Are players at this IPL as fit as they need to be?

Antonio Cassano, the former Italy striker, battled weight problems for most of his career. “When I eat pasta, bread, sweets, ham, I am happy…when you eat good things you get fat,” said Cassano in his autobiography ‘Dico Tutto’. Cassano was once told by an AC Milan official that he must lose weight before he could play for them. IPL13 has shown up a few ‘Cassanos’—cricketers who haven’t, let’s just say, looked like the paradigm of athleticism. “I am pretty shocked to see some players in #IPL2020 looking so unfit. I can’t think of another physical sport where players at the highest level could cope with these fitness levels,” said Viren Rasquinha, the former India hockey player, on Twitter.

But does cricket need the six-pack ripple that we have come to associate with most other sports, like football? What fitness means for elite cricketers has undergone a significant shift in the last decade or so; it is hard to now even imagine a portly Arjuna Ranatunga commanding the 22 yards the way he did in his pomp.

With better understanding that it is a physical sport needing more than endurance, cricket’s made significant strides in getting players fitter, faster and stronger. “Now, you need athleticism and skill to survive,” says Lalchand Rajput, the former Mumbai Indians coach who is now with Zimbabwe. Data shows a fast bowler in Tests can run 20-25 km every day, the corresponding number for ODIs being 12-15km. To prepare players, national teams including India use GPS vests to mine real time data. Cricket fitness now means plyometrics, Olympic lifts, and carefully tailored recovery work and nutrition. Swimming as an off-season activity, 5km runs as part of training are common and beep and Yo-Yo tests are no longer hard sells.

The 8 to 12-week pre-season routine now commonly looks like this: A 45-60 minute strength and conditioning session, followed by skills training for one to two hours and ending the day with 30-40 minutes in the gym. Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) have even hired Olympic sprinter Chris Donaldson as strength and conditioning coach. “Even during quarantine, he didn’t give us free time,” says KKR skipper Dinesh Karthik.

If washboard abs are part of a cricketer’s make-up, why the expanding waistline? The short answer: enforced laziness due to Covid-19 lockdowns. “I am certainly not throwing stones about people’s shape. Around the cricketing world, I think various people have dealt with this Covid period in various ways,” says KKR coach Brendon McCullum.

Trent Boult’s preparation, for example, was far from ideal. Ahead of the tie against KKR, the Mumbai Indians quick said he came into the IPL after six months of winter and a lockdown. India’s players have had to cope with almost four months of no activity except what they could manage by themselves at home.

Technology helped get around that partially with franchises’ strength and conditioning coaches conducting virtual sessions. But Vaibhav Daga, a former physio with the Delhi franchise and the now defunct Pune Warriors, says that working out on your own at home is not the same as doing it with your peers. “Cricket is a team sport and whenever they do their fitness routines, it is always in a group,” Daga, head of sports science and rehabilitation Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital in Mumbai, says. Karthik concurs. “When you do a group session, you tend to push yourselves a lot more,” he says from UAE. “At least, for me that has happened a lot. Sometime when you are doing it alone, the motivation can be hard.”

For many cricketers, the long lockdown and the lack of access to a training facility could have been problems too difficult to surmount. “Many don’t like the treadmill, preferring to go out and train but that was not possible,” says Daga. Gyms in India opened only this month; swimming pools still haven’t.

Cricket requires speed and power in bursts, something high-intensity training helps build, but even that becomes tricky when the sport is played across three formats of varying workloads. John Gloster, head of Rajasthan Royals’ strength and conditioning team, has said a player would be 20% less prepared coming into a T20 competition after playing a Test series. “If we compare GPS data of total distance covered and the time spent in certain speed bands by an EPL (Premier League) player and an Australian Rules football player, the efforts are very similar to that of an international T20 player,” Gloster said in an earlier interview to HT.

According to Rajput, agility and a good throwing arm are vital in T20. “Just as endurance to bowl long spells, the ability to concentrate in a long innings and tight technique are for the longer version.” The accent on power and short sprints in T20 also means more work in the gym, says Rajput. “People who have done it really well,” Daga says, “have got equipment at home.”

After the game-changing 74 against Chennai Super Kings, Rajasthan Royals’ Sanju Samson thanked his coach for getting him to face “20000 balls” during the lockdown. Karthik too says a lot of players have used this time to be the fittest and strongest versions of themselves. India and Royal Challengers Bangalore bowler Navdeep Saini, who posted pictures of his ripped physique on social media, is an example. “Those who did not (have equipment at home) would have turned up (in UAE) not up to the mark,” says Daga.

Cricket, unlike football, is a game of stops and starts, which means that simply looking like you are carrying a bit of extra weight does not mean you are not match fit. Look at Rohit Sharma’s explosive innings in Mumbai’s second game, where he blasted 80 of 54 balls against KKR, for evidence. Or at Saurabh Tiwary’s early form with the bat. “Another common misconception occurs when a player’s fitness is correlated simply by how slim he looks,” Andrew Leipus, former India physio now with Kings XI Punjab, has said in a 2012 Cricinfo article. If a player’s lean muscle weight is low, he will look slim even with a high percentage of body fat, says Leipus.

Daga’s concern is deeper than shape—could playing a tournament as demanding as the IPL without adequate fitness lead to a spurt of injuries? A gap in fitness and the prolonged absence from the game perhaps shows up most when it comes to fielding. Kohli spilled KL Rahul twice in the deep on Thursday; Iyer and Prithvi Shaw gave Mayank Agarwal reprieves and Murali Vijay’s misfields stood out on the opening day. “As a fielding unit, we would take 50 to 100 catches daily which has possibly not happened,” Rajput says. “The feel for the ball comes only through repetitions.” Lack of practice also delays reaction time, says Daga. “In T20 you need to be an athlete first,” says Rajput. “Fielding is about agility.” Sharma, Daga points out, looked just fine while fielding.

“If you look at his reflexes while fielding, Rohit was okay,” he says. “He has done his disciplines, everybody understands what needs to be done in this age of modern cricket.”

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