August 23, 2010

In quest of a perfect itinerary

If a cricketer plays four series of three Tests and three ODIs each, a month more of limited-overs, the IPL, the Champions League, and a World Cup in a year, he could still have 12 weeks off

How much is too much? What constitutes a sensible itinerary? How do we make sense of the numbers? With matches in the tri-series in Dambulla being played only every third day, there has been plenty of time for such questions to be asked, especially in the light of an alleged letter being sent by a disgruntled team management to the Indian cricket board's leading lights.

The BCCI, which could teach an ostrich a thing or two about going incognito in the sand, responded as it usually does. It played the "we-don't-force-anyone-to-play" card. "If any player is feeling tired or fatigued, or if he feels that he would not be able perform due to some illness, then he must inform the selector," said Rajiv Shukla. "BCCI policy is very clear. We will give the player rest. We are not forcing any player to participate in the series."

So are India's cricketers whingeing for no reason? The numbers might suggest so. But we also need to address the elephant in the room - the Indian Premier League.

MS Dhoni and Michael Hussey are team-mates at the Chennai Super Kings, who won the trophy earlier this year. Over the last two years Hussey has played 52 more days of international cricket. But while Dhoni has played 27 IPL games in that period, Mr Cricket's tally is just three.

There are those who say that bowling four overs in a Twenty20 game is no big deal, and neither is scoring a 20-ball 50. In terms of physical exertion, they're probably right, but the IPL doesn't sap players on the field as much as it does away from it. Forget the much-maligned parties, which are probably a thing of the past anyway. Think instead of a 14-game schedule (16 if you make the final) and at least 15 flights, some of them taking as long as London-Moscow. Imagine several 6am wake-up calls, appearances for sponsors, and life in a fishbowl for six weeks.

The players usually have less than a week to prepare for it, and for the last two years, as soon as it's wrapped up, they've headed off to the World Twenty20. A bilateral series can last longer - Australia's players were in England four months during the Ashes last year - but the travel involved is negligible compared to that in the IPL. Apart from tours of Australia and India, where the distances can be vast, or inter-island travel in the Caribbean, international cricket these days is a picnic.

Next month you have the Champions League in South Africa. The schedule is such that merely reading it can leave you dizzy. Six or seven Twenty20 games may not seem much, but it's what goes on before and after the matches that will leave players seeking a deckchair once it's over.

The crux of the matter is this. The IPL and the Champions League expose players to the sort of riches that they can seldom dream of while playing for their countries. Expecting them to say no to IPL riches, even in an off season, when they should be resting, is plain hypocritical. How many of us would turn down a job offer if there was 10 or 20 times as much money on the table?

When I spoke to Hussey during Australia's tour of India in 2008, he addressed the issue of player burn-out. "I think that's a huge challenge for administrators in the future. I don't think a player can sustain that sort of schedule for very long and I really hope we can sort it out. We don't want to lose great players to Twenty20 early, and we don't want to lose them from the game altogether. You want to see the players like Hayden, Murali, Ponting and Flintoff for as long as you possibly can."

What cricket and the IPL haven't been able to do is offer a player a clearly defined calendar. Regardless of whether you play football for Barcelona or Blackpool, you know that you'll start pre-season training in July, and that the ordeal ends the following May

Apart from Ponting, the other three are no longer part of the international cricket caravan. Hayden and Murali may still play more IPL, while for Flintoff even that appears to be a pipe dream. The impact of itineraries on fast bowlers like him is a debate for another day, but there's little doubt that either he or Shane Bond would have been able to afford to leave the big stage without the security blanket that IPL contracts provided.

What cricket and the IPL haven't been able to do is offer a player a clearly defined calendar. Regardless of whether you play football for Barcelona or Blackpool, you know that you'll start pre-season training in July, and that the ordeal ends the following May. Every two years the summer break means either a World Cup or a European Championship for those fortunate enough to be involved.

Finding an itinerary acceptable to players, administrators, sponsors and fans alike is hardly as difficult as solving Fermat's last theorem. The traditionalists want to see enough Test cricket, and the new breed of fan wants limited-overs entertainment. The broadcasters want enough cricket on TV to get their money back. The ideal itinerary, therefore, has to cater to all these needs.

Working with the guidelines provided by the Future Tours Programme, we can factor in four three-Test series for each team every year, two at home and two away. If the Tests are played back-to-back as they tend to be these days, and you have three one-day games spread over a week before or after them, the entire series lasts just a month. If you want to provide players more breathing space, it takes five weeks. So, in a maximum of 20 weeks, a team would have played 12 Tests and 12 ODIs.

Set aside a month for another dozen games in coloured clothes, either of the tri-nation variety or of the seven-match vintage favoured by the BCCI when entertaining Australia. That takes you to 24 weeks on the calendar. Add in six weeks of the IPL - like it or lump it, it's not going away - and three more for the Champions League. The total comes to 33 weeks.

Even with an interminably long World Cup - the last one was a seven-week slog - that still leaves a player who plays all three formats with 12 weeks off. It gives them time for a long holiday and, vitally, for pre-season training that drastically reduces the chances of breaking down.

There will be exceptions. The Ashes are contested over five Tests, while the Pataudi Trophy next summer will feature four. But these "extras" are possible because teams like India and Australia rarely play more than two Tests against the likes of Bangladesh. With the long, leisurely tour a thing of the past, an extra Test or two scarcely makes a big difference.

All it needs for such a schedule to be implemented is some will and foresight from administrators. Indian players aren't fatigued because they play too much. They're worn out because there's no way to plan a season, with tours added and removed on a whim. Instead of an itinerary as badly laid out as the streets of a shanty town, what's required is a little order and method. If there's a Hercule Poirot in the BCCI, now's the time for him to step forward.

Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at Cricinfo

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