Virat Kohli’s injury scare was just the wake-up call Indian cricket needed to realise that a pain in the neck was all that it takes to lay low its hard-fought reputation as a cricketing powerhouse.
Till then, with the master batsman performing with admirable consistency and dominance, Indian cricket was riding high.
However, the neck strain was a grim reminder that Indian strength, hopes and aspirations on the tour of England was predominantly dependent on the fitness level of the world’s best batsman.
Injury is part and parcel of a modern cricketer’s grind. A recent study of Australian cricketers, who turned out in a minimum of 20 matches per season at the elite level, revealed that injuries occurred at an alarming rate of 18 players out of 25. The study found that an average of 9 per cent of the cricketers were injured at any given time, though the average shot up to 15 per cent where fast bowlers were concerned.
The injury profile for Test, first-class, ODIs and T20s were different as the physical demands of the formats were not the same. However, hamstring and side strains were more common, even low back pain with stress fracture of the vertebra was an issue.
In an earlier era players engaged in competitive cricket only for six months in a year and thus had sufficient time to rest, relax and recoup. However now, with the game being played throughout the year, staying fit and fresh is a huge challenge.
Under the circumstances, BCCI’s strategy to have a back up plan needs to be applauded.
In this context it may be recalled that medium pacer and Test discard Madan Lal was playing club-level league cricket in England during India’s tour of 1986 when Chetan Sharma became unavailable for the second Test. Mohinder Amarnath who had bumped into Madan Lal in a tube station, alerted skipper Kapil Dev of the latter’s presence in England. The skipper convinced the manager to get the English club to swap Manoj Prabhakar for Madan Lal for the duration of the Test. A well acclimatised Madan Lal bagged three crucial wickets and helped India win the Test.
India’s problem with a tour of England has always been acclimatization. Unlike dozens of Pakistanis who for lack of opportunity back home turn out season after season in some English league or the other, Indian cricketers don’t bother to venture out. Thanks to IPL and various other employment opportunities that keep Indian players busy.
Thus while an average Pakistani cricketer regularly turns up in England and is increasingly at home in English conditions, India’s young cricketers need major tours in order to get acclimatised.
It is not just the cold, damp weather which is a bother. The pitch conditions too could change rapidly, depending on cloud cover and softness of the playing strip. Some of the grounds have a distinct slope where running upwards and bowling into the wind is a challenge. Besides, the ball used in Tests is Duke which has a more pronounced seam than Kookaburra (used in Australia and South Africa) and hence needs some getting used to.
It is here that the decision to send India ‘A’ teams to England in June and July (ahead of the main team's tour) needs to be appreciated. The team is to play a series of ODIs and 4-day matches that will not only test the players’ mettle but also give them invaluable insights into English conditions. This would come in very handy when some of them get called to the main national team during the English summer.
It must be mentioned that the worries are not only about Kohli’s injury but also the fitness of Test wicket-keeper Wriddhiman Saha. There are also serious doubts about the ability of the first choice pacemen to last the grueling tour.
Starting with the two ODIs in Ireland, the tour includes 3 ODIs, 3 T20Is and 5 Tests along side the practice games in England that stretches from 27 June to 11 September. Notwithstanding the fact that the various formats would have only a few common players, the workload will be heavy.
The selectors are yet to name the Test squad but all three fit regular pacemen, Bhuvaneshwar Kumar, Jasprit Bumrah and Umesh Yadav are in both T20I and ODI squads. Mohammed Shami and Ishant Sharma are in the team for this month’s Test against Afghanistan, with the former, in particular, bound to come under close scrutiny.
The selectors meanwhile have given an excellent platform for the likes of promising paceman Prasidh Krishna, Ankit Rajpoot, Rajneesh Gurbani, Deepak Chahar and Sharadul Thakur to show that they have it in them to adapt rapidly to the length and line required in the various formats of the game. How well they are able to control swing during the ‘A’ team tour will also be gauged by MSK Prasad and company.
Batsmen Karun Nair, Shreyas Iyer, Shubman Gill, Rishabh Pant and Sanju Samson too could grab the opportunity with both hands and force their way into the senior team.
In many ways this is the first time that so much effort and expectation is vested in an India ‘A’ team tour. Earlier Board officials played favourites with ‘A’ team personnel, but now, with so much riding on the performance of the Indian team, BCCI had no other option but to prepare a shadow set of players who could fit in seamlessly, if needed.
Thus it would be no exaggeration to state that the current India ‘A’ teams under the tutelage of the experienced Rahul Dravid are not only a mechanism to groom talent but also a vital component of BCCI’s injury management strategy. This is one reason why this supply line's fortunes would be worth watching from the time they set out for England next week!