common for young quicks, and these issues could come as a result of year-round training. An injury can really take it out of you at such a tender age, and I speak from personal experience.

In terms of my cricketing background, I have been luckier than most. At fifteen, I broke into the Northants age group side as a handy opening bowler, and played a number of matches alongside the county’s recent breakthrough act, Ben Duckett. Phil Rowe, the current 1st XI bowling coach at Northants, was our head coach, with Steven Crook also working with us. “Crooky” was an outstanding guy to have around, and Phil is the best coach to have ever worked with me. That season was the real deal for me, as an aspiring professional cricketer. I played competitive games against Nottinghamshire, Warwickshire, and Worcestershire to name but three, and there was a real sense of professionalism in the group. I also got my first taste of two-day cricket, which remains the closest I have come to playing in a test match. Strapping on my bowling boots and hearing “we’re going to declare soon, lads, get yourselves warm” was so satisfying that I couldn’t help but crack a smile. Call me Jimmy Anderson and give me the new ball.

I had a great season for my local club, too. Towcestrians’ first XI were in Division 3 of the county league, and I helped them to win the division and secure promotion. I was very much the youngest of a young bunch who, to all intents and purposes, had a seriously bright future ahead of them. My debut, against our promotion rivals Peterborough, saw me take two wickets and hit around 30 runs in a convincing win, and I never looked back from that point. I stayed fit and I bowled well throughout the season. Without really having to think about it, I was able to run in and hit my areas, and everything was pointing towards a very bright future in cricket.

At the start of the 2011 season, though, something went wrong. In an attempt to show one of my friends what I’d done to tweak my bowling action, I damaged the oblique muscles down my left side, and wasn’t able to bowl again for some time. This wasn’t a minor injury. Even bending down to pick up a plate from the drawer was excruciatingly painful, and I had to rest up for a while. There were around four weeks until the start of the season, and everyone at Towcester was telling me that I should sit out for the first couple of games, or play them as a batsman. Despite this, I played in the first game of the season. I bowled two overs for around 16. There were a couple of wides, and I sprayed the ball. My left side wasn’t strong enough to stop me pulling the ball, and it didn’t come out right at all. After that, I told myself I had to change something in the next game I played, and I pushed everything down the legside. Already I was starting to panic a little. My action had gone, and so had my head.

In hindsight, though, this was not an injury that occurred at the start of the season. That year, I’d begun netting in October. That meant I’d basically spent seven months running in on a hard, indoor surface and hurling down cricket balls. That’s longer than a cricket season. By the time early May came around, therefore, it was not only unsurprising that I picked up a niggle, but I feel that it might have been inevitable. To be clear, this isn’t me blaming Northants cricket for my injury. It is quite likely that, had I not spent so long in front of coaches’ eyes, I would not have been picked for the side, nor would I have been half the bowler I turned out to be. There is undoubtedly a risk, however, that young fast bowlers could do themselves a lot of damage over strenuous winter training programmes. I wasn’t even the worst case. One of my team mates was widely regarded as the quickest bowler in the county. The season before my injury, though, he slipped a disc in his back. After that, he was nowhere near the same bowler. Luckily for him, he was a seriously good batsman, meaning he could still play high-level cricket after his injury. As far as I’m aware though, he hasn’t bowled too many balls in anger since we last bowled in unison.

Since, my action has never once snapped through like it did in that breakthrough season for me, and now I find myself infuriated every time I bowl. I should be bowling quicker, I tell myself, but it just won’t happen. Now, I can run in and hit an area, and I swing the ball well, but it’s more as a tidy line and length bowler than as someone who has genuine pace. Whether or not there is still some psychological baggage from hurting myself, I don’t know, but I can’t quite generate the same whip I used to be able to with my body. Perhaps it’s a case of too much time spent not trusting my body and not letting loose.

Granted, there were other plenty more factors at play that stopped me making it as a cricketer. I still stand at 5’10, after I stopped growing at 15. That said, players like Dale Steyn and Malcolm Marshall have never had an issue being under six feet tall. I wasn’t the most competent batsman back then, either, meaning there was lot riding on my ability to stay fit as a bowler. All in all, it would still have been very difficult for me had I not picked up an injury. When something like that happens, though, it’s difficult to not wonder what might have been.

It’s hardly the end of the world that some 16/17 year old kid didn’t quite make it as a professional sportsman. It happens all the time, all over the world, anyway. At its worst, though, this sudden loss of confidence really took it out of me. At the tender age of 17, I had to go from knocking on the door of a professional cricket academy to not quite knowing where I was, to being dropped completely. That wasn’t easy. I had put a lot of pressure on my performances and built myself up over a long period of time. It didn’t take half as long to be knocked off that lofty position of self-confidence and self-belief. While now, at the age of 22, I can appreciate the ability I had and the chances I had to play in some great games, it seemed quite tough on me as it was all happening. My advice to anyone going through anything similar is just to let loose. Have a real go, and if you fall short, you mustn’t linger. Enjoy the game, because the longer you spend fretting and getting worked up about it, the less time you’ve got to take a step back and just appreciate what you’re doing. These days, I relish fielding and waiting to bat just as much as I do knocking someone’s middle stump over, and that’s not a bad place to be.

I should also acknowledge that I still absolutely love the game, and that my experiences with Northants only helped that. Yes, it’s frustrating when I bowl and, yes, I’d love to have continued to press on from where I was, but it has not put me off. I play for Stony Stratford now, and enjoy every match I play in. It’s certainly better when I can get wickets or runs, but I’d be as happy now to play a game in Division 12 as I would to play one in the premier league. This article is just a warning note to any prospective young fast bowlers out there. If you feel a niggle, don’t ignore it, and if you feel over-worked, give your body a chance.

Disclaimer: should you come calling, Northants, I’ll still bite your hand off.

I'm the editor and owner of The NeneQuirer.

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