In the fitness of things
Skill is a pre-requisite in sports but in the current era, that may not be enough
In terms of value that Dane van Niekerk brings to her South Africa team, she is no less than an Inzamam-ul-Haq, David Boon or Arjuna Ranatunga. She is a South African cricket legend, a former captain, with 100 plus WODI and 86 WT20I matches. After her international debut in 2009, she was considered as the South African team’s most important player, like Inzamam for Pakistan, Boon for Australia, and Ranatunga for Sri Lanka. Yet, for the T20 World Cup which will be played at home, in South Africa, she won't be part of the squad for not clearing a fitness test -- she was, to be precise, 18 seconds over the limit for a 2 km run.
While it has triggered a debate over whether fitness should take preference over skills, it is also a statement on how fitness is considered to be non-negotiable in the cricket world now. It’s a marked and perhaps natural shift from a time when skill was all that mattered.
Back in India, after a review of their performance at the T20 World Cup, even the Board for Control for Cricket in India re-introduced the fitness test.
South Africa have taken the tough call to leave out a proven and experienced performer, but is it as straightforward as it looks? Is it ever?
Exceptions to the rule will always exist. So how do you deal with that case? Ranatunga was a great judge of a single or a two and his sharp cricketing acumen gave Sri Lanka an edge. Inzamam's batting skill was supreme -- he seemed to have intangible quality of time. VVS Laxman was not the fittest, but a wizard with the bat and a gritty performer under pressure.
Also, cricket is unique because the workload can differ greatly depending on your specialty. So, is a general fitness test the answer? Indeed, what does it achieve?
On the other hand, the cricket world is changing. With professional outfits looking to get better, the demands on a player to improve in every aspect -- including fitness -- are greater. Anything that can help should be embraced. Virat Kohli, for one, has spoken about how improved fitness levels helped his batting and fielding.
Ajinkya Rahane, who was the vice-captain of the Indian team for a long time, knows the value of being supremely fit. He played the entire season of domestic cricket for Mumbai this year and gave a clear verdict to his Mumbai teammates at the end of it: “raise your fitness levels”.
On the maidans of Mumbai, skill has always prevailed over fitness. Sarfaraz Khan, who has a stocky built, is an example who is central to this debate of cricket fitness over physical fitness.
But former India skipper Sunil Gavaskar has batted for his cricket fitness, though: “If you are looking for only slim and trim guys, then you might as well go to a fashion show and pick some models and then give them a bat and ball in their hand and then include them. You have cricketers in all shapes and sizes. Don't go by the size, but go by the runs and the wickets," Gavaskar told Sports Today recently.
Cricket has always been a skill-based sport. Has it changed enough to make batting and bowling skills secondary, with fitness taking precedence?
“Yes, skill level is the top priority, if you don’t have the skill level and you are fit then it is of no use. But with good skills, you need decent fitness level too. You may not be the best but to survive in today’s game, whatever the criterion (2k run or Yo-Yo test), that level is important,” says former Mumbai opener Wasim Jaffer. “Now cricket has changed, to be a good fielder is paramount, you can only be a good fielder if you are fit, you won’t see a very good fielder with a bad fitness level.”
Former India trainer, Ramji Sreenivasan says eras can’t be compared. “Players like David Boon, Aravinda de Silva, Ranatunga, Merv Hughes, they were indispensable at that point of time, But now we have players who are on the heavier side, who have done exceptionally well, but they are exceptions, not the rule. We always say there can be only one Sunil Gavaskar, one Kapil Dev, one Sachin Tendulkar... one Sobers, but they are all exceptions, you can’t go by exceptions.”
It has become a case of a player not just being fit, but having to look it too.
“No doubt about it, it (to look fit) has become more important than earlier, but I feel the people who matter, the selectors, they should look at their fitness level rather than how they look. For example, like Sarfaraz Khan, he is slightly heavy, looking at him you won’t say he is fit, but he does the job, bats full day, does a lot of running and is back for fielding. As long as you are meeting the demands, and passing the fitness test, then it doesn’t matter how you look,” says Jaffer, while adding that players are better off taking the effort to make an effort to trim down.
Then again, van Niekerk missed the World Cup cut because she missed the 2km run time mark by 18 seconds. But, when do you run a whole 2 km consistently on a cricket field?
You don't, says former Mumbai pacer Swapnil Hazare, now a top fitness trainer. “In cricket we don’t run 2 kms. At the most, we run 50-70 meters on a very big ground that also in a very rare case. And, you run in a straight line. We should be more cricket specific, rather than applying parameters from other sports to our game," said Hazare.
In an ideal world, players would like to find a balance between skill and fitness but that doesn't always happen in reality. Still, one might argue that the onus is on the athletes to give themselves the best chance of success. If one can't then perhaps someone else will.