Close-In: A fitting question

The fitness level of cricketers is important. But isn't the main criteria still very much the skill and the ability to handle oneself in the middle'

The Indian Test cricket team is truly on the right path to prove that they are the best cricket side in the world. They demolished Sri Lanka in a most emphatic manner.  A series win overseas is a remarkable achievement and winning eight Test match series in a row is very creditable.

Their next Test match encounter will be away versus South Africa later in the year. Thereafter, India will need to maintain their form in 2018 as they will be travelling to England and Australia and wins there would make them one of the greatest sides ever to play Test cricket.

The Indian cricket now has two distinct goals to achieve — Test greatness in 2018 and winning the World Cup in 2019.

So it is understandable that the focus is on fitness. However, the news of two of their specialist limited overs players in Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina being dropped for failing a fitness test is rather interesting. They apparently failed one of the main criteria for all the players to clear the acceptance limits successfully for selection to the Indian squad, the Yo-Yo test.

These fitness parameters were introduced to evaluate footballers and other sportsmen who needed such levels to encounter the pounding that their bodies were put through in their respective sports. However, cricket does not entirely revolve around such intense exertion, as there is enough time for one to get one’s breath back before facing the next delivery. Virendra Sewhag so rightly said that to keep himself focused, he would sing to himself till the bowler started his run-up. Agreed the game has become much more demanding on a cricket player’s physique due to the shorter limited over version and the punishing cricket itinerary and schedules. To me, the fitness level of cricketers is important, but the main criteria is still very much the skill and the ability to handle oneself in the middle.

The likes of Sunil Gavaskar, Colin Cowdrey, Geoff Boycott and several other legendry batsmen may not have passed the yo-yo test with flying colours, but they could bat on and on till the cows came home. One does understand the importance of being fit, but the game of cricket has many other ingredients to it. Mental fitness, to remain calm and collective in the most difficult situations, cricket skills, technique, experience and the ability to pace oneself and remain alert during the match are some the attributes that come to mind immediately. These are more telling and important than being a slim, six-pack athletic specimen who may be fast and agile but miles behind in the basic cricket thought process. Cricket is played much more in the mind than one imagines. The disastrous performances of so many of the cricket sides in the recent past has had very little to do with physical fitness and much more to do with the lack of mental strength and confidence.

We had bowlers in the past, who may not have been the fittest, but could bowl 30 overs in a day without blinking an eyelid. These days most bowlers barely bowl 20 overs in a day and feel they have done their job efficiently.

Cricket is a game that requires one to plan and think much more than most sports. This is precisely why there is time between each delivery and an over. The reason being that it is a one ball game for batsmen. They may be fit after pumping weights, but without honing their basic skills they would be watching their colleagues performing in the middle.

 The great English captain and player, Peter May sums it up very correctly in 1985. He said “we had different ideas of fitness. To me the best preparation for batting, bowling, and fielding was batting, bowling and fielding. It is much more important to test a cricketer through a long stint at bowling and batting during practice, rather than assessing his fitness through a computer printout. Fortunately, technology and the digital world have not brought in the ability to analyse individuals through psychological mapping. Any player would be disappointed to be dropped on the basis of being mentally unfit.

Players being dropped for an injury is quite understandable, but a fitness test for dropping one for the lack of speed and agility is quite ridiculous. The responsibility for fitness should be on each individual. In the present world of substantial monetary gains, the players are more professional in their approach. The most important criteria should be their form and if they are scoring runs and taking wickets, then the question about their fitness levels should not be entertained.  The legendry captain of the Indian side, the Nawab of Pataudi during India’s tour to Australia in 1967 was forced to play in the Melbourne Test with a pulled hamstring before the match as the rest of the batting was struggling against the Australian attack. The cricket world would not have seen his two masterful innings played with one leg and one eye if he had been told to rest. There are very few occasions in the life of a sportsman when he is completely fit without aches and pains.

There are many tales of Kapil Dev, Vinoo Mankad, B.S. Chandrasekhar who bowled their heart out for India at times victorious and even in defeat. These feats were done, when they were not entirely fit to play but the ability and will along with their mental strength carried them through to perform for their country.

So is the yo-yo test simply a lame excuse to drop a player? Should the selectors be more transparent and indicate the true reasons? For me, the yo-yo is a definite no-no if that is the prime reason for proven players to be dropped to play for their country.


(The writer is a  former India cricketer)