Rohit Sharma injury debacle: Should we get used to players prioritising IPL over bilateral series?

Time we accepted players will try their best to play for the country but won't sacrifice IPL for it

Sidharth Monga
Sidharth Monga
Rohit Sharma picked up the injury during the game against Kings XI Punjab on October 18  •  BCCI

Rohit Sharma picked up the injury during the game against Kings XI Punjab on October 18  •  BCCI

Now that we know reliably that Rohit Sharma is still about two weeks of rehab away from being "70-80% ready" for Test cricket, there will be questions raised over the BCCI's handling of the injury. Apart from the obvious issue of a practically absent communications wing, that is.
A quick recap might be in order. During IPL 2020, Sharma pulled out of four games with a hamstring injury. India's squads for Australia, selected during this period, didn't include him, which in a logical world would have meant an end to his IPL. However, he kept training and returned for the final three matches of a dominant Mumbai Indians campaign. As a result, the BCCI said that he was added to the squad for the Tests - still more than a month away - provided he went to the NCA and proved his fitness.
Ten days later, he is still not considered anywhere near fit enough for the rigours of Test cricket. Add to it the complications that arise from the need for a hard quarantine - unlike a soft quarantine for those who flew out from the IPL bubble in the UAE - for two weeks, and he is practically out of the whole tour.
There were enough hints in the squads selection for the Australia tour, and in the interviews of national coach Ravi Shastri and the BCCI president Sourav Ganguly that the board didn't want Sharma to make a comeback during the IPL. Both Shastri and Ganguly said, based on what they had seen in the reports from the medical team, that this could have implications beyond the Australia tour. It was also clear from Sharma's comeback, and all his and his IPL team's - incidentally just as hazy as the BCCI's - communications that he wanted to play the playoffs at the IPL and also make himself available for the Australia tour.
As a centrally contracted player, Sharma is the BCCI's employee all year round. So the first and foremost question is, why did the board have to take the passive-aggressive route of interviews in the press and not just pull him out of the IPL? They knew pretty well the nature of the injury and the logistics of this pandemic-ridden world. Hamstrings heal with rest and rehab. Playing during that period not only doesn't allow rest and rehab but can also potentially set your recovery further back.
As a result, the BCCI is on the verge of losing Sharma for an international tour. One can argue whether Sharma had nailed a regular spot in India's first Test XI, especially overseas, before a calf injury ruled him out of the New Zealand tour earlier this year, but Virat Kohli's absence did create room for a batsman, especially one with international experience. That is not the point, though. This is a clear case of the IPL taking priority over India's international cricket.
This could well have been someone much more instrumental to India's chances in the Tests. Bhuvneshwar Kumar in 2018 is a good example: he was just the seam and swing bowler India needed in England, but the board couldn't make Sunrisers Hyderabad go easy with him in the lead-up to the tour. A Sunrisers official had confirmed to ESPNcricinfo at that time that they were under no instructions from the BCCI to manage the workload of Kumar, who was struggling with a lower-back injury, which eventually ruled him out of the Tests at a time when even Jasprit Bumrah was injured. It is in stark contrast to Cricket Australia and the ECB, who micro-manage their players' workloads even when they are under the charge of their IPL teams.
However, you can't put all the blame on the board no matter the optics. The IPL is the BCCI's tournament: it has to make every effort to make its superstars available to the IPL teams. In terms of the revenue it brings to the BCCI, the IPL is bigger than any international cricket. So while the board can't do anything if a player wants to protect himself for an international tour, in the practical world, it can't really force Sharma to sit out when he is so visibly keen to play out the IPL.
Nor is it that Sharma played out the IPL because of some financial greed. It is perhaps time to wake up to the high regard the players, and indeed the fans, hold the IPL in. It is the most-watched tournament in the world, bigger than any Test series and even the World Cup. These cricketers are performers and want to perform in front of the biggest audience possible. It doesn't mean they don't want to be tested in the most comprehensive format of the game, just that they are not willing to sacrifice for it as much as some lovers of Test cricket might want them to.
"With what has emerged about the injury now, it can be argued that the quickest possible way to put Sharma back on the park was to take him to Australia from the UAE. That would have allowed him to continue his rehab and training even when in quarantine."
Nine years ago, Virender Sehwag delayed his shoulder surgery to play out the IPL and turned up uncooked for the Tests in England, which India lost 0-4. He was not the only one to spark outrage. Sachin Tendulkar retired without a Test series win in the West Indies because he chose to rest during that tour in 2011, and not the IPL that preceded it, in order to be ready for the England tour. Nine years on, it is perhaps time we normalised not prioritising Tests over IPL. At any rate, prioritising Tests is a luxury only three boards can afford. For years now, West Indies and New Zealand players have been turning up practically a couple of days prior to their respective Test series.
Just like the players, the best that can be expected of the BCCI is a balancing act, which became even more difficult because of the Covid-19 pandemic. With what has emerged about the injury now, it can be argued that the quickest possible way to put Sharma back on the park was to take him to Australia from the UAE. That would have allowed him to continue his rehab and training even when in quarantine. We don't know if he really needed to see an expert outside the team set-up to arrive at the assessment that we know now. This is an important question, among others (see sidebar), that the BCCI should ask itself: could it have acted more decisively and saved those two precious weeks of rehab?
Of course, better communication - not just with the fans but also with each other - would have saved a lot of unnecessary speculation, but this kind of an impasse is something you better get used to in order to avoid repeated disappointment if you want your cricketers to place Test cricket on a pedestal or if you are the nationalistic kind and place bilateral limited-overs internationals over a much more competitive and prestigious T20 league.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo