Time to put fitness fanatics in the dock

By ERROL TOWNSHEND

To avoid any misunderstanding, let’s say it right off the top: physical fitness is the basis of all physical sport. To say that is as trite as saying that you can’t even get an office job these days without computer skills. Having said that, the fitness fanatics and their cheering section, now in command of cricket in Canada and the West Indies, have some indictments to answer.

Both squads have been the beneficiaries of more physical training and medical monitoring than ever before. Yet their performances are worst than ever. Of course, thus far, the usual suspects (“The Board” and “the selectors”) have taken the brunt of the blame. Canada, but thankfully not the Windies, has also embarked on a “youth-before-merit” selection policy which has made a bad situation disastrous.

The latest manifestations of this conundrum is the forced “retirement” of our best allrounder, Sunil Dhaniram, age 42, on the eve of the World Cup when our current form against Associate countries like Ireland suggests we will be seriously humiliated by Test countries like Sri Lanka and Australia. (Editor’s note: Dhaniram has since been recalled.)The Windies have denied Jerome Taylor, Narsingh Deonarine and Ramnaresh Sarwan central contracts because of fitness concerns.

No arguments can be raised for Deonarine or Taylor. The former is so unfit balls keep going through his legs because touching his toes seems like a major challenge; the latter seems to have other things besides fitness on his mind since becoming a millionaire. But a review of Sarwan’s Test scores over the past 18 months raises questions:2009: 107; 94,106; 291; 14,14; 13,1; 100,22; 28,7;42,11; 2010: no Tests due to injury. His overall Test average is 41.73, better than Chris Gayle, second only to Shiv Chanderpaul. His fitness doesn’t seem to be a concern for the Guyanese selectors. He has just led his team to the Windies T-20 title and is in South Africa for the Club Champions League event.

Certainly, Sarwan gets injured often, as does Shiv Chanderpaul, but getting injured is not necessarily an indication of the lack of fitness. Very fit athletes also get injured. But how does a batsman make 94 and 106 in a Test followed by 291 in the next, if he isn’t fit (for cricket that is)? How come Dhaniram, “too old” and supposedly not fit enough for onedayers, is the only Canadian batsman to score not just one but two centuries (144 v Netherlands, 138 v Afghanistan) in our just concluded four-day Intercontinental Cup where Canada finished last, failing to win any of six games? Besides technique and concentration, it takes fitness to bat for hours on end. If fitness fails, technique and concentration usually go too.

Rational thinkers – other than fitness fanatics – would conclude that something doesn’t add up. My experience with coaches, selectors, administrators and fans who beat the fitness drum for every failure is: (a) they don’t understand that there are different fitness requirements for different sports; (b) they usually have no clue about how to improve technique, tactics, strategies or selection so they use fitness as a crutch. For sure, neither Sarwan nor Dhaniram can run a marathon or excel at kick-boxing; they may not even do as well as others on “Beep” tests. So what? That’s not what cricket asks of them. It asks them to stay at the crease and make runs and if they bowl, to get wickets or contain batsmen. Usain Bolt is the world’s fastest man. No one would dare say he’s not fit. But he’s fit for what he does (sprinting), not for the marathon, making centuries, bowling 25-30 overs a day at full pace or playing 90 minutes of soccer.

One of the fads used these days to assess “fitness” is how aggressively fielders can throw their bodies over the ground to save even one run. This is precisely the insane risk vs. reward miscalculation that sent Sarwan crashing into the Headingley advertising boards – and out of action for months – during the 2007 England tour. Unlike the great ones, such as Colin Bland and Roger Harper, these moderns simply lack the ball sense, sharp reflexes and ability to read the game so as to anticipate where the ball is going. So they have to dive, like soldiers taking cover.

It wasn’t so long ago that former Windies selector Joey Carew asked the inconvenient question of these fitness fanatics: why, with so much emphasis and money spent on fitness (daily training) are so many Windies cricketers breaking down so often? There has been no answer. Getting players fit for cricket doesn’t mean training thoroughbreds for the Kentucky Derby. No should it involve ziz-zag running as required in soccer or rugby. But the fitness fanatics do it anyway – mindlessly.

Certainly, modern training methods, diet, hi-tech medical treatment etc. have enabled folks to stay fit longer. Logically, you would think this would lead to the Dhanirams playing competitively well into their 40s. But that’s not current selection thinking as these survivors of Noah’s Ark continue to wrongly equate fitness with age. Thanks to the ICC (Canada) and sponsors (Windies) cricketers have been inundated with head coaches, specialist coaches, analysts, shrinks, medics, training camps, tours, trainers, conditioners. You name it. Yet their performances deteriorate. If the supposedly “unfit” Dhanirams and Sarwans of Canada and the Windies can perform as well as they have, then we ought to start putting cricket’s fitness fanatics, their coaching methods and theories in the dock to answer some hard questions as to why their teams do so badly.

Email:ewat@rogers.com

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