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