Wednesday 24 October 2018 4:22 pm

Just not cricket: Why England risk injury to play football in the warm-up


Jonny Bairstow’s ankle injury, which has made him a doubt for England’s opening Test match against Sri Lanka on 6 November, has sparked a familiar discussion in the cricket world.

England’s players and staff are always dreading injuries, especially to someone of Bairstow’s importance. But the origin of his problem will have caused further consternation in the camp.

Bairstow twisted his ankle stretching for a ball – not the cricketing type, but one of the larger, softer, football variety.

Read more: Chris Tremlett: Sri Lanka tour the hardest but most rewarding tour

While England busied themselves with practical concerns – Bairstow’s rehabilitation, whether to call up Surrey wicket-keeper Ben Foakes in the meantime – the predictable yet understandable reaction began back at home.

Former England captain Michael Vaughan – as he so often does – led the debate, calling for the side to ditch their much-loved warm-up routine.

“In a World Cup [year] I wouldn’t be taking any risks at all,” he wrote on social media. “You can twist an ankle in most places but football does increase the risk.”

England & India Net Sessions
Using football as a warm-up has become a much-loved part of England's match preparation (Source: Getty)

From the outside, the notion that professional cricketers prepare themselves by engaging in a totally different activity may seem bizarre. No other sport does so and even if England forbid tackling it does seem to invite problems.

The point is reinforced by the list of football-related injuries cricketers have sustained over the years.

Joe Denly, who is hoping to make a belated Test debut in Galle next month, was famously taken out by team-mate Owais Shah in 2009. James Anderson did himself damage by treading on a ball during a warm-down mid-Test against New Zealand a year earlier.

It’s not just England either. India’s Rohit Sharma twisted his ankle playing football ahead of his first ever Test match and had to wait another three and a half years for the opportunity to make his debut.

India batsman Rohit Sharma is another to have injured himself during a kick-around (Source: Getty)

Fast bowler Ishant Sharma was elbowed in the face by Praveen Kumar in 2011 when dabbling in the beautiful game, while Hampshire’s Fidel Edwards missed the whole 2016 season after breaking his ankle during a kick-around.

Denly’s return to the England fold is ironic, given the knee injury he sustained from Shah’s rogue tackle prompted football to be banned by then-coach Andy Flower. “A few of the lads were saying I ruined their football – the best part of the day, as they say,” Denly joked recently.

Nine years on, Bairstow’s injury won’t have the same effect. This time football is here to stay.

England’s one-day international captain Eoin Morgan has stressed the improved balance and coordination it can bring, but its real benefits appear to lie elsewhere.

“It’s a big part of the way we are as a team,” said England’s Moeen Ali earlier this week. “It brings a lot of banter into the dressing room – we probably talk about the football more than the cricket sometimes.”

The current ODI series in Sri Lanka has proven just how important team spirit is. With the monsoon season hindering the amount of cricket that can be played, England have spent a lot of time with their minds elsewhere. Alongside video games and the gym, football helps fulfil that role, and players even developing fantasy football-style ratings for each squad member.

England Nets Session
Eoin Morgan believes football helps improve balance and coordination (Source: Getty)

“Kick-abouts are fun, easy to set up, good exercise and just bloody good for a bit of team banter,” Nottinghamshire batsman Chris Nash wrote on social media on Monday. “Cricket games/tours are long, it’s different to football and rugby, a bit of fun is essential in warm-ups.”

The idea that football has been chosen specifically for the quasi-scientific reasons Morgan mentions may be hard to believe, but in an era where players’ lives are otherwise micromanaged, with conditioning and nutrition paramount, it’s telling that football is encouraged for much simpler reasons.

Football may be “probably the best” at “getting mobile and running around, getting the blood and juices flowing” as ex-England fast bowler Steve Harmison put it a few years ago, but it seems injuries are an unwanted yet accepted by-product of keeping morale high.

The nine successive bilateral series wins of England’s one-day side and rise to No1 in the world rankings suggests it’s a risk worth taking.