No easy fix to deal with too much cricket for India players

  • More than physical strain, life in bio-bubbles affects players psychologically, says former India trainer.
India's captain Virat Kohli along with teammates after winning ICC Men's T20 World Cup match against Namibia, at Dubai International Stadium in Dubai on Monday.(ANI) PREMIUM
India's captain Virat Kohli along with teammates after winning ICC Men's T20 World Cup match against Namibia, at Dubai International Stadium in Dubai on Monday.(ANI)
Published on Nov 09, 2021 11:29 AM IST
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Moments after India’s chastening defeat to New Zealand on October 31, the task of explaining the reasons for their second successive loss fell on Jasprit Bumrah. When the question of fatigue playing a possible role in the team’s lacklustre performance was put to the star pacer, Bumrah – whose own performance had been faultless – had this to say in the post-match media interaction.

“Absolutely, sometimes you need a break. You miss your family. You've been on the road for six months. So, all of that sometimes plays on the back of your mind. But when you're on the field, you don't think of all those things.”

On Sunday, the day India’s early exit from the T20 World Cup was confirmed, Bumrah’s words were echoed by bowling coach Bharat Arun.

“Considering the volume of cricket our country is playing, I can guarantee it’s not easy to be in the bubble and keep playing throughout the year. They do need sufficient breaks because I think even mental health is going to be very important going forward. And this is going to be the norm for us at least for the next year or two,” said Arun, who is stepping down after the World Cup.

While it would be disingenuous to cite fatigue as the only factor for India’s middling campaign — they were outclassed by both Pakistan and New Zealand — it wouldn’t be prudent to brush aside the flip side of a hectic schedule and cabin fever either. It cannot be a coincidence that India have not managed to make it out of the group stages of the T20 World Cup on the three occasions that the event has been held right after the IPL — 2009, 2010 and 2021.

Most of India’s top cricketers have been in the thick of the action under the narrow confines of a bio-bubble pretty much since last August when preparations for the 2020 edition of the IPL began in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). There has been a long tour of Australia, a home series against England, the first leg of the IPL in India, a tour of UK entailing the World Test Championship final and four Tests against England and the second leg of the IPL in the UAE. Unlike overseas players, the top Indian cricketers can’t skip the IPL and take a break.

More than the physical strain, former India trainer Ramji Srinivasan spoke on the psychological toll that playing in the current environment can have.

“It is difficult psychologically. More than the physical aspect, the mental aspect takes a toll in a big way especially when the Indian team is playing throughout the year. All may be at a similar level fitness-wise, but if doubts creep in mentally, then it is not possible to give of your best,” he said.

Just because bio-bubbles have become part of a sportsperson's life doesn't make them any easier to deal with, said sports psychologist Keerthana Swaminathan. “Bubble fatigue is 100% valid, especially if they themselves are saying it. We cannot negate it,” she said.

After the T20 World Cup, the schedule is equally jam-packed for India players with assignments till July 2022 listed in the calendar. How should they deal with this? The obvious solution, according to Ramji, is rotation and prioritising the availability of the big players for marquee events. The 54-year-old has worked with some of India’s top Olympians too and spoke about the importance of cricketers peaking at the right time.

“When the IPL is held before the T20 WC, the challenge is in peaking at the right time. When somebody is participating in the Olympics, they have to peak at the right time to win a medal. So similarly, the entire planning needs to be adjusted and individual cricketers need to know when they need to peak. ICC tournaments need to be given top priority. Rotating the players is important in this regard. The planning needs to start right now if India want to win the 2023 ODI World Cup.”

There are, of course, challenges to rotation. Only England’s schedule over the last 12 months has been as taxing as India’s and they have found a way around it by resting all-format players at certain junctures. It is an approach that seems to be paying off now but earned them a lot of ridicule during the tour of India in February-March when they chose to rest and rotate Jos Buttler, Jonny Bairstow and Moeen Ali. It meant that they were never able to assemble their best playing XI during the course of a high-profile Test series.

Given the vast sums shelled out for television rights in India, there is also bound to be implicit pressure from broadcasters for Indian cricket’s top stars to always be available.

There may be no easy fix to these issues in a post-pandemic world. But if India are to avoid bringing up fatigue at the next T20 World Cup, a workable solution has to be found.

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    Vivek Krishnan is a sports journalist who enjoys covering cricket and football among other disciplines. He wanted to be a cricketer himself but has gladly settled for watching and writing on different sports.

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Monday, November 29, 2021