January 13, 2023: One was glad to read that the Board of control for Cricket in India (BCCI) took the initiative to discuss and chart out a map for the future of Indian cricket. To have all the thought leaders presently involved in the functioning of cricket in India, in one forum, to air their individual views is a wonderful idea. India has three goals in cricket to focus on for the immediate future. One is to qualify for the World Test Championship final in June 2023, the ODI Cricket World Cup to be played at home in October 2023 and the T20 World Cup in June 2024.
One of the major concerns discussed, it seems, was the fitness of the cricketers. The frequent breaking down of players due to injuries has caused a major disruption in the progress of the Indian cricket side. Once again, like several times in the past, the need has arisen as to how to get an Indian cricket team as a fit unit for a big occasion.
The Yo-Yo Test was introduced by the Virat Kohli and Ravi Shastri combo, which, over time, gradually faded into oblivion. However, it has once again come back as a mandatory requirement, solely because of the losses that India have faced in the ICC-staged tournaments.
Injuries are a part and parcel of playing a sport. To identify it as the major concern of a cricket side and its failure in the present scenario is quite ridiculous. The main area of concern is not fitness, as India have plenty of players as replacements but to improve their mental state of mind to handle the major tournaments. The weight of expectation is what drives them into becoming mild and fragile.
India have several very good players, most of them are proven entities, who definitely do not lack cricketing skills. The players have proved how capable they are against sides in a bilateral series. However, they seem to disintegrate on the world stage. This is precisely why they require the players to go through serious confidential sessions with a mental as well as a performance coach.
Most cricketers today look fit like never seen before. They need to be, to play the limited-overs version of the game. The shorter pristine cricket grounds and the thickly wooded bats have made the game much faster. It is not the amount of cricket that is being played but the agility and quick movements that are required to counter the faster pace of the game, that is causing a cricketer’s body to give way. The live coverage of International matches has made a cricketer always want to show his best, as every movement is scrutinised to the nth degree.
India, rather than acknowledging the real reason for their failure, which is mental pressure, has found a good excuse for players’ injuries as the cause of their cricket team’s failure.
One gathers that a new fitness requirement has been added and the dreaded word is “Dexa”. This is a scan taken of the full body of a person to measure one’s body fat percentage, lean muscle mass, water content and bone density. This scan, one gathers, is normally done to identify an individual’s condition as regards osteoporosis.
A cricketer playing at the highest level of the game, one presumes, has bone density and other such criteria well in place. To reach such heights, a cricketer would have performed well domestically in far worse conditions.
One does understand that fitness is an important part, however, in cricket, one’s skill, technique and mental fitness play a much bigger role in one’s performance.
One wonders whether the likes of Rishabh Pant, Sarfraz Khan, Kuldeep Yadav or even Ravichandran Ashwin would meet the stringent requirements of body fat and lean muscle mass. One has to go beyond thinking that one is not recruiting a candidate for a country’s defense forces but one for a game of cricket.
In the past, in the mid-’60s, a training camp was held at the National Defense Academy (NDA) at Khadakwasla in Pune. This was organised to get the Indian cricket team fit. The program did not amuse many of the Indian cricket team stalwarts and so was shelved conveniently.
It was in 1977 that BCCI held a fitness camp in Chennai to get the top 36 Indian players physically fit under a NIS, Patiala coach by the name of Tandon. I happened to be a part of it and we were put through a fitness regime which none of us had encountered before.
The irony of it was that players who could bowl over after over in a match and bat for hours and hours were completely unfit to handle a physical training session. A few of them succumbed to injuries during the camp and had to be sent home. Their cricketing skills and stamina while playing the sport was exemplary, however, the flexibility and suppleness of a gymnast were naturally missing.
One can see the same trend emerging amongst the present players as well. The extra emphasis at the gym rather than bowling, batting and fielding on the ground is making a present cricketer look physically beautiful. However, a bit more exertion or an additional demand while playing is leading to an injury.
A sportsman’s body is not a measuring tool. One goes beyond pain and exhaustion to do well. Sunil Gavaskar did it with a toothache in the West Indies in 1971 to draw a Test match. Kapil Dev bowled his heart out to get a win for India in Australia in 1981/82. Sachin Tendulkar too had injuries galore and still played past the pain, for his country. None of them would have been qualified fit if they had to go through a Dexa scan.
The basic issue is for the Indian team to believe in themselves. They are one of the best sides in the world. They now need to play not as one of the best but as the very best. That’s when they will become winners.
(Yajurvindra Singh is a former Test cricketer. Views expressed are personal.)