Following India's demoralising defeats in the first two Tests of the England series, Paddy Upton, their former mental conditioning coach, has suggested that the increasingly relentless schedules could be draining the players and leaving them with little mental energy. Upton feels that there is little understanding of the "mental fatigue" a player goes through if he is on the conveyor belt all the time and that not only ends up reducing the quality of cricket but also results in situations such as those experienced by India's players during the World Cup, when they struggled to keep their food down and Yuvraj Singh was physically sick because of the anxiety.
"The current schedules ask players to be machines," Upton told ESPNcricinfo from South Africa. "We can guess the physical impact on players but what is very little understood is the mental fatigue the players experience when crossing the ropes in every single game where there is that much amount of pressure."
By the end of the England series, India would have played seven Tests in a span of nine weeks. This comes on the back of a lengthy and high-pressure World Cup followed, just six days, later by the IPL that lasted a further seven weeks. Upton feels preparing for the World Cup and then working through the plans diligently had taken a large toll on the India players and without a suitable break, many of the players would have remained vulnerable to injury or a drop in performance.
"That World Cup was a monumental process, both preparing for the tournament and enduring it for seven weeks. It was a very, very long tournament. The physical drain on the players, I don't think even the players realise the extent to which they were absolutely stuffed. I spoke to Yuvraj Singh who said he was sick for nearly two weeks after the World Cup and I know there were a lot of players who were mentally down after the World Cup."
The troubles for India started long before the tour of England. Virender Sehwag opted for shoulder surgery only after his IPL team, Delhi Daredevils, were eliminated from play-off contention. Gautam Gambhir picked up an injury in the World Cup final but that was only revealed during the knockout stage of the IPL. Sehwag was ruled out until at least the third Test of the England series while Gambhir missed out on the Caribbean tour.
The troubles didn't end there either. In less than a month in England, India have been knocked cold by a combination of a general loss of form and injuries to key players. Zaheer Khan left the field at Lord's on the first day of the series and Gambhir injured his left elbow while fielding and was declared unfit for the second Test. Then Yuvraj Singh and Harbhajan Singh picked up injuries in the second Test that have ruled both of them out for the rest of the series.
If that wasn't enough, there is the issue of form, especially in MS Dhoni's case. India's captain walked out to bat at Lord's and Trent Bridge only to return to the dressing room in a matter of minutes each time. Adding to his woes is his unconvincing glove work behind the stumps.
Dhoni said that the inability of his batsmen to stay at the wicket has exacerbated the workload on the fast bowling trio of Ishant Sharma, Praveen Kumar and Sreesanth. Though Zaheer Khan is expected to return for the third Test at Edgbaston, starting August 10, it remains to be seen whether he can go full throttle or will have to bowl within himself.
"It is an ideal situation for sponsors and for the revenue streams to have so much cricket, but it is not ideal for the quality of the product"
According to Upton, the need of the moment is to understand exactly why the India ship has suddenly found itself listing in high seas. "The team knows what to do and how to win, and are good enough to bounce back. By giving players so much cricket, there is a potential of diluting the quality of the product. We are possibly seeing the evidence of it now."
Upton said the Indian board was responsive to many of the suggestions made by him and Gary Kirsten, who was the head coach from 2008 through the World Cup. Most of those requests had to do with keeping the players in peak shape. "The Indian board accepted suggestions like allowing players to go home between Test matches while in India, allowing players to miss games during ODI series, so strategically resting players certain times," Upton said. "That went some way to alleviating the mental and physical fatigue of players."
Still, a player like Dhoni has barely had a break over the last few years, mostly because as captain and one of the country's most in demand celebrities, sponsors would like him to be on the team's roster no matter how important a series might be. "It is an ideal situation for sponsors and for the revenue streams to have so much cricket, but it is not ideal for the quality of the product," Upton said. "It seems there are other things that are dictating the schedules."