Shanaka Amarasinghe September 1, 2011

Bench press, anyone?

By and large Asian cricketers are not too fond of working on their fitness - and it shows

So I was watching the All Blacks play the Wallabies the other day. Given that this is the world’s premier cricket website, it might be necessary to reveal that those are the rugby union teams of New Zealand and Australia. It wasn’t so much watching them “play” each other as much as batter, maul, punch, thump, and make the best possible attempt to destroy, each other. For the uninitiated, international rugby is a hybrid of professional wrestling (minus the scripts) and American football. To say that it is brutal would be an understatement. Yet here are these 30-odd professional athletes, playing week in week out, with little or no drop in intensity and even less regard for their bodies, representing their countries, provinces and franchises.

It has always surprised me that there are not as many injuries in rugby as you might expect; which speaks volumes for the amazing adaptability and strength of the human body. I have never ceased to be amazed at the limits to which the body can be pushed, without irreparable damage being caused. Remarkable.

Which brings us to cricket, a game played by elite professional athletes, who make a pretty damn decent living, especially in the subcontinent. Given the general per capita incomes in, say, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan, cricketers are well paid in comparison. Especially given the lack of any sort of rival sport played at the same level. So one could be forgiven for assuming that their commitment to cricket should possibly be all-encompassing. In a day and age where the average white-collar worker spends a minimum of eight hours behind a desk, cricketers ought to, we assume, spend a similar amount of the day on matters associated to cricket.

A bowler or a batsman can’t possibly spend more than a couple of hours in the nets at a time. Even if this is done twice a day when not playing matches, that still leaves a considerable amount of time to hit the gym. Which is not something that players from the subcontinent seem to be all that worried about. Surely, if they were concerned about it, the likes of Ramesh Powar and Thilina Kandamby wouldn’t exist in their current proportions? The fact that you can be among your country’s elite athletes and still be in such upsetting shape is an indictment of the culture of fitness that surrounds the game of cricket, most particularly in Asia.

Take a look at Shane Watson. A towering brickhouse of a man, who said during his mammoth innings of 185 not out against Bangladesh earlier this year that he started whacking sixes because he was feeling a little too tired to run. He hit 15 (and as many fours). Thirty boundaries from a man who admitted to being knackered. Even Sanath Jayasuriya in his pomp would have baulked at that sort of power-hitting. Foremost among the modern Asian crash-bang-wallopers are Jayasuriya, Afridi, and to a lesser extent Dhoni. All three men are exceptionally strong. Jayasuriya has Popeye-like forearms, while Afridi packs a Pathan punch.

While watching endless reruns of games from previous World Cups in the lead-up to this year’s edition, I couldn’t help but notice the power and grace of the young IVA Richards. Beneath the white shirt and the skin-tight trousers, the bulging muscles are hard to miss. Richards’ destructiveness is legendary, but not many would attribute that to his physical superiority in an era where Mike Gatting and David Boon were not considered entirely misshapen.

“Get to the blinking point,” I hear you urge, with not unreasonable consternation. My point, simply, is that cricket is a physical game. And as long as we keep shying away from that, Asians will win World Cups on dirt tracks and teams with big, strong players will win everything else. It’s no coincidence that the all-conquering England team are playing so well at the moment. They are a well-drilled unit, who not only look good skill-wise, but also physically. Andrew Strauss bulked up considerably over the last winter. Alastair Cook now looks like a Backstreet Boy with muscles, and the likes of Jimmy Anderson have toughened up. Chris Tremlett is also an archetypal specimen, and Kevin Pietersen’s physical prowess is obvious.

It didn’t need Andrew Flintoff to point it out, but the Indian team’s almost complete failure on the physical front contributed in no small measure to their results on the disastrous tour of England. The injury to Zaheer Khan was typical of the apathy that many (though not all) Asian players show for their fitness. Sourav Ganguly’s aversion to running was rumoured to have ticked Greg Chappell off. Non-contact injuries are usually preventable with proper preparation, warming up and cooling down.

Sri Lanka have also faced their share of injuries recently, with some fast bowlers breaking down. This is mainly because the young lads don’t look after themselves when they are playing through the age groups, and break down in the high-intensity environs of international cricket.

It is probably time for Asian batsmen to shed the mindset of being primarily “touch” players, who use their delicate wrists to such good effect, and hit the gym. Naturally, a Mahela Jayawardene will never emerge from the bowels of the gymnasium looking like Watson, but it probably wouldn’t hurt if he bulked up a bit. Kumar Sangakkara is Sri Lanka’s best batsman and has, among other things, his tennis-playing forearms to thank for his power and dexterity. Strength won’t slow you down and stiffen you up. It’ll help you hit sixes. Really, it will. The evidence is overwhelming.

It’s time coaches and physios of subcontinental teams realised that they probably need to increase the proportions of strength- and fitness work they do with their teams. In a region where players are more naturally talented, arguably, than their Caucasian cousins, it would be criminal not to keep up with the physical demands of modern cricket. The relationship between strength and skill is a symbiotic one. It’s time to get on yer bikes, mates.