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News Analysis

Failing fitness tests by seconds is not a simple numbers game

It's a complex and multi-layered problem. Should it be so strictly applied and is it the only or best measure of these things?

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
31-Jan-2023
Dane van Niekerk celebrates the wicket of Heather Knight, England v South Africa, ICC Women's T20 World Cup, Perth, February 23 2020

This is the fittest Dané van Niekerk has ever been but it's not enough by the recent standards set by CSA  •  Getty Images

What difference can 18 seconds make?
It's the time you may have taken to read that question eight, maybe nine times; or to decide you don't want to read and click onto another page (but please don't!); the time a train going at 25kph takes to pass through a 162 metre station and, if you believe the 1984 edition of the Annals of Internal Medicine, the time it takes for a doctor to interrupt a patient who is describing their own symptoms. In South African cricket, it's the difference between having the country's captain, and one of the icon players of their golden generation, Dané van Niekerk in the T20 World Cup squad, or out of it.
Van Niekerk will not feature at the home World Cup because she over-ran her two-kilometre time trial by 18 seconds, which was a personal best for her but not good enough for the standard South African cricket has set. They require their female players to complete the distance in 9 minutes and 30 seconds (a minute more than the male players' requirement), and 30 seconds faster than the previous standard of 10:00, which was only a guide and not a strict criterion which could cost players their places in squads.
In winter 2022, Cricket South Africa (CSA) believed it needed fitter players to keep up with the growing demands of the game, specifically T20 cricket, and it has since been obligatory for any player who aims to be eligible for national selection to meet what is called the fitness benchmark, which covers running, strength and body composition.
Van Niekerk has not played for South Africa in that time. She was first out with a lower-back injury and then a broken ankle, which kept her out of last year's 50-over World Cup. Since then, she has trained with the national team on several occasions and taken the fitness test, with improving results on almost every occasion. She has lost 10 kilograms since the Hundred last August and reached her weight and skin folds benchmark. She passed her strength test, and was then given until last Friday to meet the running requirement. She fell 18 seconds short.
"Absolutely broken," is how she described her state of mind on social media, when the squad was announced. That, ESPNcricinfo understands, has led to serious considerations about the international future for both her and her wife Marizanne Kapp. Kapp has already withdrawn from South Africa's last competitive game before the T20 World Cup, the tri-series final against India on Thursday, and there are concerns that she may not be at her best, mentally, as the World Cup approaches.
That is the last thing the national women's team need as they head into a tournament where their own management has set them a goal of reaching the final, without four senior players. Of those, at least three are absent because of the administration and two of those three because of the way the fitness standards are applied.
Lizelle Lee walked away from international cricket last year after she was dropped from the team on their tour of the United Kingdom for failing to meet her weight requirement. Lee feared that CSA would not give her a No-Objection Certificate (NOC) to play in the Hundred and retired instead, which gave her free agency to play in leagues. She has since relocated to Australia. Van Niekerk could go exactly the same way, if she suspects she won't be given an NOC for the Women's Premier League (WPL) for example, and CSA is thought to be concerned that both her and Kapp might.
Lee also claimed that CSA did not do anything to assist her weight loss and there are rumblings of van Niekerk facing similar issues. While she has been in a few national team camps and she was most recently with the T20I squad in East London, where they are playing the tri-series against India and West Indies, it was on Kapp's bill. Insiders say van Niekerk was not involved in any of the squad's training sessions and was left to work on her own, and only saw management when she was called for the fitness test.
But Lee's case is precisely the reason why CSA could not bend the rules for van Niekerk, even though she is the fittest she has ever been. That would have led to accusations of favouritism and inconsistent standards. Their new, rigid way of employing the fitness criteria leaves no wriggle room which, as Herschelle Gibbs put it, if "you miss it by 2 or 10 sec it's a fail irrespective of who you are."
Should it be this way? Dale Steyn's counter on Twitter - that missing the two kilometre mark by "seconds, must mean I'm s***" - was delivered sarcastically but not without weight. Of course he isn't. And neither is van Niekerk.
She is South Africa's second-highest T20I run-scorer, behind only Lee, and since her T20I debut in June 2009, only Shabnim Ismail and Kapp have taken more T20I wickets than her. As an allrounder in the current set-up, she is unmatched and is the only South African woman to have scored more than 1500 runs and taken more than 50 wickets in women's T20Is.
She is also a galvanising leader, under whom South Africa have achieved some of their best results (such as reaching the 2017 World Cup semi-final) and has taken teams at the Hundred and the WBBL to titles. She is tactically astute, reads the game well and has that big-match temperament. In other words, she's a player you want for an occasion like a World Cup, especially one at home, where she is one of the most recognisable faces of the women's game, and even more so because depth is a concern in the South African squad.
The other players not part of this tournament are Mignon du Preez, who retired in December last year to start a family, and Trisha Chetty, who has a long-standing back problem. Du Preez would have been interested in a T20-only contract but CSA's contracts for women cover both white-ball formats so she had no option but to leave entirely. She still intends on playing some T20 cricket and has put her name in the WPL auction. But her situation is another example of where CSA could show some flexibility, especially as more players opt for one-format contracts to find room to play in more lucrative T20 leagues.
Ultimately, that is the reason they have set the minimum standard: to have some form of oversight into how their players are performing against what they believe are improving global standards from which they have fallen behind. At some point, all of India, England and Australia used 8:30 as a two-kilometre time trial as a benchmark for their male players, and there's a reason for it. Elite athletes are expected to have a certain level of aerobic ability in order to ensure they have endurance and can recover quickly from maximum exertions. Meeting that criteria also shows a level of discipline. But should it be so strictly applied that a player - the captain and arguably best player no less - passes all other tests and misses just one and is out? And is that kind of testing the only or best measure of fitness?
Ask van Niekerk and she will likely say no, because she had played her entire career before this running more than the 9:48 she managed last week, and the rules were not strict enough to leave her out then. She is now fitter than she has ever been but CSA demands that she becomes even fitter than she is now. Ask them, and they'll point to how other players have done it. Ask other sportspeople and fitness experts and you'll find a range of opinions over the most effective fitness tests and how they should be applied. This is not a simple numbers game but a complex and multi-layered problem with no easy answer, except that for now, 18 seconds have separated van Niekerk from her World Cup dream.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent