Pilates saved my fast-bowling career

Kent cricketer Ivan Thomas reads our Ashes Survival Guide and reflects on too much time spent sitting down.

The Forum’s Ashes Survival Guide came a little too late for Kent’s Ivan Thomas. He was out for two years with a serious back injury and could have done with some reading matter.

Highly regarded as a teenager, Ivan’s injury could not have come at a worse time. ‘It was a standard fast bowler’s injury,’ says Ivan who is now 23. ‘Most bowlers have had a stress fracture although mine was particularly bad. I had a triple fracture in the back, three vertebrae. My bones were growing too fast for my muscles.

‘It was tough being out. I was at university at the same time which helped a bit as it kept my attention on other things but two years unable to do anything at all was very infuriating. For a year and a half it was no running or long walks just pretty much sitting. Then I did a lot of pilates and core strength exercise to build up my lower back, squatting, getting my legs and hamstrings strong. Pilates was my saviour really.’

That’s not something you’d expect a fast bowler to say. ‘My advice to young players,’ says Ivan, ‘would be to drop the weights. I wanted to be big and strong with big biceps and legs - 115 kilos and bowling fast - but that puts a lot of strain on you. You actually want to be thinner, nimble and flexible - mobility strength not brute strength.’

He’s in the first team but his bowling is still a work in progress. ‘There’s not a lot of confidence in my body. I have a slow patient run up. I don’t steam in. It’s more in the action at the crease. As I get more confident in my body, I’ll put on a couple of yards of speed. Because of my injury I’m relatively inexperienced despite my age.’ (He’s a year younger than England’s recent debutant Mark Wood.)

Cricket’s a little unfair in that bowlers have to be fitter than batsmen. ‘Some of us have been wearing GPS during championship games,’ says Ivan. ‘In a recent game, I did 21km in a day. The next bowler guy did 7km and the batsman were doing 3-4km. Mine was particularly high as I was fielding on the boundary at both ends. And some people think cricket is a lazy man’s sport.’

It really isn’t. ‘This month we’re playing on 23 out of the 28 days so there’s not much time off. It’s very intense with a higher possibility of injury. On our occasional day off we have a net session. We’ll do some fielding fitness - often high catches with sprints in between so we’re doing a cricket relevant skill while improving fitness. We also have gym sessions with light weights.’

Scones or salad?

Attention to health and fitness has increased enormously even in Ivan’s time in the game. ‘We used to get tested once a year but now it’s every six weeks - fitness levels, skin folds, weight etc.’

But what about all those lunch and tea breaks? ‘The diet is actually pretty good. Breakfast is normally cereals, a bit of porridge, bacon and eggs if you’re lucky. We have a great chef at Canterbury and lunch is usually a choice of pasta, two meat dishes (often lamb steaks and chicken breast) and a vegetable dish.

‘Tea is the one where we sometimes struggle. We had a few cakes and scones earlier in the season but now it’s salads. We think the strength and conditioning coach and the physio had a word with the chef.

‘My favourite opposition ground for food is The Oval. There’s a lady there called Princess who does great food. I was injured for the Surrey game but still turned up every day in time for lunch!’

Today’s bowlers are not only fitter but also more versatile - the four-day red ball version of the game requires very different skills from the one-day white ball version. ‘As a bowler in red ball cricket, you’re trying to hit same spot over and over. Do that in white ball and you’ll go for six. In 20-20 (the shortest version of the game), you’re trying not to be predictable, to keep batsman guessing - four out of six balls need to be different.

Red ball or white?

‘It’s a batsman’s game, white ball cricket. You go out expecting to go for runs which is a difficult mindset for a bowler. You have to see it as your skill versus the batter’s skill. You can bowl a great ball and still go for six.

‘My style bowling suits red ball more but I’ve managed to get into the 20-20 team and ever since my first game I’ve loved it and worked really hard. There are 10,000 people, lights, music, an amazing atmosphere. They’re the sort of games I started playing cricket for.’

Next stop England? ‘I’m a quarter Jamaican so could qualify for the West Indies,’ says Ivan. ‘But I want to play for England. That would be the dream.’ He is impressed with both the current England team and their Australian opponents. ‘I played for Kent in the warm up game for Australia and their depth is absolutely incredible. They’ve got so many players who can come in as Mitchell Marsh and Peter Nevill did in the second test. England have a great side though. We bowled extremely well at Cardiff.’

Ivan may be very fit now but his experience means he has some particularly good advice for those who are less so. ‘While I was injured and unable to run, I tried to stay as mobile as possible. I walked everywhere, I took the stairs not the lift, I was cycling, I was as active as possible in everyday life.’ It’s the sort of high quality advice you’ll find in our Ashes Survival Guide.

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