September 1, 2011

Shanaka Amarasinghe

Bench press, anyone?

Shanaka Amarasinghe
Jamie Roberts tackles Mark Cueto during a friendly, England v Wales, Twickenham, August 6, 2011
Ouch. That's got to hurt. But will it leave a mark?  © Getty Images
Enlarge

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.

RSS Feeds: Shanaka Amarasinghe

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

Posted by MMK on (September 15, 2011, 6:23 GMT)

To all my desi cricket-loving friends who have commented here (especially those who disagree with the author or his usage of Shane Watson as an example), pointing out a few fit specimens or a few exceptions to the rule does not eliminate the fact that south-asian teams are traditionally some of the most un-fit teams to grace a cricket field. Take the current Indian side for example; Virat Kohli is a very fit young man - the same cant be said for Munaf, Zaheer etc. And the author is not suggesting that hitting the gym would help Sehwag with his timing, but that it could help his endurance, hitting, and ball-chasing. If nothing else, all readers would agree that a physically fit side has a significant fielding advantage over an un-fit side (as has been highlighted in the Anglo-Indian series). And please, can we do away with the judgemental and caustic comments - this is a site for cricket-lovers, not people who cant appreciate a cricketer simply because he plays for a rival nation!

Posted by Alex on (September 5, 2011, 21:55 GMT)

Sorry to say but India's fielding standard are just absolutely terrible, Forget being professional athletes they don't look like they are fit enough to run a mile.

Posted by S K Iyer on (September 5, 2011, 12:11 GMT)

Shanaka - you began well and yet managed to meander, which is a pity. Cricketers, especially in the sub-continent, have begun to believe that they are larger than life, and have no discipline to follow any of the prescribed routines!!! The Board in all these countries are manned by useless administrators who have no guts to haul up the laggards - and the results are there to see, for the world. Clubs like ManU insist on recording the results of individual training sessions even during off-season, for players - most of whom actually play/stay outside England during off-season. Why cant BCCI with all its wealth, insist on the same for all its 'centrally contracted' players? Sheer Apathy. Disgusting.

Posted by Happy on (September 5, 2011, 10:48 GMT)

@Anindya Kar Kapil Dev is the exception not the rule for Indian cricketers, in fact he showed what could be done if a decent standard of fitness was kept up through a career. You also tried to compare his lack of injury against 2 players who bowl 150+ and 2 others who are 6' 6"+...not a good basis for comparison.

Posted by Ram on (September 5, 2011, 9:51 GMT)

Fitness helps you get the best out of your skill. For a sports professional there can be no excuse whatsoever for not looking after their fitness. Such people should not be allowed to play at the international level and are a disgrace to sport. If you are not serious about fitness, then you are an amateur, and go play where you rightfully belong - domestic circuit!

Posted by AS on (September 4, 2011, 22:35 GMT)

Why do people keep giving examples of players who aren't super-fit and still do well? That's not the point. The point is that EVERYONE can do better and get the most out of their skills if they're fitter. Who knows, Sehwag and Inzamam might have been even better batsman if they were more focussed on fitness.

Posted by Pratik on (September 4, 2011, 15:57 GMT)

Any reasons then, why the strongmen of cricket cant win on dirt tracks? Surely their strength would have helped?

Secondly, the guy with the highest strike rate is Sehwag, who isnt exactly a fit specimen. Wonder how that fits in.

Thirdly, the highest run getter in tests and ODI isnt a top physical specimen either

Cricket is a physical game. But skills take precedence over muscles.

Posted by Ejaz on (September 4, 2011, 12:36 GMT)

I don't understand why people see Afridi only as a batsman.

He is NOT a batsman, He is an Excellent bowling All-rounder. Whether you count 2007& 2009 tournaments or 2011 world cup. He has done a lot as an all-rounder.

Dhoni is also a good hard hitting ODI batsman but he is nowhere in the league of Santh or Afridi.

Posted by avinash on (September 4, 2011, 11:34 GMT)

i like the theme of the article. But how can you compare club level players like afridi to dhoni.MS was the best batsman is the world for over 2 years.he still averages around 50 in odis.Afridi wouldnt average 50 even if he combined his averages across all formats..And talking of power hitting,theres a guy called VIRENDER SEHWAG.enough said.

Posted by Raja on (September 4, 2011, 7:55 GMT)

Spot on Mate!

"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."

How true is this. Is BCCI reading this and other payers from the Indian Cricket team. Please read this and it will really help you in future, otherwise you guys will not be called Donkeys, but Cows in future.

Comments have now been closed for this article