Monitoring workload of Indian players during IPL - a reality check
With players’ workload management back in focus for WTC final & World Cup later this year,
Swaroop Swaminathan dwells on the complexity of the issue in franchise-based leagues like IPL
On an increasingly incendiary second Test between India and Australia at Bangalore in March 2017, the near-capacity crowd were going through their full repertoire of chants. As one of the finest Tests in recent times hurtled towards a finish on the early Tuesday afternoon, vast swathes of the M Chinnaswamy Stadium removed the roof of the Stadium with a seldom-heard chant outside Indian Premier League games.
“Are Cee Beeee,” they screamed. Whenever Australia lost a wicket, the chants grew louder. Afraid to break the spell, more people joined in. “Are Cee Bee.”
As a neutral in the stands, it wasn’t hard to wonder if that Tuesday (there have been chants about their team before but not with such vigour, fervour or ferocity) was a sign of things. Fans basing their international cricket-watching experience through the eyes of a franchise. Or, in any other words, the sort of tribalism you normally associate with football fans, most of whom are ambivalent about international football.
Some six years and a month later, that has not proved to be the case. The IPL maybe 16 years and nearly 1000 matches old (the game between Mumbai Indians and Chennai Super Kings on May 6 will mark that occasion) but the vast majority of the country’s cricketing ecosystem still bleeds blue with an occasional splash of (insert the colour of the franchise you support here).
Nowhere was this more evident than in the post-series Rohit Sharma press conference following the India - Australia Test series in March. Sharma, who was speaking as India captain, had, essentially, given the Mumbai Indians version of himself a question to answer.
“It’s (workload monitoring) quite critical for us,” Sharma had said in Ahmedabad. “We are going to keep in constant touch with all players who are going to be part of that final to monitor their workload.” Monitoring the workload of players is fine. Boards routinely do it and much more. But Sharma added that all players expected to be part of the bowling group for the WTC final against Australia would be given Dukes balls to practice with during the IPL.
There is always bound to be some sort of tension between franchises and country but the idea that bowlers could use additional training sessions to acclimatise for an upcoming India match while, legally speaking, representing their franchise is a slippery slope. For the two months or so when the IPL is on, they have an explicit contract with players and the franchises are entitled to use the players how they best deem fit. Put it this way.
If Argentina captain Lionel Messi had given a press conference stating his country’s football association would be sending around World Cup balls so that the players could get used to its behaviour a month or so before the World Cup, club coaches would have reminded players, including Messi himself, where their allegiances lay for the majority of the season. Sure, this isn’t a direct or valid comparison because cricket’s international club culture is still in its infant stage when compared to a sport like football. But the point still stands. It’s a bit like a kid doing Math homework during Chemistry period.
Staying with Sharma, it got super awkward when his franchise coach, Mark Boucher, directly contradicted his claims. In a pre-tournament media briefing, Bouncher had said: “A lot of talk is given to workloads and all that kinds of stuff. T20 cricket, if you look at our schedule, there’s a nice gap between games to sort of rest and recover and we can look after every player. I don’t see workloads being a major issue for us throughout the IPL.”
In that same briefing Sharma revealed that he had a meeting with all possible WTC-bound players reminding them of the need to manage their bodies.
“We have talked to the players and told them to look after their bodies. When they go to play for their respective franchises, it is not much that they can control. It is up to the franchises, their physios and trainers and medical teams on how to handle their players. All these are adults and they know how to manage the entire situation and come back fresh for the final (WTC).”
The art of balancing the two is delicate at the best of times. Sharma, who will be the captain for the WTC final if fit, knows this. The Mumbai opener had sat out a few IPL games with a suspect hamstring after injuring it during the 2020 season. Less than a week after the BCCI ruled the batter out of the opening phase of the Test series Down Under, Sharma walked out for the toss for Mumbai Indians in the UAE. Only one of his two principal employers went home happy that night.
While it’s understandable that the BCCI want to wrap their assets in cotton wool, especially before a title clash, there is a bit more nuance to the situation. In a Venn Diagram, the IPL teams and the Indian side exist in separate circles without any overlapping.
Before the 2019 World Cup, Virat Kohli, the then skipper, refused to put a cap on the no. of appearances a WC-bound player could have. “You cannot put a cap on anything. If I’m able to play 10, 12 or 15 games, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the other guy can only play that many,” he had said. “My body might demand I play a certain number of games and I need to be smart about that and rest. Someone else’s body might be more capable than mine or less, that is a very individual thing.”
However, that call, should be the franchise’s to make. Boucher was categorical. “Sometimes the media, people look too much into workloads. Especially in T20s, it’s a short game, three hours where you have to give your best with 100 per cent intensity. Like I said, 15 years ago, we wouldn’t have been having this conversation. Test cricket and One-day cricket is tough on the body. T20 cricket is short, so we shouldn’t be talking about workloads…”
As India’s unrelenting summer moves from unbearable to soul-shattering over the next few weeks, ‘workload’ will be front and centre. Will the franchises stand firm or will Sharma & his Indian colleagues have the final say?