Are you fit to play cricket?

Bat-and-ball skills will always count over athleticism, but fitness, done the right way, will help players use these abilities better and for longer

Brett Lee runs with a parachute, Potchefstroom, February 3, 2003
It's important not only to train to run for sustained periods of time but also to train to allow the body to recover during the brief intervals between deliveries © Getty Images
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After India's loss in Australia the media have had a field day demanding the team and the board to be more accountable. But this is a familiar story, and as expected, there is a call for the players to be fitter than they are. But does just being "fitter" equate to better performance? There are many misconceptions and myths about cricket fitness that need debunking.

What we do know for certain is that cricket is primarily a skill-based game, meaning that players will only ever get to play at the international level if they have all of the necessary skills. These skills will have had to have been refined over a number of years, with thousands of hours of practice and match play. Some say perfection takes 10,000 hours of quality practice. But skills are dependent on the environment in which they are practised and exhibited. Bouncier, greener wickets and faster outfields are going to test the range of adaptability of the player who has only practised in subcontinental conditions. This applies to both batting and bowling, and clearly this has little to do with the physical fitness of the player.

So where does fitness fit in then?

This is a massive area to cover and I will elaborate more in future articles, but "fitness" is an umbrella term used to encompass a range of interrelated physiological parameters. These include, but are not limited to, strength, power, speed, agility, endurance, flexibility, reaction time, and body composition. All these attributes are objectively measurable and modifiable with training. But whereas an Olympic athlete might be approaching the limit of his physiological potential (like, Usain Bolt, of his speed and power), cricketers have relatively large windows of potential improvement in all parameters of their fitness. Why? Part of the trouble is finding time in their schedules to actually train hard enough to force some adaptation and still leave energy in the tank in order to play. Then there are problems of directionless training and a poor understanding of how physical preparation can help them become better cricketers.

This is not to say examples of players who are at their fitness limit don't exist. Jonty Rhodes was the most agile and dynamic fielder of his generation. Sachin Tendulkar was, and still is, one of the quickest runners between the wickets. I doubt whether Sachin could have been any quicker or Jonty any more agile. Chris Gayle is another example of someone who is unlikely to hit any bigger if he trained harder.

Each sport, and position within each sport, has a different fitness requirement. Ongoing research is providing greater objective insight than ever into the demands of cricket. Satellite or GPS monitoring during matches has enabled us to quantify the total distances covered, including percentage breakdown of time spent running, jogging and sprinting. Heart-rate measures have been combined to reflect both the true volume and intensity of work performed in cricket.

Fast bowlers cover huge distances during a Test, potentially half a marathon, and significantly more than a batsman who might only cover six to eight kilometres. But while batsmen run shorter distances, they do so at a much higher intensity and with frequent sudden changes of direction. Training, therefore, needs to reflect this specific need for repeated efforts of acceleration, deceleration and agility. Armed with this knowledge, training programmes are becoming more specific.

As funny as it sounds, some players swear that playing five hours of golf in the pre-season is great cricket-conditioning as it mimics being on the feet for hours on end with intermittent efforts
GPS monitoring has also highlighted the interval nature of cricket, i.e. a power effort followed by a recovery period. Bowlers, and therefore batsmen, typically have around 30-40 seconds between balls to recover until the next ball is bowled/faced. Training, thus, needs to also focus on the ability to recover between bouts. If a bowler or batsman can lower heart and respiration rates quickly before the next effort, decision-making processes should become sharper and efforts more successful. Skills performance diminishes with the onset of fatigue.

In other words, training needs to also be directed at prevention of fatigue. This might sound like the same thing but in fact is a different focus and is one of the reasons the Yo-Yo intermittent recovery field test is now preferred over the notorious bleep test. This modern take on the classic test provides a brief recovery period between shuttle runs to more closely simulate the work/recovery nature of cricket. A fitter player, one who can prevent fatigue, will therefore likely perform better.

This new knowledge of cricket workloads has implications for declaring a player fit for selection - ensuring rehabilitation programmes sufficiently condition a player to the actual demands of the game. Alternatively called "match fitness", it is relatively intangible and impossible to replicate in the gym alone. It is unique to each player and conditioning for it is done through actual practice of skill in match situations. Zaheer Khan once told me he could bowl in his sleep after he had returned from a season playing county cricket in the UK. This was his way of saying he was 100% match-fit - being physically well, injury-free and bowling effortlessly with his natural rhythm. As funny as it sounds, some players swear that playing five hours of golf in the pre-season is great cricket-conditioning as it mimics being on the feet for hours on end with intermittent efforts!

Data obtained from fitness field tests can be compared with normative data to help determine individual areas of strength and weakness. Comparison to such benchmarks help the support staff determine if a player is physically ready for the basic demands of the sport. Batsmen and bowlers consistently differ in their results over a number of tests, which comes as no surprise when comparing the fielding and agility of fast bowlers and top-order batsmen. A failure to reach basic threshold marks is suggestive of poor preparation and poses a high injury risk.

Performed on a regular basis, certain data can also help reflect over-reaching - a scientific term used to describe a fatigued physical state, often a pre-cursor to overtraining and physical breakdown.

Cricket is a skill-based game, but undergoing a strength-and-conditioning programme physically prepares the body for the stresses of the sport. This not only helps prevent injury but improves the player's explosiveness or power, and may be the difference between a stolen single or a run-out. It will also go a long way to increasing the longevity of a player's career.

Players of previous generations often say that strength training results in a player becoming stiffer and slower. There is no doubt that strength training alone could do this - muscle and connective tissue stiffen and contract over time. But when added to a complete programme incorporating flexibility and power training, I will argue that it can only improve performance.

