‘A fast bowler’s breakfast,’ Tim Bresnan called it, and he wasn’t talking about the full English. We were standing by the pitch two hours before the India match in Bangalore, and Bresnan was contemplating another day during which he would have to slam his hefty frame down on the rock hard turf; another day of aches and pains and the little pink pill he popped into his mouth would help him through.
Fast bowlers know all about playing through pain. There are very few days when they wake up free from stiff or aching joints; there are very few days in a career when they could honestly say that they played one hundred percent fit, pain free. Pain is a fact of life, almost a badge of honour in the way that bumps and bruises are for lock forwards.
The fast bowlers’ breakfast that Bresnan referred to was an NSAID- a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug, to use its full name- and as well as being a wonderful preventative for a hangover, it is often the difference for a fast bowler between playing and not playing- the most important ‘meal’ of the day.
As it happens, I know a little about NSAIDS, too. When I was 22 years old I was diagnosed with an inflammatory condition which manifested itself, in layman’s terms, as a bad back. The choice for me was a simple one: find something else to do, or be prepared to take painkillers to enable me to have a cricket career.
It was a simple choice: for the next eleven years or so I took between 100mg and 200mg of Voltarol a day, every day. I didn’t get hangovers and, more importantly, the pain was masked to the extent that I was able to play. At times, I needed an extra dose of anti-inflammatory medication, in the form of cortisone injections, but that is another story.
At this point, I can sense a rash of doctors reaching for their pens and laptops and searching for the address of the letters’ page. So it should be said that NSAIDS in large doses and over a long period of time are extremely dangerous and not to be encouraged, not even as a preventative after a shedful.
After years of abuse, I got to the stage where I had no tolerance for Voltarol and would bleed immediately after taking one. When I stopped playing, and therefore had no easy access to the drug, I went to my doctor who refused to prescribe me any more so horrified was he with the dosage I had been taking. I weaned myself off and now take a less powerful drug.
The point, though, is that for sportsmen- and cricketers in particular because of the crazy schedules- painkillers are a fact of life. They are the difference between playing and not, and in the days before central contracts they were the difference between keeping your England place and losing it, between getting paid and not.
Which brings us to Kevin Pietersen. Pietersen has told the England management that he is not prepared to take painkillers and play through pain during the World Cup, and so he has been replaced by Eoin Morgan. From everything that has been said by the England management, it is clear that had Pietersen wanted to stay, or felt able to stay, Morgan would still be in England. Pietersen pressed his own eject button.
Pain is a difficult topic to write about because one man’s stab wound is another man’s pin-prick but we know that Pietersen has a high pain threshold because he told us so. After Ricky Ponting had broken his finger during the Perth Test during the recent Ashes series, Pietersen had this to say when asked whether Ponting would play in Melbourne: ‘I’ve played in a series with a broken finger. You just ring block it and numb the pain. It’s not a huge drama.’ Now, nobody I spoke to back then could remember Pietersen playing with a broken finger, but he was taken at his word. No drama.
Unlike Pietersen, Andy Flower is a man who chooses his words very carefully and when asked about Pietersen’s return home he was keen to emphasise that the batsman has a bone-fide hernia injury. Mark Butcher, who underwent two operations for hernias, says that the pain can get to the stage where it is hard to deliver your skills. Just in case there were any cynics out there, Flower said that he had seen the scans and that it was ‘very clear’ there was a problem.
He also had this to say to the BBC’s Jonathan Agnew, and the inference could not have been clearer: ‘the medical advice was that he could get through the tournament. The hernia was not going to get significantly worse, he was not going to tear anything, and so we hoped that he would get through the tournament ok and that he would be able to take painkillers when necessary and bite the bullet.’ Anybody who knows Flower, anybody who has sat through his press conferences, will know that is as damning as it gets from him.
Given the injury, Andrew Strauss would have used Pietersen as a last resort against South Africa, but he would have used him in the knowledge that the medical staff’s advice was that it couldn’t do any serious harm. Might have inflamed the problem a little more, but nothing that a pill or two wouldn’t sort out.
And whilst England’s winter schedule has been ridiculous, resulting in a mind-numbed, physically drained squad, their actual playing schedule in the World Cup itself is not overly demanding. In tune with every other team in this tournament there are long gaps between games to recover. England were due to play two games in ten days after the South Africa match, and potentially there were just five games left in the tournament, in three weeks, for Pietersen to get through.
Pietersen tweeted that he was devastated to be leaving India, although he added in his next few tweets that there were certain consolations to his devastation. The consolation for England is that they have someone who is fit and fresh and, after a winter sat mainly on his haunches, desperate to play. It is a fair swap.
The week before Pietersen’s departure, I bumped into Ponting on the pitch before Australia’s match against New Zealand. I asked him how the finger was that he broke against England in Perth which forced him to miss the final Test of the Ashes series. ‘It’s still not great,’ he said, showing me the heavily bandaged digit. ‘Did you have an operation in the end?’ ‘Yeah, playing in the Melbourne Test displaced it further and I had to have a pin put in it.’ ‘Did you want to play against England at Sydney?’ ‘Yeah, they had to drag me kicking and screaming from that team.’
Sometimes, selectors have to make a decision to leave out an injured player, who is desperate to play, for his own good and the good of the team. Sometimes they don’t.