Thursday, 4 August 2011

What's luck got to do with injury?

When a player walks off the field injured, we tend to sympathise. We need to pause to think if he is culpable
Sanjay Manjrekar in Cricinfo
August 4, 2011

Over the last few days MS Dhoni has been fending off questions about his team's fitness about as frequently as some of his young batsmen have had to fend bouncers in England.

I'm certain Dhoni has his own views on fitness, and I would love to hear them one day, for he is one of the fittest men in international cricket, but as captain - well, he has to say the right things, doesn't he? His patent response to questions about injuries to his key players has been that they are unfortunate and there is nothing one can do. I agree with him that injuries are indeed unfortunate, but I hope he does not really mean it when he says there is nothing one can do about them. There is plenty you can do about injuries, and there is a very good, logical explanation for why some cricketers suffer more of them than others.

When a player gets injured, it is often termed unlucky, and he is generally spared criticism, on the assumption that it was beyond the poor cricketer's control. I have seen, during my playing career, cricketers take advantage of this mindset of the fans and media to tackle their insecurities as players: you would often find a short period of poor form quickly followed by an injury absence.

Except in obvious cases, like where fingers are broken while batting or fielding - like with Yuvraj Singh at Trent Bridge - I really think most injuries should be held against players, as you would a poor performance on the field. Injuries too largely happen because of poor performance - off the field. A player who does not forget that he is a top-level international cricketer, even when he is not playing matches, simply does not get injured often.

Kapil Dev, the great Indian allrounder, who I had the privilege of playing with, was one of the fittest Indian cricketers there has been, and there is no better role model of a fit Indian cricketer than him. Was Kapil lucky that he could play 131 Test matches as a fast-medium bowling allrounder, missing only one Test in between, when he was dropped for playing a wild slog at a delicate stage in a match? No, he wasn't. There was a good reason for why he was so durable.

Kapil's greatest asset was that he was an outstanding athlete. Unathletic cricketers tend to suffer more injuries than athletic ones, and there are numerous examples in Indian cricket of fast bowlers who were talented but not good athletes. Should the lack of athleticism of a player not be held against him? Wouldn't the lack of a natural flair for numbers be held against a chartered accountant who keeps bungling up balance sheets?

Kapil was a superb athlete, and admirably, it was an advantage he never took for granted. He may not have given you the impression of being a thinking batsman, but when it came to his bowling, fielding and general approach to fitness, there was no one quite as sharp. He knew his body well and he made sure that he never pushed it beyond a certain limit, but he was also careful to not keep it in cold storage for too long.

During fielding drills, even before matches, Kapil would always throw the ball back to the keeper with real pace, while most fast bowlers I saw, would want to rest their bowling shoulders. Kapil thought different. He made sure his shoulder was always ready and never surprised - in case he had to throw hard for a run-out first ball of a match, for instance. Damage to a body often happens due to such sudden acts, resulting in the player missing games because of an "unfortunate" injury. Mind you, Kapil was not injury-free through his long career, but he planned the rehabilitation well, so he was always ready and raring to go for the next Test. Playing for India meant a lot to him.

Kapil did not let anyone influence him into changing his natural bowling action - though it had the potential threat of creating lower-back problems. He believed that if his body was allowing him to bowl without discomfort, it had to be the right action for him. I wonder, when I watch some of our Indian seamers who keep breaking down, whether they have strayed from their natural actions so much that their bodies have started protesting.

Rest to the body, as we know, is as critical as physical training, for a long, relatively injury-free career, and that is the big challenge for modern-day players: to get time off to rest their tired bodies. But it is also true that a cricketer opting out of an international series is not as big a deal as it used to be; players are usually given their time off without it being held against them. There is always a tour of West Indies or Bangladesh to take a break from, as we have seen.

I saw a couple of Indian players come into the England Test series off a period of relaxation, with chubby faces and bulging midriffs. That's not something you'd ever see with Rahul Dravid. The only international cricket he plays these days is Test cricket, and he often has to come into the team off long periods of "inactivity", but each time he turns up, he looks lean and mean. Dravid is another player with an excellent record of long-term fitness in Indian cricket, and he does not even have great natural athleticism to thank for it. What he has plenty of, though, as we all know, is discipline. He is the perfect example of that cricketer I mentioned earlier, who even when he is not playing reminds himself every day when he wakes up that he is still an active international player, only waiting for his next international assignment.

Players who are willing to make sacrifices, I have found, sustain fewer injuries than others, so the next time we see a cricketer suffer yet another pulled muscle, let's pause for a moment more before saying, "That's unlucky."

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