December 5, 2011

Harbhajan's injured? Go figure

Would his condition have come to light if he had been picked for the Australia tour? And why does the BCCI manage player injuries so poorly?

I am a little surprised the news that Harbhajan Singh was dropped from the tour of Australia and then missed his next Ranji Trophy game because of a shin injury didn't make the headlines it should have. A week later, we learn he may be out for a long time because the scans have revealed the injury is a lot more serious than it was originally thought to be.

The obvious question here is: what if Harbhajan had been selected for the tour of Australia? Before the squad was picked, his form had been an issue, not his fitness. So it is fair to assume that had he been selected, he would possibly have made the trip to Australia carrying an injury serious enough to call for long-term rehabilitation.

The way I see it, the injury has come to light now because Harbhajan decided to get the scan done now. The question is, would he have done the scan if he was in the squad for Australia?

India's management of their players' fitness has left a lot to be desired over the years. It was an important reason why Indian cricket was humiliated in England earlier this year. If the curious case of Harbhajan's injury is ignored by the authorities and allowed to pass, an important lesson will not have been learned from the England tour.

However, it has to be said the selectors are handling Zaheer Khan's current fitness issue and his comeback to international cricket quite professionally, and they should be complimented for it. Though I daresay it might not have been dealt with this way had it not been for England. Now that they seem to be on the right track with Zaheer, they should tackle Harbhajan's injury with the same attitude.

For some time now we know there has been a convenient, unspoken arrangement between players and cricket boards with regard to excessive cricket. Players who wanted to give their very best for their country in every game but felt the prevailing international schedule made it impossible for them to do so, realised their complaints were falling on deaf ears as cricket was being driven by its market and the administrators were seemingly powerless to stop the juggernaut.

So the players took a more pragmatic approach. Instead of taking on the boards to get the right balance between rest and play, they started taking their own "rest" and "injury" breaks, while their nation's cricket marched on. The boards obliged, as long as the series was played and their commitment to television to play a certain number of matches in a year was honoured. Indian TV companies wanted the Indian cricket team to play a certain number of matches and the composition of that team did not matter all that much to them. So it was a win-win situation.

The established players started getting their much-needed breaks and India were still playing the required number of matches. The problem of excessive cricket taking its toll on star players was largely solved, because although India were playing a lot of International cricket, barring a couple or so, the rest of the top Indian stars were never as busy as the Indian team was. All they had to do was raise their hands and be promptly given their leave of absence. But this convenient arrangement led to an undesirable culture: of players deciding when they were fit and when not, rather than the decision being left to the coach or the board.

Kevin Pietersen was not happy when he was rested for the one-dayers after a successful Test series against India, but that decision was taken because the ECB thought it was in the best interest of England's cricket.

Harbhajan is unfit today because he decided to raise his hand now and excuse himself. If he had been in the squad to Australia, the injury may not have come to light in time. Where are the interests of Indian cricket amidst all this?

09:45 GMT, Dcember 4: Amendments were made in the third and last paragraphs of this piece

Former India batsman Sanjay Manjrekar is a cricket commentator and presenter on TV. His Twitter feed is here

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