Increasingly in selections from the junior level, fitness must be a criterion. Especially when choosing between two players of roughly equal skill.
By Suresh Menon
Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal were merely re-emphasising the essential creed of the modern sportsman while slugging it out for six hours at the Australian Open. In one word, fitness. Skill, they were saying, is nothing without fitness; a finely tuned physique alone matters when the aim of the game is reduced to its simplest term, as was done by Jimmy Connors many years ago: to get the ball over the net just one more time than your opponent.
This takes in the ability to run from corner to corner, the speed and anticipation that come from sheer fitness, and the ability to make returns from near-impossible angles, which is dependant on one quality: fitness.
It is a concept Indians have traditionally looked down upon. Partly because there was a brahmanical sense of the superiority of brain over brawn, and partly because no one was willing to work hard at attaining international levels of fitness. And since it wasn’t done, the myth was created: it couldn’t be done. The Indian body type is different, went one argument; the diet and culture are different. Perhaps. But, as the cricket tours of England and Australia have shown, fitness is a fundamental skill that needs to be acquired so it can act as a platform for all other skills – the ability to bowl long spells, the ability to bat on and on without falling apart, the ability to chase down everything in the field and hold on to all catches.
Indian sportsmen get most creative when making up excuses for skipping what they see as the drudgery of physical workouts. Watch Virender Sehwag on the field, incipient pot belly at the age of just 33. His argument (if he gives it any thought) is that he would rather conserve energy by hitting boundaries than running twos and threes. But when the boundaries are blocked, he has no Plan B, because he has not trained to keep fit and take singles. At 39, Rahul Dravid is probably the fittest Indian player, which says as much about his dedication as the lackadaisical approach of the others.
And with that fitness comes confidence, greater self-worth as a sportsman and myriad psychological boosters not easily available to the Indian clock-watchers. Fielders looking at the dressing room for a sign of declaration rather in the manner of bank clerks waiting for the office clock to signal the end of the working day.
Back in the 1980s, following India’s successful conduct of the Asian Games, there was a plan to focus on fitness above all else. No matter what your chosen sport later in life, in schools you would be expected to participate in what was termed the ‘mother sports’ – athletics, swimming and gymnastics. Fitness would be both process and product of such a system.
Every sport has its specific fitness standard, but general fitness is essential as much for the toiling spinner as for the hard-hitting batsman.
The new set of statistics tennis now provides is fascinating. During one point (I think from 15-all to 3-15 in the third set), it was calculated that Djokovic ran some 75 metres. He and Nadal ran 25 and 22 kilometres respectively before the start of the fifth set! Cricketers don’t need that level of fitness, nor does fitness alone make you an off spinner or help play the perfect cover drive. But you certainly can do these things more often and with greater consistency if you are fit.
Increasingly in selections from the junior level, fitness must be a criterion. Especially when choosing between two players of roughly equal skill. For so long has it been drilled into everybody that cricket is a mental game that the more obvious fact, it is a physical game has been ignored. Back to fitness has to be the mantra if a new generation is to take on the likes of Australia and South Africa on a cricket field on something approaching equal terms.