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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Mark on August 25, 2010, 4:43 GMT

    Here's a different angle from NZ: There has not been a 5-test series invovling NZ for I don't know how long. Why? Because the NZ team is not interesting or competitive. Add the Windies, Bangers and to a lesser degree Pakistan into the same boat and you have 4 test playing nations who will be neither competitive over 5 tests nor interesting to watch. Even NZ supporters get bored with the Bangers and Windies.

    The only teams who will generate enough interest and competition for 5-test series are Aus, India, Saffers, Sri Lanka and England and only playing each other.

    So 3-test series' should be the aim with the option of 5 for those who want them.

    ODI's will have to go in the near future and T20I's will take over. The ODI WC is too drawn out and must go. With no ODI WC, there is no point in playing ODI's at all.

    Here's my annual international intinary as a minimum: 4 x 3-test series (with 3yearly test championship, top 2 play off) 4 x 3 T20 series IPL Champs League T20 WC

  • aaditya on August 24, 2010, 18:29 GMT

    i do agree with the writer,we often forget the travelling done by the players..i remember watching a report on a news channel when maybe england came to india to play a series of one-dayeers..the schedule was such that the teams wud play a game in delhi then fly to chennai and then back to mohali for the next match..this sort of mindless travelling should be not just tires the players but also is not environment-friendly!! as far as wokload is considered there is a good point to notice the density of playing days..india-SL played 3 back2back tests..this never happened earlier..for 3 months the schedule would be absolutely packed,then suddenly there will be a break and everyone generally goes out of form..australian schedules are gud,well 2007-08,india played pak in a test at bangalore in december and 15 days later boxing day match against 2011, ipl follows WC,after which india travel to eng for test series!! wud love to see more 5 match series!!

  • Chetan on August 24, 2010, 14:19 GMT

    Dilip, I understand what you are trying to bring out here - but please tell Dhoni & co. to cut the c**p. They are all paid to perform. If they are really good & need a break, there is no law in the world that requires them to keep themselves available (Sachin does take breaks). The only problem is - Karthik, Raina, Kohli & Roihit Sharma know they are less than ideal & therefore, concerned that if they declare themselves unavailable, the replacement (Uthapa, Tiway & Raidu) might perform. If that happens, it would be difficult for them to come back, replacing a performing player. It is therefore more convenient to require a reduction in matches, eliminating the scope for competition from other players who might perform.

  • Prashant on August 23, 2010, 20:34 GMT

    I am not sure if I understand/agree with the calculations. Let me try. My estimate is that each series will require 6 weeks (1 week per test + 1 week for 3 ODIs + 1 week for 2-3 T20s + 1 week to reach the away location early and get acclimatized or 1 week conditioning camp for home series). If there are four such series, that would be 24 weeks. Add to that 6 weeks of IPL, 4 weeks of Champions Trophy (again, this is an away event for most players and travel/acclimatization time is needed), and we are at 34 weeks. Then we have the T20 World Cup every other year and the ODI world cup every four years. Depending on the year, add 3 weeks or 7 weeks, for 37-41 weeks. Finally, consider that the calendar assumed by Dilip and by me above includes a total of 12 ODIs. I believe the "typical" number of ODIs tends to be closer to 20-24 per year. Adding 12 ODIs will require another 4 weeks. So, we are now at 41-45 weeks!! This will leave between 7-11 weeks of down time!!!! Not much, I'd say.

  • Dummy4 on August 23, 2010, 19:51 GMT

    I think we need to understand that what a cricketer constitutes as work has greatly changed. While Hussey played more days of cricket he didn't have to jet-set around the country to shoot commercials, attend parties, appear at brand launches etc etc.

    Indian cricketers can make as much 10 times the money through endorsements, as they do by playing cricket.

    If all of us had 2 jobs. The first requires over 100 days of work and practice etc. You also have to deal with immense pressure and constant media and public scrutiny. The other one puts you on TV as a hero, you are adored and apart from occasionally appearing a little silly there is not much in terms of responsibility. And oh yes, you work 30-40 days days year and get paid 10 times more than your first job. The only requirement, you have to keep your first job.

    If you had 2 such jobs, which one would you complain about?

  • Wim on August 23, 2010, 15:55 GMT

    Good article. But when will the authorities act? I fear they won't. I do not totally agree with the three test system. Tests, as others have already pointed out, are best pkayed out over a five game series. This is when all the tension and strengths and frailties are exposed and it is the main ingredient of the whole exercise.

  • Neil on August 23, 2010, 15:32 GMT

    A good discussion point raised by Dileep's article. The international game is being diluted by too many series - India playing Aus and SL every year, and likewise Eng vs Aus every year (Why another ODI series in 2010 after 7 interminable games in 2009???). If the big teams played each other every two years, both fans and players will retain a better interest, and there will be more time for players to rest and have a normal family life for a few extra weeks. As for the IPL and the Ch League, they should be reduced to 4 and 2 weeks respectfully.

  • Roger on August 23, 2010, 15:25 GMT

    The workload of a specific player must also be considered. Dhoni as a captain, keeper and batsman has lot more workload than Hussey. If you think a fast bowler and spinner who play the same number of days in a year have the same workload, then something is wrong. Adam Gilchrist had much more work to do in the field than a Langer or Mark Waugh. Dhoni's complaints on workload is perfectly valid considering his triple roles (captain, batsman and keeper) in tests, one-dayers, T20 and IPL.

  • Harsh on August 23, 2010, 14:11 GMT

    EXACTLY your thoughts exactly of normal Cricket fan. It provides enough space to each format and each players. I don't know why we are still playing trilateral matches. Let say it was played in late 90's and early 2000's a lot. But at that time there was no Champions league or IPL. Then why are we still playing meaning less trinations and ridiculous ODI mini-world cup Champions trophy. I am still against Country vs. Country t20. Bangla recently starting their home domestic league. and almost every other nation have it by now. Then shouldn't we stop playing that too and keep it for domestic. I want OLD MSD back who use to chew yorker length bowl and spit it out of the ground. You can't do that if you are tired. Players are not going to protest. Because its like patient comes to Dr. and Dr. will never say no saying I am tired. BCCI wake up. This is the solution. 3 test 3 ODI (4 series) WC IPL Champions league. Thats it. You will also see injuries disappear. Good players will retain magic

  • Sriram on August 23, 2010, 13:54 GMT

    NO ODIs, just T20 and TEST and T20 should be only Franchaisee..howzzzthat?

  • No featured comments at the moment.