Shivers down my spine

11 February 2010

Deakin PhD student Alex Kountouris has become crucial to the backbone of the Australian cricket team

Alex Kountouris says he still gets tingles along his spine when he thinks of the opportunities that Australia has offered him and his family.

Alex, who arrived in this country from Cyprus as a refugee, is now a PhD student looking at stress fractures of the spines of fast bowlers, rather than his own tingles.

He is doing this while working as the physiotherapist for the Australian cricket team, something that requires almost as much flexibility as bowling fast.

And although far from completed his journey from war-torn Cyprus to mixing it with the elite of Australia’s national summer game is already an amazing one.

“Our house had been bombed in the war in Cyprus,” he said.

“We escaped in a boat and ended up in Australia.

“My first day of school in Australia was in grade one in Sunshine. I spoke no English.

“When I think of what has been given to me and my family by Australia since then, I still get tingles.”

Alex has been able to give plenty back to his adopted country, playing a vital role in keeping Australia at the top of cricket’s world rankings.

He’s the bloke in the tracksuit you see run out on to the field to assess the fitness of players like Australian captain Ricky Ponting the time he was struck on the elbow by the West Indian fast bowler Kemar Roach late last year.

He has also worked closely with Brett Lee, another member of the Australian cricket fraternity with close connections to Deakin as the face of the University in India.

He has a framed photo on his wall at home of Lee – at full stride, right arm cocked – undergoing a fitness test with Alex watching knowingly in the background.

“We have spoken about that Deakin connection,” Alex said.

“We joke that he will get his PhD before I do.”

Alex began his career after completing his undergraduate studies at La Trobe University where he worked closely with his PhD supervisor, Associate Professor Jill Cook.

“She has been a wonderful mentor to me,” Alex said. “She understands me and my lifestyle with the Australian cricket team. When she moved to Deakin, I did too.”

Doing his PhD part-time while touring the world with the elite of Australian cricket requires flexibility on the part of both Deakin and Alex.

“It’s probably more the Uni than me,” Alex says. “The University has been very outstanding, particularly Jill.

“I am very pleased I can do my research during the down time when I am on tour.

“I am away from my home and my family, so I really have the opportunity to focus on what I am doing.

“And I can ring Jill from anywhere in the world pretty much at any time.

“Specifically I am looking at muscle imbalance as a potential reason why cricket fast bowlers get stress fractures in their spines.

“Bowling is asymmetrical, so some muscles get bigger on one side of the body than on the other.

“What I am trying to find out is if this is the cause of stress fractures.”

Around the world, a lot of fast bowlers young and old, famous and unknown, will be keen to learn of the results when Alex finishes writing up his PhD thesis, sometime in the next two or three years.

“I have collected most of the data, it’s now just a case of writing it all up,” he said.

“Because I am doing it part time, that will probably be two or three years away.”

Australia has many cricket commitments over the next few years, including winning the Ashes back next summer, so the PhD will have to fit around all that.

Alex began his involvement in international cricket with Sri Lanka, working as the physio and also as the fitness and strengthening coach.

When shortly after his arrival Sri Lanka won the World Cup, his stocks rose accordingly and he was asked to put in place a lot of the sports science infrastructure that now exists in cricket in that country.

When he left the Sri Lankan set up and returned to Australia, he was asked to work part time with the Australian cricket team.

He went with them on a tour of India in 2003 and soon after became the permanent replacement for Errol “Hooter” Alcott, the Australian pioneer of physiotherapy in cricket who worked with the national team for more than 20 years.

Errol got his nickname because, being a rugby league person, he wondered when the “hooter” would blow to end a Test cricket match.

That earned him the gentle bemusement of the Australian players – and a nickname that stuck immediately.

Alex’s nickname is Dimitri – and well you might ask.

When he first linked up with the Australian team, batsman Jimmy Maher made an obscure link between the new physio and the actor Alex Dimitriades.

In the way of cricket dressing rooms, that’s all you need to get a nickname established. Dimitriades was soon after shorted to Dimitri and that is how it remains.

Alex says he still pinches himself to find himself among the elite of Australian sport, whether being ribbed by them, or checking their ribs and other body parts.

“When I was growing up, I had lots of cricketers as heroes,” he said. “David Hookes, Dennis Lillee, Allan Border were just some of them.

“I have got to work alongside Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Adam Gilchrist, Ricky Ponting, and other great players.

“Sometimes, yes, I really do have to pinch myself to make sure it is all true.”

Despite his great love of cricket, Alex only had limited chances to play the game.

He was a good soccer player and pre-season training for that sport limited his appearances on the cricket field.

He has no regrets about not being able to play as much cricket as he wanted. He loves soccer too and to play it at a relatively high level was yet another opportunity in a land he has discovered as full of them for a family looking for a refuge from war.

“I sometimes think what might have happened to me and to my sisters, my whole family, if we had not been able to come to Australia from Cyprus,” he said.

“Like me my sisters have also been to university and have good jobs.

“It is a land of great fairness and on Australia Day this year, I was as proud as anyone to be Australian.”

Alex Kountouris (left) and Brett Lee Alex Kountouris (left) and Brett Lee

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