Focus on fitness to counter hectic schedule - Prasad
India needs its players to focus more on their fitness, employ a sensible rotation policy and use the National Cricket Academy to build a bridge between its reserve pool and the senior team to counter the hectic international schedule that awaits the team from September. That's the vision of Venkatesh Prasad, India's bowling coach, who hopes his top players can avoid the kind of burnout that forced Andrew Flintoff off Test cricket.
Prasad said that cramped schedules due to the advent of Twenty20 cricket are an unavoidable reality and one international players can survive only by ensuring they stay fit to play all the matches. Asked to outline his blueprint for the Indian team over the next 12 months, Prasad said the BCCI's pool of contracted players should have regular sessions at the NCA in Bangalore, even while the national squad is touring, so they are ready for international duty at any given point of time. He also backed a rotation policy but one applied in a judicious manner where an in-form player is not rested just for the sake of rotation.
Prasad refused, however, to blame the IPL for the team's poor performance in the ICC World Twenty20 last month and said the Indian league was the best possible preparation for the event.
The Indian players are currently on a two-month break following the West Indies series, which ended on July 5. However, they face a tough stretch from September up to the next ICC World Twenty20 in May, starting with an ODI tri-series in Sri Lanka, the Champions Trophy, the Champions League, an ODI tri-series in Bangladesh, a home Test series against Sri Lanka, a home ODI series against South Africa and the third IPL in March-April.
"To tackle such a schedule, you must have a good pool of players, whether they are fast bowlers, spinners or batsmen, which I think India has in terms of about 37 contracted players," Prasad told Cricinfo. "But when the senior team is touring, what are the other players in the contracted pool doing, especially when they are not playing domestic cricket? Are they working on their fitness? Are they coming to the NCA? I have no idea.
"When there is a centre of excellence like the NCA, the reserve players should regularly make use of the facilities there, in terms of a qualified physical trainer, physiotherapist and other facilities like quality nets. The NCA should not be used only for rehabilitation, as a facility that will help you recover from injuries. We have a lot of talent but you can maximise this only by becoming stronger, fitter and faster."
Regular stints at the academy, Prasad said, would also help reserve players blend more easily into the senior team when called up. "If something suddenly happens to a particular player during a series, you call in somebody from the pool. And if he has been constantly working on his fitness, he immediately fits in. But if he comes in from the cold, his performance might drop, he will develop doubts about his ability, and people will ask questions."
Prasad, a former India fast bowler, said there could be no compromise on personal fitness if today's players want to prolong their careers. "When you play cricket at the highest level, you have to maintain your fitness and that's absolutely essential," he said. "That's one area where there's no question of compromise. We are playing enough matches, so you don't have to keep running to the nets to work on your skills in terms of bowling and batting. It's fitness that you have to focus on.
"And obviously, if you are in the midst of a series, when you are touring, you need to again give importance to fitness in terms of fine-tuning it. If you have got a gap like what you have got now, close to two months, you need to get enough rest and recovery but, at the same time, you need to work on your fitness rigorously."
India's fast bowling at the international level is currently being handled by Zaheer Khan, Ishant Sharma and RP Singh with support from Munaf Patel, Praveen Kumar and Irfan Pathan but all of them have missed a number of games over the last year due to injuries. Sreesanth, the other fast bowler in the frame, has been out of Test cricket for over a year now due to a back injury.
Prasad said he backed a rotation policy for the team's bowling attack but it was just one of several measures that could help the team sustain their performances over the next year.
"I am for rotation as a policy but then at the same time it is important to know what the mindset of that bowler is," he said. "If somebody is bowling well, obviously he would like to play more and more and as much as possible. It's a thin line you walk as a coach, in terms of giving him a break or getting someone else to replace him. It should be discussed with the individual before a call is taken."
Prasad, however, refused to pick on the IPL for India's debacle in the World Twenty20, where they crashed out after failing to win a single Super Eight game. "I would not use the IPL as an excuse. I feel the players could not have asked for better preparation coming into the World Twenty20. India was the only country in the competition with 40-50 players who had played the IPL. If any one of them had been picked, they should have performed. In fact, the IPL is the best preparation they'd have got. What more do you want than being in the middle and getting to know various situations? You see, in the modern era, it is not possible to cut down on the number of matches but what the players can do is maintain their fitness so that they can play all the matches."
Prasad is also bowling coach for Chennai Super Kings, Flintoff's IPL team, and admitted that the allrounder had given no hint of his plans when they "interacted closely" in South Africa during the league's second season in May. Asked to comment on the larger issue that Flintoff's retirement threw up, Prasad admitted that international players who are not able to maintain their fitness levels will now opt for the shorter, more lucrative formats of the game.
"The introduction of Twenty20 has changed the scenario a bit. What I've been noticing is that people love playing Twenty20 because it's a shorter form," he said. "They might opt for Twenty20 for the monetary aspect or because it's much easier to play. You need to play just for three or four hours a day at the most, take your money and go. There is not much of technique involved, not much of tactical ability involved. But of course, there are a whole lot of other reasons too, such as injuries and the amount of travel, family, expectations from the public, the media."
Ajay Shankar is a deputy editor at Cricinfo