Which Australian sport produces the greatest athletes? Part Two: Cricket

Ryan Buckland Columnist

By , Ryan Buckland is a Roar Expert

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    David Warner is one of the most powerful athletes in world cricket. (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

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    Professional cricketers probably don’t come to mind when one thinks of sports that produce the best natural athletes. But the days of David Boon and Shane Warne are gone, and today’s cricketers are expected to perform at elite levels.

    This is particularly true of Australia’s best and brightest. In 2016, Australian captain Steve Smith played 45 games of international cricket, including 11 Tests, that ran for a total of 50 days. Smith, who is the clear number one batsman in the world, according to the ICC Test cricket batting rankings, spent 44 hours at the batting crease and faced 1,837 deliveries from opposition bowlers.

    Smith would have spent multiples of that amount of time in the field, in hostile conditions in Sri Lanka as well as the high temperatures of an Australian summer. He missed last year’s Indian Premier League due to injury which would have added an extra eight weeks to an already hectic year.

    Add to that again the time taken to prepare, train, plan (he is the captain of the team after all) and recover, and is it any wonder that Steve Smith is one of Australia’s highest paid athletes?

    While Smith is one of the busiest cricketers in Australia, the lot of a professional Test cricketer of more middling talents in 2017 is intense. The days of David Boon famously (or infamously, depending on your point of view) sinking 52 tinnies on a flight to England or Shane Warne puffing on a cigarette on the Lord’s balcony during play are long gone.

    Australia's David Warner and Steve Smith

    (AFP Photo/Greg Wood)

    Today’s cricketers are genuine athletes.

    As we discussed last when reviewing the profile of an Australian rules footballer, a cricketer’s most unique athletic attribute is the endurance required to play at the highest level. Test cricketers spend not only hours but days on their feet plying their trade in a given match, and over a season that time extends into weeks.

    However, the most common state of performance is not particularly active. The concept of time on legs is important, but as elite rugby league coach, Rohan Smith, pointed out when we discussed the athleticism of cricketers, the most significant element of endurance is “concentration, decision making and skill execution.”

    It’s why Australian rules came out on top in this assessment.

    But this is an important attribute to keep in mind while discussing a cricketer’s most significant point of difference. Cricket is a power game, when we define power as how explosive a player is required to be over and above a resting state.

    “Almost every activity in cricket is power based,” said Rohan.

    “Think about it; sprinting to field, diving to stop a ball on the boundary, leaping for a sharp catch, running between the wickets, shot-making, bowling, throwing. The list goes on.”

    Rohan’s not wrong. Mitchell Johnson, Australia’s formerly fearsome fast bowler and ICC cricketer of the year, wore a GPS tracker on the first day of the Boxing Day Test in 2013. The data revealed that, while he travelled 23 kilometres over the 6.5 hours of play, he completed 144 sprints – 127 of those would have been the balls delivered by Johnson as a bowler, and the remainder as a fielder.

    Johnson’s sprinting efforts are quite extraordinary. The maximum speed he was clocked at was 33.1 kilometres per hour, reached as he was fielding a ball on the MCG boundary rope. For context, Usain Bolt’s average speed during his world record-breaking 100-metre sprint was 36.7 kilometres per hour.

    It’s a similar story for batsmen, who are capable of striking a ball over 80 metres in the air with half a second to react from the point of delivery.

    Glenn Maxwell hits a six

    (AFP/Theo Karanikos)

    According to an academic study in the Nature Neuroscience journal, a batsman has to judge the timing of a shot to within three milliseconds (three one-thousandths of a second) to hit it optimally. It makes the consistent striking of David Warner seem even more superhuman.

    A lot of what happens on a cricket field is about timing and concentration. But a heap is centred on an ability to go from zero to 100 with limited time to prepare or react.

    However, the football codes are superior across the other facets of athletic performance. Cricketers are required to be agile, but this typically centres on specific acts in the field rather than the ‘always on’ agility of 360-degree sports like Australian rules and soccer.

    And while plenty is made of the time Australia’s best cricketers spend in the gym, I’d hazard a guess 140-kilogram Waratah and Wallaby lock Will Skelton would dominate the entire Australian XI in consecutive arm wrestling duels.

    “A cricketer would have several sessions in the gym in a typical week versus 5-6 sessions for a rugby union player,” said Rohan. “Union players focus on building strength and muscle mass, while cricketers are mostly concerned with stability, balance and power.”

    Key Information

    Ryan and Rohan are making these judgments based on the highest level of domestic competition in each of the sports – except for cricket, where the Australian Test team seems like the more appropriate comparator.

    In this series, each sport will be ranked on key categories. We’ll reveal the final scores and the top sport at the end of the series.

    Endurance: the length of time an athlete is required to perform at their peak, in a game and over the course of a season.
    Power: how explosive an athlete needs to be, in both speed and strength terms, over and above the “resting” state of play.
    Agility: a measure of an athlete’s required evasiveness, ability to change direction and be aware of those around them.
    Speed: how fast is a player required to move around the field, both in sprints and general play.

    Stay tuned for the next instalment when we’ll discuss rugby league.

    The full series so far
    » Part One: AFL

    This series is sponsored by by POWERADE, fuelling rivalry through the POWERADE POWERSCORE. The Powerade Powerscore, developed in conjunction with the New South Wales Institute of Sport, allows you to compare yourself to mates and elite athletes.