February 22, 2012

India must make fitness non-negotiable

For too long they have placed a premium on skills alone, but a lack of fitness can undermine the best skills

The tours to England and Australia have shaken India out of their comfort zone, forcing them to look into areas of their cricket that were never an issue for them. Fitness, for example.

India won the World Cup a year ago despite poor fitness standards, with only three of their 11 fielders actually meeting international fielding standards. This probably helped reinforce their thinking that if you have skills, you can be champions, no matter your fitness. But the visits to England and Australia have opened their eyes to the fact that low fitness can also embarrass you badly as an international team on the world stage.

The one important learning that India should take from their experiences in England and Australia is that they need to have a fitness policy with regard to the selection of their players. No matter how good your skills are, if you are overweight, unathletic, aged, and hence a liability in the field, you will just not make the cut as an India player.

And when I say fitness I don't mean the kind of fitness that India had issues with on that tour of England, when some players turned up to play international cricket only half-fit. I mean the fitness of an India player when he actually reports to the team management as 100% fit.

Apart from the obvious advantages that fitness brings in the field, which Dhoni very accurately and rightly pointed out after the Brisbane one-dayer against Australia, a strong fitness policy will give Indian selectors the ammunition to take clinical cricketing decisions. As we know, it's not quite as easy to drop an Indian star as Australia did Ricky Ponting from the one-dayers, on pure performance. An Australian selector knows he has the support of the team's fans when he takes decisions like this. For in Australia, performance, not the player, is king.

It's important that a fitness-led approach has the strong backing of the BCCI, for that will help an Indian selector tell angry fans that their hero was dropped because he did not meet the new fitness standards of Indian cricket. Indian selectors over the years have had to make many compromises with their selections, fearing backlashes from the media and fans, which alone, I feel, have hurt Indian cricket like nothing else.

We were all stunned last month when an ageing, unfit and out-of-form VVS Laxman was preferred over a young player for the Adelaide Test. Why did that happen? Only because of the stature of the player who had to be dropped. This, regrettably, is the reality of the Indian cricket culture.

To take a hypothetical example: if India had a strong fitness policy, for all his skills and runs Laxman would have started feeling the pressure as an India player three years ago. Why? On fitness grounds. If you remember, even when he was playing those wonderful, heroic innings for India, his back would routinely start giving up on him, and his knees were not helping his movements in the field either.

We were all stunned last month when an ageing, unfit and out-of-form VVS Laxman was preferred over a young player for the Adelaide Test. Why did that happen? Only because of the stature of the player who had to be dropped

If India had a long-established fitness policy, perhaps Laxman would have been forced to work harder on his fitness three years ago, and he may have turned a new leaf, appearing more sprightly on the field and in the batting crease than he did in England and Australia. Or he would have been dropped on grounds of fitness and a new, fitter No. 5 batsman would have taken his place. But as we saw in Adelaide, India did not have a fit VVS Laxman or a younger, fitter No. 5 batsman.

I have no doubt that Laxman would have handled England and Australia better if he was fitter - especially if he was lighter on his feet. To take a simple view of this, imagine a player being told by his coach to bat carrying a backpack weighing 10kg. The batsman would obviously reject the suggestion as ridiculous, because the excess weight will slow down his movements considerably, making him a sitting duck against top-quality attacks. Excess weight also puts more of a burden on an ageing spine, which then tends to stiffen up more often than it used to. This results in a batsman being late on his shots, especially the ones that need him to bend forward. I have always found that ageing batsmen struggle more against balls that are pitched up rather than ones that are short of a length.

If India embraces a fitness policy today, it would start to make the likes of Virender Sehwag and Zaheer Khan squirm right away. An R Ashwin, for all his skills and promise, would be working desperately hard on his fitness today rather than on his carrom ball.

Among all countries Australia, I believe, have the best approach to cricket and success in the sport. Fitness for them is like breathing - natural and deep-rooted in their cricketing culture, where an unfit cricketer, for all his skills, will never make the grade. Australia were uncharacteristically patient with the ageing Michael Hussey and Ponting because it was only their batting form that was in question, not their fitness.

Skills do matter in the game. Pakistan won a World Cup with low fielding and fitness standards, and in Australia at that. The same can be said about Sri Lanka, who won in 1996, when they were led by a man who often walked his runs. But the teams that rose to the top and stayed there for a decade and more were teams that had fitness, alongside skills, as a non-negotiable in their cricket.

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on February 24, 2012, 19:02 GMT

    Coming from someone who did not field well himself!!! What a tall claim.

