Marc Portus, Cricket Biomechanist and Founder at Pace Doctor
Advocating a front-on bowling action can be fraught with danger, as when it is not executed properly, it can be a high risk factor for lower back stress fractures. Nasty. Some bowlers do execute a safe front-on bowling technique, but in my experience doing 3D analyses of hundreds of bowlers in a biomechanics laboratory, they are few and far between. Bowlers who have used a sound front-on bowling action include Ben Hilfenhaus, Matt Nicholson and Paul Rofe (former South Australia first class bowler). Hamish Bennett from New Zealand appeared to be another one (I never analysed him). Nevertheless, the problem is the number of ‘mixed’ technique bowlers far outweighs the number of front-on bowlers. But what has the mixed technique got to do with the front-on technique?
Turns out, a lot.
Over the years the ‘mixed’ technique has been redefined by many research groups, cricket accreditation courses, cricket boards and cricket coaches. Most of this has been with the right intentions, but unfortunately it has meant a lot of different techniques get thrown into the ‘mixed’ technique category, often confusing people and sometimes causing a few to lose faith in the research findings. In some ways, precision has been reduced for coaches and practitioners due to a push for education based on well-intentioned theory, rather than the hard facts. To cut a long story short, there is only one mixed technique that has been linked to back injuries in male teenage fast bowlers. The term originally came from the original research finding in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s at the University of Western Australia, led by Professor Bruce Elliott. Research a decade or so later at the Australian Institute of Sport confirmed similar findings. A handful of studies have been conducted more recently with varying results, some of which I will blog about later.
A range of factors characterised the bowlers who got lower back injuries in those studies. From a technique point of view, injured bowlers started their delivery stride in a front-on position at back foot landing, in that their back foot pointed down the pitch or towards square leg, and their hips and chest were facing down the pitch (i.e. at the batter - see action (C) in figure 2). So far so good, they were in a front-on and aligned position. But its next when the problems came - they then rapidly ‘swivelled’ their shoulders to a side-on position before the front foot landed. This shoulder ‘swivel’ was termed “counter-rotation”, which simply refers to the shoulders moving more side-on after back foot landing, but before front foot landing. So, shoulder counter-rotation refers to the range of the twisting motion of the upper body, not a single posture or body position (figure 3).
This all happens in a split second, so it is often difficult to detect with the naked eye. The ‘mixed technique’ term was coined from the fact that injured bowlers were using a combination of the front-on and side-on techniques. The really important point is that the injured bowlers were attempting to use the front-on technique. They started front-on but went rapidly side-on in the upper body halfway through the delivery stride, by an average of 40 plus degrees. The poor old lumbar spine is in the middle of this rapid twisting action between the front-on lower body and twisting upper body, causing a lot of stress in the immature and relatively softer spine of the teenage fast bowler.
I did my PhD looking at these factors in a group of senior and junior fast bowlers tracked over a season, and once again, the counter-rotation of the upper body was higher in teenage bowlers who got lumbar spine stress fractures. This time we measured the twisting motion at the pelvis and at two levels of the spine (thoracic and lumbar) and found significantly higher levels of ‘counter-rotation’ at the pelvis and lumbar level for the injured bowlers (Figure 4). Interestingly, counter-rotation of the shoulders or spine was not linked to back injuries in the elite senior first class players during the Sheffield Shield season. Injured seniors and non-injured seniors had similar levels of counter-rotation - both groups averaged pretty close to 30 degrees. Perhaps a finding illustrating the role of bone density in the spine playing a protective effect as bowlers get older?
From a coaching point of view, I see two options for teenage bowlers using this classic mixed technique (called 'front-on mixed' by some groups). The least appealing of these options is to focus on staying front-on through the whole delivery stride. I have found a few that I have advised were adamant they wanted to be a front-on bowler, which usually means more work for them. Flexibility through the upper body needs to be good for this, along with excellent abdominal strength. Something else to watch out for is excessive lateral flexion through ball release for front-on bowlers, as they are searching for ranges of motion for their upper body to help generate pace. Increased lateral flexion has been linked to lower back injuries in some studies, but not others. Regardless, it is something to manage, as being excessively laterally flexed will reduce control and efficient pace generation. Using cues to emphasise forward flexion instead of lateral flexion are useful here. More about this another time.
In my opinion the more appealing option is to close the shoulders for back foot landing to a more semi-open position, so the chest is facing somewhere around mid-wicket. This way the bowler reduces their shoulder counter-rotation to acceptable levels. Some counter-rotation is inevitable and acceptable – less than 30 degrees is a good target range in my experience. When bowlers get their shoulders in the more semi-open position for back foot landing they then have more available shoulder rotation available to generate pace. Often bowlers will find this is a natural fix, sometimes they feel better instantly. Former test bowler Matt Nicholson (figure 5) was one of those who instantly felt better when making this adjustment. The good coach should assess what is happening with the bowlers load up, arm path and their front arm action to help the bowler achieve their desired shoulder position for back foot landing, whether that is front-on or semi-open. I find the front arm action is often important to adjust to help bowlers achieve this, which I will discuss in another blog.
So, there you have the biomechanical insights regarding the front-on action – it’s not a myth, but its rare, it can be a disaster, but it does not have to be, and there’s probably easier recipes for success, like being semi-open.
If you are going to use or coach the front-on technique, do it with your eyes open!