For over a decade now, India skipper Virat Kohli has been playing in all formats of the game – Tests, one-day internationals (ODIs) and Twenty20 internationals (T20s). His batting average in all the three versions is a mind-boggling 50-plus which makes him, without a doubt, one of the finest batsmen of the modern era.
However, he has been losing his grip on his batting a bit of late. One wonders if he is getting a tad exhausted.
Kohli made his Test debut in June 2011, and the ongoing first Test against New Zealand at Basin Reserve, Wellington is his 85th in nine years. Over a dozen years of ODI cricket, he has played 247 matches and in a decade-long T20 international career, he has played 82 matches. In addition to this, he has played 177 Indian Premier League (IPL) games for the Royal Challengers Bangalore over 11 seasons.
Kohli has, on an average, played at least 100 days of ‘serious cricket’ in a year over the last decade or so.
(We are assuming here that all the Tests would have lasted five days and that the IPL is considered to be serious cricket — at least as far as its intensity is concerned).
To the 100 days of cricket, add air and road travel and at least a couple of days of intensive nets, besides fitness sessions in the gym before each match, and you have what Kohli calls ‘300 days of cricket in a year’. The world’s top cricketers, especially the ones who play in all formats of the game, literally live out of their suitcases.
Besides the fatigue resulting from playing at a level like Kohli does, it is also psychologically strenuous. If jet-lag and having to deal with constant changes in weather conditions from one match centre to another create causes damage to the mind and body, then constantly being in the public gaze and the need to live up to people’s expectations, day in and day out, are mentally taxing too. Constant physical and mental exhaustion with no time to recover can lead to burnout and it isn’t surprising that many international cricketers have just walked away from the game because they could no longer stand the grind. So many players, over the last few seasons, have even displayed the courage to say that they have suffered from depression.
Tennis is perhaps one game, like cricket, where the players are on the road almost throughout the year. This is why so much credit goes to superstars like Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, who turned pro in 1998 and 2001 respectively, and are still among the three best players in the world, two decades later. The difference, however, lies in tennis being an individual sport. Federer and Nadal can pace themselves, take a call on which events to skip and if necessary just take time off to rest and recover. Despite that, we have seen players like Bjorn Borg and so many others, over the years, walking away from the courts, worn out and world weary.
That option of voluntarily taking time off is available only to a small bunch of elite cricketers the world over; Kohli is surely one among them. He can afford to skip a match here or a series there and can then come back and claim his rightful place in the side. How many others in the Indian squad can do that? Mohammad Shami, may be, on present form? There are replacements for everyone else in the squad and neither Ravichandran Ashwin (362 Test wickets) nor Jasprit Bumrah (number one bowler in the world for a while) nor the prolific Test batsman Cheteshwar Pujara can take their places for granted.
Many years ago, MS Dhoni, the former India skipper had taken objection to too many matches being crammed into a cricket season. The International Cricket Conference (ICC) and the various boards were only interested in making hay while the sun shone. Making money has always been the priority; player-welfare has hardly mattered. If I can recall correctly, it was the former vice president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), Rajiv Shukla, who had said, rather insensitively, that players who believed that the schedule was too taxing could drop out.
Let’s be honest: Cricket boards are all-powerful; players, on the other hand, are like bonded labourers. The annual contracts that the BCCI hands out every season consists of Grade A Plus (Rs 7 crore/pa), Grade A (Rs 5 crore/pa), Grade B (Rs 3 crore/pa) and Grade C (Rs 1 crore/pa). By any standards, even the Grade C contract assures players slotted in that category of a good life. The contracted players are, therefore, bound to follow the diktats of the board, the boss being always right. Misbehaviour of any sort can burn huge holes in players’ pockets. Look at what happened to Ambati Rayudu (55 ODIs, batting average 47.06), who took a dig at the selectors after he wasn’t picked for the World Cup or to Dhoni, who has neither made himself available for matches nor announced his retirement from the game — they are no longer on the BCCI’s contracts list.
The question remains: Can the BCCI ask Kohli to concentrate only on a couple of formats so that he does not burn himself out? Could he, for example, lead the Indian Test side, play under someone like Rohit Sharma in the ODIs and give up T20s altogether? Let’s be clear about the fact that Kohli’s statement of playing in all three formats for another three years at a presser recently is a command and not a request. He will have to take a call on his career and not leave it to the BCCI or selectors.
To tackle chronic fatigue and the fear of burnout among players, some cricket boards have experimented with the rotation of players and the selection of separate squads for T20s, ODIs and Test matches. Teams like Australia, England, the West Indies, Bangladesh, South Africa, Sri Lanka and Pakistan most often have one captain for Tests and another for limited over matches. Only India and New Zealand, from among the top cricketing nations, have their best batsmen Kohli and Kane Williamson respectively leading them in all formats.
India has a crammed schedule over the next few years. Given the workload, it is possible that most of India’s present squad will have called it a day in three or four years. Burnout, depression and injuries due to psychosomatic reasons may force some players out; others may just be too tired to perform. Michael Gugnor, the American singer-songwriter says, “Burnout is what happens when you try to avoid being human for too long.”
Kohli has defied being human perhaps for too long already. In pursuit of excellence on a 24x7 basis, he has been burning the candle at both ends. For the good of Indian cricket, he will have to step back and rethink his career strategy sooner rather than later, probably by the end of the New Zealand tour.
The author is a caricaturist and sportswriter. A former fast bowler and coach, he believes in calling a spade a spade.
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