  • Srinivas on February 24, 2012, 15:04 GMT

    ......and Gavaskar would have never been allowed to be a cricketer.

  • ashutosh on February 24, 2012, 11:58 GMT

    Love you Mr. Sanjay for this article . A great eye opener it is ! So much to say that a Sehwag , a Gavaskar , an Inzi , a Gaunguly , an Ambrose, a Walsh , a Laxman , a Ranatunga , an Aravinda , an Akhtar , a Cullinan , and many more "MERE LEGENDS", would have not made into any arena concerned with cricket and the ecstasy of their elegance might not have ever rubbed through our imagination even .. But that's okay, since they would have been replaced by a brighter Kaif, Raina , Rohit Sharma, Parthiv ,Munaf , Jadeja , or any other ,u know," FITTER " character , right on Sir !

    Loved the way you wrote about the legends.. A 281 against the champion team is like a cake-walk. You are down in pain and save a match,not just once, but that would have been done by a Raina too, on a bouncy track , as he could have sprinted for those runs much faster right ?

    And how dare a constant performer not perform in the last one year! Kick his butt out of the arena and tell him, I have a Rohit here man!

  • Dummy4 on February 24, 2012, 11:22 GMT

    Most people here seem to have little understanding of the game and what Manjreker has mentioned. I agree with him 100% in the sense that players must be identified as fit individuals in first place.

    Wake up guys.. Why do you think teams like SA and Aus have always performed better than us?? They field like Cheetah's and save those vital runs, not to mention the crucial run outs...

    Yes, skills are important else a team like Newzealand that also boosts of fit players and high quality fielders would have dominated us.

    The point therefore is to have a blend of the two.. lets say if fitness skill ratio is 2:8 right now.. it needs to be atleast at 4:6


  • Anirudh on February 24, 2012, 3:52 GMT

    95% of indians are poor athletes because of the food culture and lifestyle in India. Most Indians have grown up eating rice which is a really bad habit for a an athlete. Rice is just carbohydrates and nothing else. You may get strong eating but you are going to be sluggish and slow....That is the main reason most athletes in India are also not able to compete in the world stage...

  • Dummy4 on February 24, 2012, 2:28 GMT

    I agree to this point upto a certain level, but the same Manjrekar who has held the mic and pen for such a long time failed to observe this ftiness saga almost for a decade, and nevertheless, indian team's fitness has never been at the peak. Just because, there has been a continuous downfall overseas, everyone has an unique eye of looking at things, and talking about things in a happenign way. Why did not the same Manjrekar talk about this all these years, when he has pointed out Laxman's ftness level three years ago from now?

  • Dummy4 on February 24, 2012, 2:16 GMT

    would like to ask one question to many who said fitness save 20 runs...was it not jadeja who misfielded last time india played..was it not rohit sharma who dropped two catches the last time he played...

  • Dummy4 on February 23, 2012, 22:17 GMT

    Sanjay is correct with this article, most of the indian players are very slow and poor in the field. The only talent i see heading into the future for india are the youngsters, but not all of them have shown signs of power, strength and agility. So far its Jadeja, Kohli and Raina who have caught my eye. We see very sharp fielding skills from them. I have yet to see other youngsters prove themselves.

    It is no secret that the indian fielders cannot sprint very quick in comparison to english and australian players, watch carefully how quickly out fielders latch onto a ball and most of the time chase it down. This is not the case with indian fielders, they struggle to save boundaries. Observe next time india play, you will see i am right. The same is of pakistan. Sprinting generally isnt quick from subcontinent teams.

  • Nikhil on February 23, 2012, 22:01 GMT

    Fitness is a well defined scientifically measured entity. It has 3 components, 1 strength, 2 stamina and 3 flexibility. It is too late for a player in the Indian cricket to address the fitness issue, it starts from the grass roots in high school and college. In the recent Asian and commonwealth games India won a combined 164 medals and by 2022 games the count is going to about 300 plus. Ten percent of those as a rule of thumb can be won in the Olympics. In order to prepare for the Olympics and other sports like Cricket, there has to be a national body addressing the needs of fitness at the grassroots. Our physical education programs in schools and colleges are in complete shambles and need to improve on fitness of younger generation. A national wide fitnees awareness is also a need and they can join the labor force, the armed forces or Sports.

  • giri on February 23, 2012, 20:09 GMT

    Only Dhoni and few young players are fit, the rest are just paw baji guys, fit for nothing and we can see them on the field how they run between the wickets.

  • No featured comments at the moment.