March 17, 2008

Road warrior

Mahendra Singh Dhoni has played the most internationals of anyone in the last 15 months. How long can he keep going at this rate before something gives?



Another day, another airport © AFP

Here's one way to spend 15 months of your life. You could experience five continents and eight countries, taking about 50 flights, covering approximately 112,000 kilometres. Along the way you could take part in 47 one-dayers, 11 Tests and eight Twenty20s, in a period spanning 105 days of international cricket.

If you're more ambitious, you could also captain your country, pulling off two historic wins in the process. If you're fit enough, you could keep wicket, squatting and straightening all day, totalling a mind-boggling 26,906 sit-ups. You could push yourself to the limit and shrug aside back strains, leg aches, and finger sprains. Welcome to the world of Mahendra Singh Dhoni, who is not only the world's most highly-prized cricketer - going by the money he fetched at the IPL auction - but also the busiest.

India's fitness report at the end of the Australia tour highlighted the problems of Sachin Tendulkar, Ishant Sharma, and the two Singhs - Yuvraj and Harbhajan. But the stunning part was right at the end: Dhoni had finished the 80-odd day-long tour with only a finger sprain. Given his schedule, it's some surprise he continues to stand upright. We knew about his power and dash; the last year has told us a bit about his endurance.

The fitness report gives a chronological list of injuries during the tour. Dhoni's first came as late as March 2, two-and-a-half months in. One-day specialists like Robin Uthappa, Praveen Kumar and Gautam Gambhir sustained injuries. Others were bogged down by viral fever, stomach upsets and food poisoning. Dhoni seems to have dodged it all. His only other trouble on the tour appears to have been an infected tooth.

It's strange that Dhoni has had to endure such a gruelling schedule when there has been another specialist wicketkeeper in the squad all along. "We can only select two wicketkeepers but it's up to the team management to use them judiciously," one of the national selectors told Cricinfo. "It's tough for Dhoni to rest in ODIs and Twenty20s because he's the captain. So it's a tricky situation. As of now there has been no talk of resting him but things could change in the future, especially with the IPL adding to the hectic schedule."

Since the start of 2007, India's schedule has been cricket's version of On the Road. In this period Dhoni has played 20 ODIs, three Tests and one Twenty20 at home. On his travels, he's made a short, if forgettable, trip to Port-of-Spain, tasted victory in Belfast and London, experienced a world triumph in Johannesburg, crashed in Melbourne, soared in Perth, and risen to the top of the world in Brisbane.

One mustn't forget the tour games. Dhoni was part of the side for the matches against first-class sides in Hove, Chelmsford, Leicester and Northampton. He also played both of India's warm-up games before the World Cup and the two first-class games in Australia. He could have had two more Tests if not for injury: finger bruises kept him out of the Cape Town match in South Africa in early 2007, and an ankle strain caught up with him before the Bangalore Test late last year.

He heads the list of those who have played the most ODIs during this period - and that's after missing three games. Two of those, in Belfast, were missed not because of any injury but fever. The other time, he was rested against West Indies in Chennai in early 2007, when the side were trying to get their combination right for the World Cup.

"It's strange how often the role of the wicketkeeper is overlooked," says Andrew Leipus, the former India physio. Leipus was part of the set-up till late 2004 and watched Dhoni make his his international debut in Chittagong in December 2004. "So many squats, so many changes of ends, 90 overs a day, different environmental conditions ... it takes its toll. The career span of a wicketkeeper is reducing. Adam Gilchrist's decision to retire was partly because his knees were giving way. Credit to Dhoni and his fitness trainers that he has lost a considerable amount of weight [since 2004]. Otherwise it would have been a bigger stress on his knees."

 
 
Since the start of 2007, this has been cricket's version of On the Road. In this period Dhoni has played 20 ODIs, three Tests and one Twenty20 at home. On his travels, he's made a short, if forgettable, trip to Port-of-Spain, tasted victory in Belfast and London, experienced a world triumph in Johannesburg, crashed in Melbourne, soared in Perth, and risen to the top of the world in Brisbane
 

"Look at the guys who played Tests and ODIs on the tour," Robin Uthappa points out. "Look at Dhoni - he has not got a break for the last two years. Besides the Bangalore Test match, he has not had a single break. You need to give him a break. He was not feeling too well in the [CB Series] finals and his hand was not too good. I went up and told him, 'If you want me to keep, I can. Don't stress yourself.' He said, 'Don't worry, I will manage.'"

So is "resting" Dhoni the best solution? "It's really tough," says Leipus, "because fatigue in cricket, unlike other sports, is very difficult to quantify. The cricketer himself is probably the best judge but it's difficult for them to ask for a rest because they want to play as much as possible. It's a career that lasts 10 or 15 years and everyone wants to make the most out of it. It's very tricky."

Second on the list is AB de Villiers, with 63 international matches, but only half of those (32) have come away from home. Dhoni has played close to 70% of his games away, which clearly implies a more hectic schedule. Paul Collingwood, another specialist ODI captain, is at third with 61, followed by Adam Gilchrist, another wicketkeeper (57).

As you would expect, batsmen dominate the top of the table. All those who have played over 50 matches in this period are batsmen or wicketkeeper-batsmen. Daniel Vettori is the first bowler on the list (50 internationals), and one has to go way down to No. 24 to find a bowler who plays all three formats with some sort of regularity (Harbhajan).

The bowlers have collapsed at some point and many of the batsmen have fallen but nothing has stopped the Energiser bunny. It's fitting Dhoni works for Indian Airlines: after all, no other cricketer has clocked so many miles recently.

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is an assistant editor at Cricinfo

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