The Indian team that won the World Championship of Cricket in 1985 remains the country’s finest fielding unit yet.
Long ago, when Dr Darshan Kumar Tandon was assisting the Indian cricket team as its first fitness expert, he took exception to a senior player not completing his running drills. Dr Tandon took his complaint to team manager Raj Singh Dungarpur, who handled the issue with a snappy wisecrack. “Don’t worry about him. He will score centuries. Better to focus on the lesser mortals.”
Raj bhai was a goldmine of cricket stories, apart from his cricketing acumen and administrative skills, and his passing in 2009 was a big loss for those who knew him at close quarters. Dr Tandon, who died in 2015, was an exceptional conditioning expert, one of the early birds in that field in India, whose outlook towards fitness oozed modernity.
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Fitness in cricket has a tricky edge, which doesn’t adhere to the template of any other outdoor sport. The Indian cricket team in the 1980s for example, didn’t have too many natural athletes – Kapil Dev and Mohammad Azharuddin were exceptions, while Maninder Singh deserved an honourable mention. But the batsmen could bat for hours and they hardly cooled their heels under the pretext of batting long, when the team fielded. The bowlers bowled long spells on unresponsive pitches in India – left-arm spinner Raghuram Bhat bowled 94 overs in an innings for Karnataka at the 1981-82 Ranji Trophy final against Delhi, which went into the sixth day – and they rarely broke down. They were supremely cricket fit.
Cricket has always been a skill-based sport. Has it changed enough to make batting and/or bowling skills secondary, with fitness taking precedence? During an interview with The Indian Express four years ago, Sri Lanka’s World Cup-winning former captain Arjuna Ranatunga had addressed the issue. “I think if you don’t have skill, then it’s better for someone to get some models and allow them to play cricket. You need skill and talent as far as cricket is concerned. Fitness is very important, but I don’t agree with some of these comments made by some of the people who haven’t played cricket. Overall, it’s all about cricket talent and the most important thing is cricket fitness. I think what we lack at the moment; some of our players are very fit, but they don’t have cricket fitness,” Ranatunga had said.
He also elaborated on cricket fitness. “When you are a batsman, you need to bat for a longer period. When you are a bowler, you need to bowl certain number of overs. Some of the fast bowlers who played under me, they used to bowl at least one-and-a-half hours for a day and at least three-four days for a week, and they never had any injuries at that time. So that’s where people should realise what is cricket fitness. There were players even under my captaincy who could run 25 rounds at the SSC. But they couldn’t bowl more than four-five overs.”
Cut to March 11, 2021… At a press conference ahead of India’s T20I opener against England, Virat Kohli told reporters in no uncertain terms that fitness is non-negotiable. “Individuals have to understand and appreciate the kind of system that’s been created for the Indian cricket team. We should operate at very high levels of fitness and skills. There’s a reason why this is the top of the ladder when it comes to playing cricket in our country. And yeah, you would obviously expect players to abide by what’s required to be a part of Team India. There should not be any space for any compromise in that regard.”
This came after two Indian spinners, Varun Chakravarthy and Rahul Tewatia, failed to clear the fitness tests. The Indian team has two fitness test norms – a player needs to either clear the yo-yo test where the level has been upgraded to 17.1 from 16.1 or run two kilometres in eight minutes and 15 seconds for fast bowlers and 8:30 for the rest.
Varun is a mystery spinner who had an excellent last season for Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) in the Indian Premier League (IPL). He could have been quite a handful for England, already spin-spooked after the Test series, in the T20Is. But he is out of the Indian squad now after failing his fitness test.
Base yo-yo score for most international teams is higher than the prescribed mark for the Indian players even after the upgrade. Australia had set the minimum level at 19 before discounting with the yo-yo test. England and New Zealand, too, have 19. Both South Africa and Pakistan have set it at 17.4. As far as the Indian team is concerned, when a basic fitness requirement has been put in place, players are expected to adhere to it. In terms of fitness, the captain himself leads by example.
T20s have made the game a lot more fast-paced. Players these days don’t have the luxury of an off-season. Playing all three formats round the year is serious workload and top level fitness is required to carry on with the pace and demands of modern-day cricket. As the Indian team head coach Ravi Shastri said at a press conference last week, during his time, India used to have 8-12 Test matches in a year. Now it is entirely different. Between December 2020 and March 2021, India have played eight Tests inside 75 days. From that perspective, fitness has become supremely vital and a comparison with the past would be a little off the mark.
All said and done, there should be some flexibility. Fitness is non-negotiable all right, but it shouldn’t be the foremost criterion for the Indian team eligibility. A player’s fitness can be upgraded even after integrating him into the squad. Over 144 years one aspect of cricket hasn’t changed; it still remains a skill-based sport.