One of the iconic images of the 2007 World Cup is of Dwayne Leverock, aka Sluggo, throwing himself to his right at slip to hold on to a sensational catch that saw the back of Robin Uthappa. As catches go, it was right up there with the best; the fact that it was completed by a man who would have been less out of place in a wrestling ring than on the cricket field made the entire sequence even more compellingly arresting.
Leverock’s acrobatics at Queen’s Park Oval against India was perhaps the moment of the World Cup for Bermuda, unfancied and unfashionable as a cricketing entity and totally failing to push the Asian big boys – India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka – in the first round of the competition. By every account, it was a catch for the ages. That a man weighing 127 kilos was the one who made something out of nothing added special charm and allure.
“A lot of people are talking about bodies and the-six packs. Then you get models. I always say pick 15 models and tell them to play cricket. It’s so unfortunate that all these people who take decisions on cricketing matters haven’t seen proper cricket. You take the Duleep Mendises, the (GR) Viswanaths, the (Mike) Gattings and the (Colin) Cowdreys … these players, including me, wouldn’t have played cricket if people running cricket today ran cricket then.”
Leverock, now 46 and a one-time left-arm spinner, is a policeman who used to drive prison vans and who was a novelty at a showpiece event like the World Cup not just because of where he came from, but also how he looked. He was aware of how heavy he was, but he wasn’t exactly conscious about it. He must not have been oblivious to the weighty jokes at his expense given that he was a policeman by profession and a cricketer at heart, his amateur status and the country he represented relegated everything else to the background.
Will there, however, be place for another Leverock – or anyone else of his heavyweight ilk – in competitive cricket going forward? Even if it is for Bermuda? One thinks not.
In the last week, several different influential voices in the world of cricket have pitched in in the fitness v skill debate. Must fitness be complemented by skill? Or should it be the other way round, with skill the primary focus and everything else aligned around it? Should cricketers be cricket-fit, or should they be six-pack flouting, chiselled-bodied individuals, never mind if they are slightly less talented from a skills perspective?
It’s a debate that will attract as many opinions as there are debaters. It’s like wondering if a spinner must first master line and length, and then start focussing on trying to turn the ball. Or, if a batsman should first get his defensive technique in order before turning his attention to strokeplay. Can it not work in the opposite way – what if someone is a natural turner of the cricket ball, or is blessed innately with a wonderful eye and a wide range of strokes? Is it impossible for such skilled individuals to be introduced to the basics in a roundabout manner?
Cricket is, like all other professional sporting endeavours, an amalgam of ability and fitness, of skill and physical presence. It is as much about being able to swing the ball, say, as being able to continue to bowl at 140kph in the final spell, at the very end of a long, fruitless day. It calls on you to be able to summon, as a batsman, the same concentration and focus in your sixth hour at the crease as the defensive technique needed to keep a virtuoso spinner or a tearaway quick at bay. And increasingly today, it requires you to hare after balls, slide around like a massive truck on icy roads, to rifle balls from the outfield into the gloves of the wicketkeeper at the rate of knots. Cricket hasn’t ever been more physical than it is today; that’s the way of a world that places as much emphasis on appearance as on substance. But has fitness to be such a non-negotiable that even a slight dip in those standards can be enough to cost even the most skilled, the most naturally gifted, his place in the side?
“When the time comes for India to field a side for the 2019 50-over World Cup, we should have the best fielding XI in the world walking out. Only the fittest of the lot will survive and thrive going forward and that’s right up there in the list of priorities.” – Shastri
Yes, is the emphatic answer from the influential decision-makers in Indian cricket. Over the last week, both MSK Prasad, the chairman of selectors, and Ravi Shastri, the head coach who has been somewhat subdued in his first outing in that capacity with the senior team, have made it clear that only the physically fittest will survive. And while there has been no official word to that effect, ‘sources’ have revealed that it was the failing of the ‘yo-yo’ test, as much as anything else, that cost Yuvraj Singh his place in the One-Day International squad for the five-match series in Sri Lanka.
“When the time comes for India to field a side for the 2019 50-over World Cup, we should have the best fielding XI in the world walking out. Only the fittest of the lot will survive and thrive going forward and that’s right up there in the list of priorities.” Thus spoke Shastri, a couple of days after India knotted up an unprecedented 3-0 Test series sweep in this teardrop island.
Prasad had sung a similar tune as India were marching towards victory on day three of the final Test. “We need to be a fitter and a stronger side. We need to raise our fitness levels and we need to raise our fielding standards,” said the chairman. “We are trying to fix some fitness parameters and whoever it is has to strictly adhere to those parameters. If someone fails to match those parameters, he will not be considered (for selection), irrespective of whoever it is.”
Given how every little thing can have such a massive bearing on the outcome of matches with high stakes in extremely high-pressure situations, it is not difficult to agree with the head coach and the chairman. In Virat Kohli, they have the perfect role model through which to advocate the virtues of fitness. But would Kohli be the Kohli he is today where he also not inherently skilled as a batsman? If he could just run all day and not be able to find gaps, to twirl those magnificent wrists or play those majestic punches, would the Indian captain still rule the cricketing world? Is he being celebrated today for the batsman he is, or is his batting second only to the no-fat-all-muscle body?
“A lot of people are talking about bodies and the-six packs. Then you get models. I always say pick 15 models and tell them to play cricket,” Arjuna Ranatunga, Sri Lanka’s 1996 World Cup-winning captain, quipped the other day, reflecting with pain on how steeply his country has fallen from its glory days. “It’s so unfortunate that all these people who take decisions on cricketing matters haven’t seen proper cricket. You take the Duleep Mendises, the (GR) Viswanaths, the (Mike) Gattings and the (Colin) Cowdreys … these players, including me, wouldn’t have played cricket if people running cricket today ran cricket then.”
Kohli, Hardik Pandya and KL Rahul stand out as the fittest-looking Indian cricketers currently, but looking fit and being fit are two entirely different things, as Rahul will readily accept. No other young cricketer has had as many injuries as Rahul in recent times – and we are not taking fractured fingers or cricketing injuries. He has had issues with his hamstring and his shoulder, he has had muscle-related problems. Fitness-based, not cricket-driven.
In an ideal world, there should be no compromise on either skill or fitness. But this is far from an ideal world, and therefore certain adjustments must be factored in. The question, therefore, is would you go for the man with the superior talent, even if he is marginally found wanting on the fitness front? Or would you rather back the extraordinary athlete who might be a little light on the skills scales? Wonder what Mr Leverock, policeman Leverock, has to say to that.