Fitness cannot be "compromised". That is the firm message India captain Virat Kohli has sent to the players who recently failed to clear to the fitness tests put in place by BCCI to be eligible for selection to the national team.
Two uncapped spinners - mystery spinner Varun Chakravarthy and leggie Rahul Tewatia - failed to clear one of the two norms that comprise the fitness test: either matching the 17:1 mark in the yo-yo test or running a two-kilometre time trial in 8 minutes and 15 seconds (for a fast bowler) or 8 minutes 30 seconds (for the rest).
Kohli, who has utilised fitness as a scaffolding to climb greater heights in the game, said that it was the responsibility of the individual player to maintain "high levels" of fitness in order to play for the country.
"Individuals have to understand and appreciate the kind of system that's been created for the Indian cricket team," Kohli said on Thursday during a media briefing. "We should operate at very high levels of fitness and skills."
Kohli was responding to a query on whether he was disappointed Chakravarthy has failed to work on his fitness ahead of India's five-match T20I series against England, having already missed out earlier when he was picked for India's T20I series in Australia but couldn't travel due to a shoulder injury.
There has been a perception in some quarters that players like Chakravarthy, Tewatia and other domestic players who are not part of the Indian set-up all the time could be cut some slack. Some of the players, who recently took the tests at the NCA, told ESPNcricinfo that if they had been informed in advance about the new fitness norms, they could have cleared the hurdles at the first time of asking with enough practice.
There is also a school of thought that holds that cricket primarily is a skill-based sport, and players should be given a bit more leeway as long as they have a base level of fitness. Kohli, however, disagreed. "There is a reason why this is the top of the ladder when it comes to playing cricket in our country," he said. "And, yeah, you would obviously expect players to abide by what's required to be a part of Team India. There should not be any space for any compromise in that regard."
In terms of fitness, India are still catching up with teams like New Zealand, Australia and England, where the targets are much tougher compared to those set by the BCCI, although the Indian board did recently upgrade its minimum fitness targets by raising the level of the yo-yo test from 16:1 to 17:1, and introducing the 2km time trial, which many other international cricket teams use as global fitness standard. These fitness norms were finalised by the national selectors, the team management and the National Cricket Academy, which is headed by former India captain Rahul Dravid.
@bhogleharsha he has more skills than most we have seen, but may be a few seconds slower in a sprint...I wonder how many greats of yesteryears, cricket would have lost, based on the current "standards"! https://t.co/JHV9nZBO2v— Venky Mysore (@VenkyMysore) March 11, 2021
Consequently, the BCCI asked the selectors to identify a pool of about 25 players, who would normally in the reckoning to play for India. These players were called by the NCA, which has the authority to conduct the fitness tests. Several of the players in India's T20I squad, including KL Rahul, Shreyas Iyer, Suryakumar Yadav, Ishan Kishan, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Deepak Chahar cleared the tests before they integrated with the Indian squad.
However, both Chakravarthy and Tewatia failed to clear the test at the first attempt. While Tewatia travelled to Ahmedabad (the venue for the T20I series), Chakravarthy's whereabouts could not be confirmed. It is likely that he is currently at the NCA in Bengaluru as ESPNcricinfo understands Chakaravarthy injured his shoulder again, after he was picked in the 19-member T20I squad for the England games.
Even T Natarajan, who became the first player to make international debuts across three formats in the same series on the Australian trip, is currently at the NCA doing rehabilitation for a niggle. It is understood the left-arm fast bowler will take the fitness test on March 12.
As far as Tewatia is concerned, he is likely to take a second fitness test in Ahmedabad before his fate is decided. In case he is unable to clear it again, it is likely he will stay with the squad as a net bowler, and be replaced by legspinner Rahul Chahar, who played a solitary T20I for India in 2019.
The BCCI has not yet officially made any announcement on the fitness status of Chakravarthy, Tewatia and Natarajan, nor named any replacement for the five-match T20I series that starts on Friday.
It is worth noting that Kohli's stress on fitness is not an isolated view in cricket. Recently, the West Indies selectors did not consider four players who had failed to reach the minimum fitness standards for the white-ball segment of their ongoing Sri Lanka series: Shimron Hetmeyer, Roston Chase, Sheldon Cottrell and Oshane Thomas. This is the second time Hetmeyer has failed the fitness test in a year, having missed the ODI series in Sri Lanka last February.
Nagraj Gollapudi is news editor at ESPNcricinfo