“What is a yo-yo test?” I asked a cricketer, not long ago. “When you score runs or pick wickets by the heapful at the domestic level, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) lets the national selectors, self-designated experts, coaches, trainers, team doctors, analysts and the ‘bureaucracy’ at the National Cricket Academy (NCA) kick you around like a football. If you come out alive, you have passed the yo-yo test,” he replied, tongue-firmly-in-cheek.
Have things changed for the better with Sourav Ganguly taking over as BCCI president, and Rahul Dravid as head of the NCA? Though the duo, in their heyday, took less than half a second to dispatch deliveries from the likes of Glenn McGrath, Steve Harmison and Alan Donald to the boundary, they still find it convenient to ‘meet and discuss’ issues of national cricketing import. Players need to pass the yo-yo test; it seems, there’s no agility test for the board president and the head of the NCA.
Last week, India’s pace-ace Jasprit Bumrah approached the NCA to conduct his fitness test so that he could return to the India fold at the earliest. He had last played for India in August-September 2019 in a Test match against the West Indies, in the Caribbean Isles, after which he had been diagnosed with stress fractures in the lower back. Dravid refused him the permission to undergo the test, advising the fast bowler instead to approach the ‘specialists’ who he had worked with. An NCA fitness certification is necessary to play for India and therefore, the NCA head’s reply to the champion fast bowler reeked of bureaucratic arrogance.
After returning to India in September, Bumrah had trained initially at the NCA in Bengaluru, under the watchful eyes of the BCCI-appointed trainer Nick Webb. Restless and itching to get back into action fast, he had then broken a rule and decided to train with Rajnikanth Sivagnanam, the Delhi Capitals’ fitness coach. The problem here wasn’t the transgression; it was about the country’s best fast bowler preferring to work with a fitness trainer who had been rejected by the NCA.
Good managers, it is said, attack the problem where it originates, not where it appears. The recently appointed NCA head Dravid sought to punish Bumrah for deciding to get back into the Indian team, working with a trainer that the latter trusted. He did not, as far as we know, try to find out why cricketers in general don’t trust the rehab process and the personnel at the academy.
Take the curious case of the soft-spoken Wriddhiman Saha, who has arguably been India’s finest ‘keeper ever since MS Dhoni exited the Test scene in 2014. He has had to sit out, rendered hors de combat with a shoulder injury for the last 18 months, allegedly because of negligence on part of the medical team at the NCA.
Saha had injured his shoulder in South Africa, in January 2018, and also had a torn hamstring at that time. In March that year, he was declared fit by the NCA. In May 2018, after a couple of heavy falls during the IPL, he was treated by doctors in Delhi and Saha had then dutifully reported to the NCA to get his injury assessed. Post a few injections, while playing in an IPL match on 25 May, he sustained a thumb injury which took more than a month to heal. In the end of July 2018, when the Indian team to tour England was selected, Saha’s name was missing to the utter dismay of his fans. As revealed later, the ‘keeper wasn’t picked because of the torn shoulder and not the thumb injury.
Look at what happened to Hardik Pandya, the swashbuckling all-rounder, who can be a match-winner on his day. He had sprained his lower back while bowling in the Asia Cup of 2018. Declared fit, he was allowed to play in the IPL but had to be stretchered off in a T20 match against South Africa in September 2019. The BCCI’s medical team had to send him to England for a back surgery. Was it the NCA’s decision to declare Pandya fit, or were external factors responsible for him being made available for IPL matches, at the risk of grievous injury?
Then again, we have Bhuvneshwar Kumar, a medium pacer who can make the ball wobble a fair bit. Not ideally built for the rigours of pace bowling, he has had issues with regard to his lower back and his legs over the years. A mid-career attempt to increase his pace may also have added to his fitness problems.
‘Bhuvi’ was sent back to India last season after he had ‘aggravated’ a lower back injury while playing in a one-day international against England. Media persons were then informed that he would have to undergo an intense rehabilitation programme at the NCA for a month before his participation in the Test series could be assessed. He had earlier missed the Nidahas Trophy and the Test match against Afghanistan. Brought back in the T20 series against the West Indies recently, he looked listless and completely out of touch.
Fortunately, for Bhuvneshwar Kumar, the Team India physiotherapist was able to detect symptoms of ‘sports hernia’ and therefore prescribed for him the procedure for correction, rest and rehabilitation. Continuing to play with ‘sports hernia’ would probably have ended the swing bowler’s career. The condition, it is alleged, had gone undetected despite three scans at the NCA. Disgusted with the negligence shown by the medical staff at the academy, ‘Bhuvi’ is said to have sworn never to train at the NCA again.
These are all documented cases, and of recent years. We do not know how many such instances have gone unrecorded, over the years, where players have given up on injury fears for the dread of being reprimanded. Both Ganguly and Dravid, along with others in the BCCI, need to introspect rather than treat contracted players like bonded labour. Bumrah, India’s strike bowler, will get a reprieve; what about others who aren’t as big and are forced to break rules because of sub-standard facilities?
When I took over as sports officer of a public sector undertaking in the early 90s, sportspersons employed in the company – many of whom were state and India players – weren’t allowed to get specialised treatment from doctors who had qualified in sports medicine. They had to get their injuries treated by in-house medical staff, which resulted in many of them having to give up sports. When the top management came to know of this, special approval was given to managers of various teams to use the services of short-listed doctors who were experts.
If public sector managers can understand what specialised treatment means to top class sportspersons, Ganguly and Dravid can surely empathise with the problems that our cricketers face at NCA. Let’s hope they do, for the good of Indian cricket.
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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