Why are x-rays important to the game of cricket?

Professor Wilhem Konrad Roentgen’s name might never before have appeared in a book about cricket. However, it was in 1895 -shortly after A.E Stoddart’s England side had retained the Ashes in a match that had attracted the attention of Queen Victoria – that the professor of physics at the University of Wurzberg in Bavaria discovered X-rays. It was an achievement that has had a great deal of application in a game that may well have been unknown to Professor Roentgen.,

The most obvious use of x-rays in cricket is in the medical field – The combination of a hard ball and brittle bones means that players are frequent customers for the x-ray department of any hospital located close to a cricket ground. On the basis that balls are not getting any harder, either bones are becoming more brittle or there has not been a significant improvement in protective equipment, especially gloves, in recent years, as the incidence of broken fingers seems to be on the increase.

There has even been a suggestion that some players go onto the injured list because of x-rays. Not that the process causes the injuries, but because the sophistication of modern medical equipment might well show up small fractures that would previously have gone undetected. Some years ago, a batsman hit on the hand might well have gone for a precautionary x-ray that revealed nothing. Keen to retain his place in the side, the player would put his injury down to bad bruising and carry on. With even a hairline fracture showing up on a modern x-ray, the diagnosis of an injury becomes more precise and playing through pain no longer seems a sensible option.

As the technology has developed from simple x-rays to MRI scans, the diagnostic techniques available to physiotherapists have increased as well. Xrays enable bone damage to be detected, while the MRI scan can enable the study of tissue damage without surgery. Even if an operation becomes necessary, the surgeon can go straight to the damaged area and work with far greater precision. Less collateral surgical damage means a faster recovery time, and can sometimes make the difference between a player resuming his career or not.

When England fast bowler Simon Jones suffered a sickening injury in Brisbane in 2002, the first thought was that he might never be able to play at the top level again. Jones had made quite an impression, taking the first wicket to fall on the opening of the morning of the new Ashes series. It was then that he chased a ball towards the boundary and went to slide alongside it before picking it up, rising to his feet and sending in his return in the modern manner.

He chased the ball, but as he went to slide, his foot became caught in the turf, forcing all his weight into bending his knee in a direction the joint is not designed to go. The result was ruptured ligaments and nearly a year out of cricket. That could have been longer, or even worse, had not x-rays and scans revealed the exact nature of the injury and allowed the surgeons to repair the damage as efficiently as they did. It was then up to Jones to work extremely hard on getting back to fitness and, happily, returning to international cricket.

Fast bowling is one of the facets of the game where injuries are bound to occur. To sprint a distance before jumping and turning and then landing, while straining every sinew to propel the ball as quickly as possible, is to invite trouble. And trouble rarely requires a gold edged stiff card before it makes an appearance. With a modern, sedentary lifestyle increasing the fast bowler’s vulnerability to injury, the problem becomes more serious despite all the work done in the field of injury prevention as well as cure.

For many years the physiologists could only work on assumptions when attempting to discover the cause of injuries. X-rays and scans could show where the damage had occurred, but they left plenty of scope for discussion as to the cause of injury. For example, general medical research revealed that an alarming proportion of young fast bowlers had suffered stress fractures in the lower back at some stage of their careers. What was causing them and how could they be prevented?

Research was conducted into surfaces, types of footwear and bowling actions that were most likely to put undue strain on the lower back. Possible preventative measures abounded, including unworkable restrictions on the number of overs that could be bowled in both matches and practice by various age groups. It is arguable that these restrictions were more damaging in the long run than the condition they were designed to overcome.

Then came the development of a system called Vicon, which allowed movement specialists to see the benefits of x-rays, but while the bowler was in action. The system itself is a by-product of the film industry. It is based on a technique used for animation that can show skeletal functions while the subject is on the move.

By attaching infrared sensors to key parts on the bowler’s body and relaying their movement patterns through computerised equipment, it is possible to see the bowler as no more than a moving skeleton. Once this material is available, biomechanists and coaches can work with the bowler to assess how his action can be made more efficient and, just as important, safer.

This might all appear to be very futuristic, but it is available now – at a considerable price. It is, therefore, reassuring to know that simple, conventional x-rays can play a part in preserving traditional aspects of the game. A dozen years before Professor Roentgen’s discovery, cricket’s oldest trophy came into being – the Ashes urn. The Australians were keen that the prize that was, metaphorically, in their possession for so long, should be allowed to leave the Lord’s Museum to be visible to cricket enthusiasts in Australia.

The curators were opposed to the idea because they feared that the fragile little urn would be unable to withstand such a journey, however carefully it was handled. The problem was that they did not know just how fragile it was. The answer? An x-ray that revealed a crack in the stem where previous damage had been ineffectively repaired. Thanks to an x-ray, the Ashes urn, like many an injured player, has been restored to rude health.