Sanju Samson ought to have been in Leeds currently with the India A team, bracing up for Sunday’s first 50-over practice match against Yorkshire ahead of the triangular ‘A’ tri-series with hosts England and Windies as the other protagonists.
Instead, he is somewhere in India at the moment, licking his wounds and wondering where his already controversial, incident-ridden career is headed.
Mohammed Shami should have been plotting Afghanistan’s downfall at the Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore had all other things been equal. Instead, like Samson, Shami might be racking his brain trying to make sense of it all.
Shami and Samson are the latest, most high-profile victims of Indian cricket’s insistence on an uncompromising attitude towards fitness.
Ahead of the ‘A’ team’s tour to England, Samson failed the Yo-Yo test at the National Cricket Academy. His spot in the Rahul Dravid-coached squad went to Ishan Kishan, the former India Under-19 skipper coming off a brilliant run for Mumbai Indians in the Indian Premier League.
Shami, it is learnt, didn’t come through the ‘Mile’ test, a reasonably recent introduction to the Indian set-up. Even though he was part of the Delhi Daredevils squad, Shami – plagued by accusations of domestic abuse – played only four matches for modest returns of 3 for 143 before being benched as Delhi looked ahead under new skipper Shreyas Iyer.
When the India and India A teams were announced in Bangalore on May 8, there was no indication that anyone’s place was under threat owing to fitness parameters. MSK Prasad, the chairman of the selection committee, was specifically asked if there would be yo-yo tests for the Test players. “Of course. It is a standard norm,” the former India stumper had replied. “We are following that with India A also. Everyone (has) passed (the test).”
True, no one had asked the chairman what would happen in the event of a player failing a test. We know now what will happen, don’t we?
So, does it mean that fitness is more important than skills? That a player who has been picked because he is deemed skilled enough to represent the national team or the team just one rung below it can lose his spot because he can’t touch 16.1 on the yo-yo test? And when we say fitness, should we be looking at just cricket fitness – because, after all, we are talking about a cricketer, not an Olympic level athlete – or should we be looking for something more than just the ability to bat six hours, or to bowl one’s 30th over of the day at the same pace and with the same intensity as his first?
Of course, there is no excuse for failing the yo-yo test which, we have been informed more than once, is no more than a very basic test that one must be extremely unprofessional not to clear with any degree of ease. The clamour for a basic standard of fitness is hardly unreasonable. Mohammad Shahzad might get away with playing for Afghanistan, like Ramesh Powar did for India, but that is unlikely to be the norm even with Test cricket’s newest entrants. In this day of example-setting, it isn’t just enough to look fit, one needs to be fit too. Already, the head coach and the bowling coach of the Indian team look far fitter for two months away from the game, and if the support staff can get themselves to work their backsides off, there is no reason why young men in their 20s, and with their future ahead of them, can’t do likewise.
However, should fitness have the final say? I know there are tangible parameters by which to measure fitness, just like there aren’t to measure skills – cricket is surely more about just the number of runs and wickets, right? – but for a world-class cricketer to perform at his optimal level, skills and physical fitness must be equal allies, at best. If anything, it is the cricketing ability that should shade any other factor. Shami, who will be key to India’s fortunes over the next eight months as they target Test series triumphs in England and Australia, is second to none when it comes to his mastery over new ball and old. And as he showed earlier this year in South Africa, he was far more effective and potent in his second and third spells than in his first. Without a certain level of fitness, I am not sure he could have managed that.
Be that as it may, the Indian team management has sent out a clear message through the events of this week. That there is no room for compromise on basic non-negotiables. That they were willing to acknowledge the lack of fitness of Samson and Shami in public is a welcome development from a cricket board that has been happy for people to indulge in speculation and rabble-rousing by cloaking even the most obvious of activities in clandestine secrecy.
Evidently, ‘subject to fitness’ has become an unwritten asterisk accompanying the selection of any Indian cricket team. The Shami-Samson episode of earlier this week will have come as a rude jolt to those that might have expected lenience of some sort because of their abilities with bat or ball or both. To many, that might appear unfair, but at least there is no scope for ambiguity because, pun intended, you know what the score is. Never was shape up or ship out a more appropriate axiom from a cricketing standpoint.