Starc injury renews focus on front-foot law
Mitchell Starc is perhaps Australian cricket's most prized asset. His bowling action, fitness and workload are all managed with the utmost precision by Cricket Australia's extensive team performance and sports science divisions. His appearances in the IPL have been duly limited. And at 27 he is at the point of physical maturity where all CA's research suggests he should be at his most durable.
But after two Test matches in India where he was called upon to bowl a mere 42 overs, having been rested from the tour game that preceded them and from training on the eve of each match as is Australia's team custom, Starc still found himself flying home early. Why? The diagnosis of a stress fracture in his front foot at the bowling crease.
Starc is at the end of a long summer, and he strained every sinew to keep Australia in the Bengaluru Test. Nevertheless, there remains a sense of some disbelief that Starc, with all that management and all that money spent, could break down at such a key juncture - his side's chances of winning the series have dropped considerably.
What, then, if the injury to Starc had less to do with his workloads, his management by CA or plain old rum luck, than with a change to the laws of the game dating back to 1963, some 27 years before he was born. That is the provocative theory behind a book called Front Foot: The Law That Changed Cricket by the Australian journalist Doug Ackerly. Starc's absence from the final two Tests of the Border-Gavaskar series will only add to interest in this contention.
The move from a back foot to front foot no-ball law was advocated on the premise that the technique of "dragging" the back foot meant that taller or suppler bowlers could deliver from far closer to batsmen than others. What followed was a fundamental change in fast bowling technique to emphasise a leap in a shortened delivery stride that slammed the front foot down with force that added enormous strain to the feet and backs of all those so obliged.
For many years, opposition to the front-foot law from the likes of Donald Bradman and Richie Benaud was based on the view that it had removed from batsmen the advantage of hearing a no-ball call early enough to take advantage of the bowler's error, while also greatly adding to the difficulty of an umpire's work. But Ackerly's addition of the physical dimension and link to injuries has undoubtedly brought a greater level of urgency to the question.
Certainly some key researchers believe that the front-foot law should be re-examined in the context of its physical toll, most particularly on the harder pitches of Australia. Doctor Marc Portus, a former head of sports science for CA and now the head of movement science for the Australian Institute of Sport, told Ackerly that the technical change ushered by the front-foot law had a strong chance of increasing stresses on foot and back.
"There's no doubt, if you make someone stop quicker, there's more braking force, there's more impact force," he said. "So, I definitely see where you're coming from and there's some plausibility in your theory. And, it could be an important factor."
Portus' AIS research has quantified the amount of strain placed on a bowler's body by the gather, leap and landing at the front line over 20 years of tests: an average of seven times regular body weight through the front foot, and up to five times regular body weight at back-foot landing over these years of testing. At the extreme end of the scale, one fast bowler weighing only 68kg put up to 13 times his body weight through his front foot at the moment of impact.
Two other voices heard to raise concerns about the front-foot law are the late Bob Woolmer, who devoted an extensive passage of his posthumously released 2008 book The Art and Science of Cricket to blaming the law for a raft of injuries to pace bowlers. "The reason is simple: since all bowlers have to cut the batting crease with their delivery stride, it means that they all land in and around the same place on the wicket as they get into their action," he wrote.
"The landing area quickly becomes dented, then rutted, and finally concave. Bowlers must then either avoid this hole in the wicket, or must bite the bullet and land in it. Either way, they are forced to change the angle at which their foot is landing, thereby creating different forces in the body."
Shaun Pollock, who was coached by Woolmer with South Africa, reached a similar conclusion in conversation with Ackerly. "The biggest injury problems that bowlers had in my era was their front-foot ankle," he said. "With everyone landing in the same place, massive holes were created on the popping crease.
"This meant that, at delivery, where the largest force goes through the body was where the bowlers were off balance. Prior to the introduction of this law, bowlers could drag their back foot across the back crease, taking pressure off the front foot, as well as opening up a far greater landing area for their front foot."
There are of course some questions to be asked of Ackerly's research. The change in laws coincided with a rise in documented studies of bowling and its physical toll, leaving a major empirical gap from the era in which the back-foot law was in place. The case for the old thus relies largely upon anecdote and fallible human memory of its benefits and drawbacks: its proof beyond doubt requires testing of back-foot bowling technique, characterised by side-on actions and a softer front-foot landing, in a controlled environment to measure relative stresses on a bowler's body.
Yet the preponderance of foot and back injuries among pace bowlers over many years since the early 1970s certainly lends itself to the commissioning of that very research. So too does the fact that greater care in all areas of fast-bowling management has led to a significant drop in soft-tissue injuries to hamstrings and groins, but had less of an impact on fractures.
Another point of intrigue is the experience of Simon Taufel, one of the game's contemporary guardians of the laws via roles with both the ICC and MCC. As a young fast bowler in Sydney club cricket, Taufel was ushered into premature retirement from the game - and into umpiring instead - by a back injury. Years later, his teenaged son experienced similar pain.
"If you can demonstrate to us that a change in the law would provide an environment where you could significantly reduce the amount of injuries, and particularly back stress injuries to bowlers, then the game needs to take notice of that," Taufel told Ackerly.
"I think the administrators and the lawmakers would take notice of that. Because, at the end of the day, it's just a line. Now, whether it's a line at the back or it's a line at the front, as long as there's a line, and everyone's playing by the same line, it's no big deal to me. And, if it means that we've got less kids and less players having injuries, then that has got to be a good thing."
Starc, for one, has flown home with plenty of reason to be open-minded about change.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig