August 19, 2010

Too much or too badly scheduled?

The Indians don't play more than other top cricketers around the world; it's just that their calendar is more poorly structured

If you went strictly by record, the Indian team so far has had nothing official to say about the number of matches they play in a year, the importance and context of those matches and the toll the games take on players.

If you went by recent hearsay, then the team, or rather the senior management group, ideally including the captain, the coach, the manager and senior players, have sent off an email to the BCCI protesting "inconsequential" matches and asking for the schedule to be reworked. The BCCI claims it has received no such email.

Setting aside the Case of the Invisible Email and going by numbers alone, an excess of cricket cannot be an Indian grouse. In the last 12 months the Indians have not played more cricket than anyone else; their leading stars have, in fact, played fewer games than the frontline Australians.

A look at the combined Test, ODI, Twenty20 international, IPL and Champions League Twenty20 numbers reveals that, on sheer quantity, Australia's Shane Watson topped the table with 111 days of cricket, and Michael Hussey was just behind at 105. Even pace bowler Mitchell Johnson squeezed in 95 days on the job, just ahead of India's multi-tasking captain MS Dhoni, who on Monday was involved in his 94th day of cricket in the last 12 months.

Most days of cricket in the last year
Player Tests ODIs T20Is IPL matches CLT20 matches Total days played
Shane Watson 11 37 13 6 0 111
Michael Hussey 11 38 9 3 0 105
Mitchell Johnson 11 27 13 0 0 95
MS Dhoni 9 29 7 13 0 94
Michael Clarke 11 22 15 0 0 92
Ricky Ponting 11 36 0 0 0 91
Graeme Swann 11 24 11 0 0 90
Virender Sehwag 10 20 2 14 3 89
Paul Collingwood 9 24 11 8 0 88
Kumar Sangakkara 8 22 12 13 0 87
Tillakaratne Dilshan 8 25 12 6 4 87
Mahela Jayawardene 8 19 12 13 2 86
Harbhajan Singh 8 23 5 15 0 83
Sachin Tendulkar 10 17 0 15 0 82
Jacques Kallis 9 12 7 16 2 82
Gautam Gambhir 7 22 6 11 4 78
AB de Villiers 9 16 9 7 0 77
Suresh Raina 2 35 9 16 0 70
Graeme Smith 9 13 9 2 0 69
Yuvraj Singh 6 15 7 14 0 66
Stats from 16 Aug 2009 to 16 Aug 2010. All Tests taken to be five days long
Save for Zaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma, both in the 60s, the other Indians (apart from those in the table above) come at a safe distance: Pragyan Ojha 56, Amit Mishra 41, Praveen Kumar 35.

Dhoni's tally is not even the most cricket played by an Indian in a year. Way back in the calendar year 2002, as India readied to launch its unexpected run to the World Cup final, their captain, Sourav Ganguly, played 106 days of cricket and Rahul Dravid 102, which included keeping wicket in ODIs. All this without 14 IPL matches and attendant pay cheques.

Even so, Ganguly's was not the record for most days of cricket played by anyone. That still belongs to Syed Kirmani's 107 days in 1983.

It can be said that the last 12 months of India's cricket have certainly been high-profile, high-attention and high-intensity. Issues like hectic travel schedules, sapping weather, the IPL's playing and party schedule, could count as subjective factors that may strengthen 2010 India's invisible email complaint.

Yet these identical factors apply to the Sri Lankans as well as other overseas players who dive into the IPL with the enthusiasm of infants sighting lollies. Sangakkara's 87 and Jayawardene's 86 match days in the last 12 months include 13 each in the IPL. Among the leading overseas players, Jacques Kallis played 16 IPL days (the same number as the much younger Suresh Raina, Rohit Sharma and Pragyan Ojha) and two Champions League matches in his 82 days of cricket.

The only singular element that the Indians can claim as their own is, of course, the weight of public expectation and constant media scrutiny. But given that they are among the highest-earning cricketers in the world, these can well be considered the taxes of their celebrityhood. Much like the demand made by the market, with agents, associates, friends and everyone wanting a piece of what should ideally be their "downtime". Then, as now, it is the player who must find a way to cope.

The Indians, it can be argued, are as badly served by too much cricket as they are by the abysmal planning of their calendar. Even though the leading Australians may have a larger workload than the average Indian star, the Aussies are regularly given larger chunks of time off, and a more carefully calibrated off season, thereby giving them the opportunity to store enough up in their tanks to see them through a long, hard season.

Australia finished an exhausting 2009-10 season on March 31, 2010 and the next time they played as a team, it was on May 2, in the World Twenty20. In the interim Watson played six IPL matches and Hussey three. The World Twenty20 finished on May 16 and after that the Aussies were sighted on the field on June 17, for an ODI versus Ireland. So between April 1 and June 17, all the cricket the Australians were involved in was in a two-week series in the shortest format of the game, where they made the final.

India's last 2009-10 fixture was an ODI against South Africa on February 27. It was swiftly followed by the IPL (March 12 to April 25), which dovetailed into the May 1 start of the World Twenty20, which for India ended on May 11.

Then the pace of the game changed just a little. Dhoni, Tendulkar, Harbhajan Singh, Zaheer, Gautam Gambhir, and Ashish Nehra were rested for just under a month, while Virender Sehwag was recovering from injury. In the meantime Suresh Raina led the Indians to Zimbabwe for six matches (four ODIs and two Twenty20s) from May 28 to June 13.

The main squad gathered for the next big event, the Asia Cup in Sri Lanka, June 16-24, during which Zaheer sustained a shoulder injury that led to him missing out on the Tests against Sri Lanka. The Tests only began on July 18, and Gambhir returned home wounded after the first. The limited-overs specialists only came into action on August 10, after a break of over a month.

In this whirlabout, the man who has played the most non-stop cricket in the last six months is actually Raina, who (the team's got fingers crossed) is still standing.

India's most serious concern now, though, rests on the physical condition of Dhoni, whose right hand with its bent finger reflects the pressure he has absorbed in the last 12 months. Those months for him have included an ascent to the No. 1 Test ranking, two average ICC events, (the Champions Trophy and the World Twenty20), a win-loss record of 15-12 in 29 ODIs and 3-4 in seven Twenty20s, and a very successful IPL. As a cricketer who has mastered switching himself on and off during matches as captain and keeper, Dhoni will need to find it for his match schedule in the next six months too.

The Case of the Invisible Email seems proof enough that any direct approaches the team may have made to the BCCI about the future course of their cricket did not really work. Last Saturday a top source/key member (thus described and quoted in two national newspapers) of the Indian team said, "The worst fear is as of now due to excess of cricket, [that] we will not be able to field the best XI in South Africa and during the World Cup."

It is possible that this news about a letter of complaint was meant to be a trial balloon from the team, a way to knock on the BCCI's door, giving a new meaning to the phrase "via media". Until now the team management has very pointedly kept all media at an arm's length, either due to BCCI gags or personal indifference, so this is quite a radical step.

It is probably because the next six months include two big-ticket events that will put Dhoni's India under their most extreme examination: the tour to South Africa and the World Cup, at home.

All they have left now until the World Cup are about 15 ODIs (two, perhaps three, more in Sri Lanka, three against Australia, and five each against New Zealand and South Africa).

All they have left until the tour of South Africa are five Tests at home (two against Australia and three against New Zealand). Exhausting or not, meaningless or meaningful, these are the only opportunities the Indians will have.

There is, of course, the minor matter of the mega-volume Champions League Twenty20, which will feature nine Indians who are in and around the ODI team at the moment - Dhoni, Raina, Tendulkar, Zaheer, Murali Vijay, Harbhajan Singh, Praveen Kumar, Abhimanyu Mithun and Virat Kohli, in action from September 10 to 26.

Rather than have a carefully planned break and a thought-through campaign calendar, India must now move from event to event using band-aid, glue and hope.

With inputs from Madhusudan Ramakrishnan. Sharda Ugra is senior editor at Cricinfo