Bringing back a player from rehabilitation too early is perhaps a reason why there is this perception - a player with just a strength base will be slower and appear stiffer. But if allowed to convert this strength into functional explosive power, he will be able to exhibit his pre-injury performance. In today's crammed schedules, players are commonly cutting short their rehabilitation in order to return to play. Then people wonder why they look so slow in the field or lose pace off the ball.

Michael Clarke reacts as the rains come down, Sri Lanka v Australia, 2nd Test, Pallekele, 5th day, September 12, 2011
Thin does not automatically equal to fit © AFP
Another common misconception occurs when a player's fitness is correlated simply by how slim he looks. Excess body fat is dead weight and the same as putting a weight in your back pocket and going out for a run. Unfortunately there are many "skinny-fat" players out there who are a long way from being optimally fit. A cricketer might actually be carrying a high percentage of body fat, but due to his lean muscle weight being low, the player will appear slim. I found this out when I first started with the Indian team - the players were looking slim but my skinfold readings were high. This was because in the late '90s none were actually doing any strength work. Again, being overweight is not going to keep a cricketer from hitting boundaries but could slow him down in the field and will almost certainly hasten the onset of fatigue/injury over a long innings.

So despite knowing more about how to train for the physical demands of cricket, and players generally becoming more aware and efficient in their training, this is still no guarantee of improved performance. Cricket is, and always will be, a skill-based sport. What balanced training does, however, is ensure that areas of weakness have been addressed, giving players the confidence that they are appropriately prepared.

Having a sound physical base prevents the onset of fatigue and allows for enduring clarity in decision-making with every effort. And for the "more seasoned" players, being physically fit is keeping them on the park.

Send in your questions using our feedback form. Andrew Leipus will answer the best ones every month


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Posted by Dummy4 on (March 19, 2012, 16:47 GMT)

It was a pleasure reading this article. As being a cricketer myself and playing cricket for hours back in India under the humidity and heat, it takes alot to be fit. I would like to request Andrew Leipus to b more specific on how to train if one wants to be "fit enough" to play cricket. I mean to let youngsters like me to know what kind of specific trainings (strenghtning, core exercises, stamina building), particular methods and steps must b done to b declared as a "fit cricketer"... I hope more of these useful articles come under our knowledge and help us being FIT.

Posted by Nick on (March 19, 2012, 8:05 GMT)

Anaerobic fitness, balance and strength are most important and it is hard to get a game without it. You need to be athletic to do the team things, which could make a massive difference to a game - a runout, a catch, saving runs in the field (eg. a diving save - some fielders save runs on reputation alone), stopping the batsman from rotating the strike (which builds pressure), stealing runs between the wickets, etc. Guys like Rhodes, Symonds, Ponting as perfect examples of match winning fielders when compared to someone like Virender Sehwag. Great fielding by fast bowlers in particular (eg. Brett Lee and Mitchell Johnson) make a massive difference when bowlers are often liabilities in the field (eg. Malinga, Ambrose, Walsh, etc). In terms of running between the wickets, guys like Bevan and Dean Jones steal runs while guys like Imzamam Ul Haq and Arjuna Ranatunga lose runs for themselves and their batting partners and are more likely to be involved in a runout.

Posted by Andrew on (March 19, 2012, 3:44 GMT)

I had to have a laugh about "...some players swear that playing five hours of golf in the pre-season is great cricket-conditioning..." - bet that was Punter!!!!! == == == All up - an informative article about cricket fitness. Keep it coming - I think anyone who's followed Oz's players over the last couple of years would be wondering what is going on!!!!

Posted by Mike on (March 19, 2012, 1:51 GMT)

Im glad they used Michael Clarke and brett lee as examples there. Brett lee has done pretty much everything right over his career(even though he has suffered some serious injuries along the way) and has prided himself on building core strength and functional mobility with sprint training.

Where as Michael Clarke has coasted through his career with a bad back injury due to his posture at the crease and hasn't done enough to rectify it. He's still weak in his lower back visibly. He doesnt need to put on flashy muscle but still he needs to build some. If i was him id be making sure my posterior chain was the strongest part of my body. I guess things like lara bingle got in the way of that.

Posted by Randolph on (March 18, 2012, 8:06 GMT)

Australia has the opposite problem. We train too much. Players are not getting enough rest and getting continual injuries, especially the younger guys. Stop pumping iron and get in the nets!

Posted by Dummy4 on (March 18, 2012, 7:08 GMT)

i am a youngster i play cricket 5-6 hours a day i play wid my frnd everyday,i am reputated as being a fast bowler wid d ability 2 swing it. but a jumpers knee has affected me and i cant bowl fast. I think dis is a good example

Posted by Nadeem on (March 18, 2012, 4:12 GMT)

Awesome article. I totally agree that skills and talent is not enough to stay at the top level in cricket. You need to be fit to play long hard cricket in today's tight schedule. Trainers are extremely important part of cricketers now. Cricket has changed in last 10 years and T2020 made cricket more difficult than ever and most demanding now.

Posted by Adrian on (March 18, 2012, 4:07 GMT)

Really good article! So sprint, rest, sprint training is ideal.

Posted by Girik on (March 18, 2012, 3:59 GMT)

Haha, does the photo suggest that Michael Clarke is not fit?

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Gillette Fitness Zone video series presented by Adrian Le Roux will explore fitness exercises to enhance the performance of the modern day cricket player. The 25-episode series will focus on the functional exercises that can be done anyplace anywhere; and then move on to functional and core stability exercises that involve lot of movement and power.

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