May 05, 2006

Another Bloody Tiring Day In Paradise

By H Natarajan

The cricket world finds is sharply divided over the vexatious issue of excessive cricket. The dissenting voices against what is believed an insensitive overload of matches comes from players active in the game, while those pooh-poohing such suggestions are mostly former players of repute.

There is no simple answer to who is right and who is wrong as there are merits in arguments advanced by both sides.

The issue snowballed after a series of well-documented stress-related injuries to key players like Sachin Tendulkar leading to the unexpected announcement of Shahid Afridi to ‘temporarily quit’ Test cricket.

A host of players – Marcus Trescothick, Adam Gilchrist and Ricky Ponting, to name a few – have come out in the open against the system which they feel will lead, among other things, to burnouts. Interestingly, the apex body for the game is in agreement with the players.

ICC president Ehsan Mani and CEO Malcolm Speed have said that it’s the affiliated units that are responsible for the overload by filling up the free days in the cricket calendar and asking the players to “Go play”. They stopped shorts of saying that the affiliated units are milking the cash cow in a rather cavalier manner. That the ICC has projected itself as a divided house on the issue is clear when Sunil Gavaskar, chairman of the ICC Cricketing Committee, vehemently opposed the players’ view point saying “those who cannot stand the heat should stay out” of the kitchen.

The easiest thing to say is that Gavaskar is not in tune with times by advancing the argument that the load on the players has gone up manifold since his playing days, as has been the demands on them. But when one considers that SMG has played the game at the highest level, bore the brunt of the pressure right through his magnificent career and been an active and important man in world cricket, his reasoning cannot be easily dismissed.

The ATP and WTA Tours are played around the year with the players never in one country for more than a week for most part of the year. And a five-set of tennis – or even less – may arguably take more out of a player than an entire day’s play of cricket. Play is far more continuous in tennis, unlike cricket where players can rest in the pavilion when they are not batting. Even while fielding in certain positions like third man they have relatively less activity to do.

Let’s go a step further. A player like John McEnroe was one of the best players in the singles as well as doubles. Which meant his workload was far more punishing than most players as he not only competed but was good enough to reach the semis or finals in both singles as well as doubles week after week after week right through the year, for years together. On many occasions he would have finished an energy-sapping five-set singles and would have to play the doubles with little time to rest. Yet, I do not ever recall Mac complaining of excessive tennis. Neither did I ever hear Martina Navratilova – like McEnroe a top player in singles as well as doubles - complain about excessive play.

The PGA Tour is also played round the year, but one has not heard Tiger Woods or any of the top pros complaining of a calendar that has no free months. So, I guess, it has a lot to do with the mindset.

Somebody would turn around and say that both tennis and golf are individual sports. True, but surely a cricketer could have made himself unavailable if he finds himself jaded or needs to spend time with the family.

This is where Greg Chappell’s theory of rotating the players needs to be lauded as it has suddenly given India a rich pool of hungry young talented players. I would go a step ahead and suggest that players should be given breaks not just from matches but for an entire tour. The idea is particularly useful for fast bowlers to recover from the wear and tear they are prone to.

But in a game where the stakes are very high, most players would not like such a situation as the bloke coming in for him may create a splash and stake tenancy rights in the team.

The players are also not exactly fault-free when it comes to optimizing the rest they get from playing matches. Much of their time is taken up by commercial considerations. The life of a player is very short and it is tempting to rake in as much as possible, but the modern cricketer is millionaire many times over and is in a position to be selective. But the point is: Are they selective?

“For two months now, I have been running on fumes,” says Brett Lee, the latest to voice his opinion on burnout worries. But when he had the luxury to rest, Lee flew all the way to India for a promotional event! Of course, such events are part of the endorsement package, but players must factor these obligations that eat away into their resting time. That is something entirely in their control.

I think the time has come for nations playing excessive cricket to create a bigger pool of players from which they could use the policy of rotation. This would help the boards to rake in the moolah and give players the rest they crave for. It would also keep them on their toes because of the increased competition, and that can only do the game good.

But there is no doubt that the authorities must not waste time and sit with the players to find a quick and amicable solution to prevent the issue from paralyzing the sport. Tim May, president of the spokesperson of the Federation of International Cricketers Association, issued an unambiguous warning to what he termed as “revenue raising frenzy”.

“It’s too much. We are walking away from this. We are not going to play in these games,” he said while holding both the ICC and the boards culpable. May’s statement is nothing short of the first step in what can be construed as a global revolt against the system. Whether the players show the necessary solidarity to take on the authority is a matter of conjecture, but May’s statement is dramatic and unprecedented.

The time to act is now.

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