Are YOU fit to play cricket?
Bat-and-ball skills will always count over athleticism, but fitness, done the right way, will help players use these abilities better and for longer
March 18, 2012
After India's loss in Australia in 2011/12, the media have had a field day demanding the team and the board to be more accountable. But this is a familiar story, and as expected, there is a call for the players to be fitter than they are. But does just being "fitter" equate to better performance? There are many misconceptions and myths about cricket fitness that need debunking.
What we do know for certain is that cricket is primarily a skill-based game, meaning that players will only ever get to play at the international level if they have all of the necessary skills. These skills will have had to have been refined over a number of years, with thousands of hours of practice and match play. Some say perfection takes 10,000 hours of quality practice. But skills are dependent on the environment in which they are practised and exhibited. Bouncier, greener wickets and faster outfields are going to test the range of adaptability of the player who has only practised in subcontinental conditions. This applies to both batting and bowling, and clearly this has little to do with the physical fitness of the player.
So where does fitness fit in then?
This is a massive area to cover and I will elaborate more in future articles, but "fitness" is an umbrella term used to encompass a range of interrelated physiological parameters. These include, but are not limited to, strength, power, speed, agility, endurance, flexibility, reaction time, and body composition. All these attributes are objectively measurable and modifiable with training. But whereas an Olympic athlete might be approaching the limit of his physiological potential (like, Usain Bolt, of his speed and power), cricketers have relatively large windows of potential improvement in all parameters of their fitness. Why? Part of the trouble is finding time in their schedules to actually train hard enough to force some adaptation and still leave energy in the tank in order to play. Then there are problems of directionless training and a poor understanding of how physical preparation can help them become better cricketers.
This is not to say examples of players who are at their fitness limit don't exist. Jonty Rhodes was the most agile and dynamic fielder of his generation. Sachin Tendulkar was, and still is, one of the quickest runners between the wickets. I doubt whether Sachin could have been any quicker or Jonty any more agile. Chris Gayle is another example of someone who is unlikely to hit any bigger if he trained harder.
Each sport, and position within each sport, has a different fitness requirement. Ongoing research is providing greater objective insight than ever into the demands of cricket. Satellite or GPS monitoring during matches has enabled us to quantify the total distances covered, including percentage breakdown of time spent running, jogging and sprinting. Heart-rate measures have been combined to reflect both the true volume and intensity of work performed in cricket.
Fast bowlers cover huge distances during a Test, potentially half a marathon, and significantly more than a batsman who might only cover six to eight kilometres. But while batsmen run shorter distances, they do so at a much higher intensity and with frequent sudden changes of direction. Training, therefore, needs to reflect this specific need for repeated efforts of acceleration, deceleration and agility. Armed with this knowledge, training programmes are becoming more specific.
GPS monitoring has also highlighted the interval nature of cricket, i.e. a power effort followed by a recovery period. Bowlers, and therefore batsmen, typically have around 30-40 seconds between balls to recover until the next ball is bowled/faced. Training, thus, needs to also focus on the ability to recover between bouts. If a bowler or batsman can lower heart and respiration rates quickly before the next effort, decision-making processes should become sharper and efforts more successful. Skills performance diminishes with the onset of fatigue.
In other words, training needs to also be directed at prevention of fatigue. This might sound like the same thing but in fact is a different focus and is one of the reasons the Yo-Yo intermittent recovery field test is now preferred over the notorious bleep test. This modern take on the classic test provides a brief recovery period between shuttle runs to more closely simulate the work/recovery nature of cricket. A fitter player, one who can prevent fatigue, will therefore likely perform better.
This new knowledge of cricket workloads has implications for declaring a player fit for selection - ensuring rehabilitation programmes sufficiently condition a player to the actual demands of the game. Alternatively called "match fitness", it is relatively intangible and impossible to replicate in the gym alone. It is unique to each player and conditioning for it is done through actual practice of skill in match situations. Zaheer Khan once told me he could bowl in his sleep after he had returned from a season playing county cricket in the UK. This was his way of saying he was 100% match-fit - being physically well, injury-free and bowling effortlessly with his natural rhythm. As funny as it sounds, some players swear that playing five hours of golf in the pre-season is great cricket-conditioning as it mimics being on the feet for hours on end with intermittent efforts!
Data obtained from fitness field tests can be compared with normative data to help determine individual areas of strength and weakness. Comparison to such benchmarks help the support staff determine if a player is physically ready for the basic demands of the sport. Batsmen and bowlers consistently differ in their results over a number of tests, which comes as no surprise when comparing the fielding and agility of fast bowlers and top-order batsmen. A failure to reach basic threshold marks is suggestive of poor preparation and poses a high injury risk.
Performed on a regular basis, certain data can also help reflect over-reaching - a scientific term used to describe a fatigued physical state, often a pre-cursor to overtraining and physical breakdown.
Cricket is a skill-based game, but undergoing a strength-and-conditioning programme physically prepares the body for the stresses of the sport. This not only helps prevent injury but improves the player's explosiveness or power, and may be the difference between a stolen single or a run-out. It will also go a long way to increasing the longevity of a player's career.
Players of previous generations often say that strength training results in a player becoming stiffer and slower. There is no doubt that strength training alone could do this - muscle and connective tissue stiffen and contract over time. But when added to a complete programme incorporating flexibility and power training, I will argue that it can only improve performance.
Bringing back a player from rehabilitation too early is perhaps a reason why there is this perception - a player with just a strength base will be slower and appear stiffer. But if allowed to convert this strength into functional explosive power, he will be able to exhibit his pre-injury performance. In today's crammed schedules, players are commonly cutting short their rehabilitation in order to return to play. Then people wonder why they look so slow in the field or lose pace off the ball.