Cricket's fit issue

Athleticism and fitness in cricket.

The first time I walked into the ground to watch St Lucia Stars train, Rahkeem Cornwall was batting. A wide ball from a spinner was one of the first deliveries I saw him face. He lost his shape, could barely reach it and hit it over cover for six. It was the long boundary.

I have seen big shots over cover before, but the batters usually have great positions or use a quick's pace. Cornwall just hit it because he has incredible power.

There are a lot of jokes about his fitness. But he is an athlete, just a different kind we usually see in cricket.

In recent times, Cricket South Africa has been on a huge kick to get their players fitter. There is nothing wrong with the general thoughts behind that. This is now a professional game, the players are paid to look after themselves, and they are also given help with fitness plans and dieticians.

The tricky bit with cricket is it's a skill game as well. You need to be fitter to use your skills, but someone with less fitness and more skill might still beat you. But South Africa are being upfront, they want their players to be fitter.

The latest person to fall foul of this is their now former Women's captain Dane van Niekerk. Who had to run two kilometres in under 9 minutes 30 seconds. She was 18 seconds slower than was required. If you think all athletes should be able to do this easily, then you need a few more details.

One is that this was a personal best time. Not a bad effort from a player about to turn 30, who had already represented South Africa 194 times. Also, she had just lost ten kilograms. And one of the reasons she was struggling with fitness was that she had been recovering from a broken ankle.

It means that the South African team will not have its leader and someone who in the last three years of T20, has the 14th most runs and taken the 39th most wickets. Her numbers are not elite in either, but put together means she is a great package, and that is before you think about her captaincy skills.

It's a hell of a player to drop when she's lost ten kilograms, recorded her fastest 2K time and is coming back from a broken ankle.

Two of South Africa's most obvious batters will not be at the World Cup. Because Lizelle Lee retired from South African cricket after she was dropped for also failing fitness tests. For her, she passed the 2K trial, but she wasn't under the weight she was told to clear.

That meant that a player who scored the most runs in ODIs in 2021 at an average of 90 was no longer available for the national side. These are two of the best players in South African history, let alone right now, and both are now not at a home World Cup.

There are other issues here. One is body shaming, which is something that sport has done for years. I have done it in my work over the years. Fitness is a tough thing to write about in sports. Because the players we focus on are usually the larger ones. Often we accuse them of laziness while doing it ourselves. Which lets off other players off the book.

The other issue is women-specific, and we saw this play out in the men's game 20 years ago. The move from amateur to professional takes time. Lizelle Lee and Dane van Niekerk started as amatuers. They had jobs, did other things, and fit their cricket around their life. But they are now top-tier professionals. But not everyone just changes a lifetime of habits when they get paid.

England became professional in 2012. In 2016 they lost a World Cup and their coach Mark Robinson was very upset by their fitness. The women's game is already far fitter and more athletic than a generation before. But with a few key exceptions, the level of an athlete is not that high. It will change; money does that. But not straight away.

And cricket is different because of the skill side of it. Skill is still so important. Look at Sisanda Magala destroying England in the middle order in his ODI comeback. But before that, he failed a 2K test, and he was on the out as well. Since then he has lost weight and passed the time required.

Cricket South Africa is putting a line in the sand. But you can question if that is the same line. Lizelle Lee, Dane van Niekerk and Sisanda Magala are three completely different players. How can a one size fits all - pun intended  - make sense?

If you just focus on T20 cricket, it is clearly becoming more like baseball. And that is worth noting because baseball athletic types vary massively in different positions. Outfielders are the most typically athletic, as they need to cover the most ground. Some infielders, like shortstops, are explosive over their first few steps. Catchers are usually thicker. Base fielders and designated hitters are usually thicker again. And pitchers are usually full of lanky limbs.

Cricket isn't quite there. But there are already clearly some power hitters coming through, and then others who manipulate and run. Fast bowlers and spinners are massively different from other athletes. Keepers fit in there as well. And of course, most players have their spots on the field.

In cricket, you need a minimum of six outfielders on your side. Especially if your bowler is one of them. Most teams think they can carry two fielders in the ring without great ground-covering skills. They will go behind the wicket usually, positions where you rarely have to chase anything, as when the ball beats you it is generally four.

You could argue that in T20 the most important fielders by some distance are your boundary riders. And so now what happens is the best fielders stay there. Your absolute guns at the end of the game run from long on to long on. They travel a lot more than other fielders. Suppose you have more people who are boundary riders. In that case, it does mean you can rest and rotate your players so they don't need to hammer themselves in the field - which is their secondary skill.

I also need to point something out here. Being a good fielder and being an incredible athlete is not always linked. Some good slower-moving outfielders in cricket cover the boundary quickly because they can read the game earlier, make the right choices of which end to throw to and have a cannon arm. Reading the shots ahead of time in the circle and being accurate with your throw can be better than an incredible athlete with fumbles.

Generally, fielders are better if they can move explosively, and that is easier to do when you're fit, especially towards the end of games.

But cricket is a burst sport. No one does a 2K run in cricket, as Magala has noted in this piece by Firdose Moonda where she goes deep into the issue.

A few years back there was research on men's T20 cricket.

During the 2017/18 Big Bash, 12 games were studied to look at what players did in games. There is much great information in this report as they used the GPS data of players to give us an updated understanding of what happens on the field.

You can see that batters don't do many kilometres when batting, but make up for when they are fielding. Fast bowlers have to add in their run-ups. And it lets you know why being a seam bowling all-rounder in limited-overs cricket is so punishing.

These seem like big amounts. But the players are not always running or sprinting. Around 70% of anything a cricketer does on the field is walking. Which dwarfs anything else you do. If you have a fitness tracker on when you play, you'll see that it doesn't take up many calories playing cricket.

The point of all of this is that a yo-yo test, beep test, skin folds or a 2K run are not the best way to check if you are fit for cricket. Nothing really tests you for this except playing cricket.

And you may assume that there is no way to test a player in a game, except cricket has been doing that for a long time. Catapult is a system that was invented for Australian sport in the 1980s, and it came to cricket shortly after so we could get real information on the players out on the field. You probably would have seen one, it looks like a sports bra with an electrical device shoved into it.

This system is used by players around the world. And it allows us to check the vital statistics of covered metres, heart rates, and everything else of players on the field. England used information like this to check if their players were tainting with the intensity they wanted. And I am sure teams have used it to note if a player is hiding an injury or is struggling for overall fitness.

England also has a personal fitness plan for each player. Because cricketers vary so much. A one size fits all plan doesn't make any sense. They look at the player's natural state and then work from that. That is a better system.

Players who are overweight are already discriminated against without a fitness Test.

In recent times Azam Khan, Prithvi Shaw, Sarafraz Khan and Samit Patel have struggled to play regularly, even if they are clearly of that quality. And the reason is that no matter how good your skills are, you have to batter for someone at the other end.

At St Lucia when we decided to move Rahkeem Cornwall up the order, he was going to be batting with David Warner. One player hits and stands still, the other gets into his innings by stealing runs.

That is before you get into the field. If you already have one bowler who can't field and an older player who doesn't move as well, bringing in a fielder who isn't fit and can't be hidden is a negative. Some teams don't want to shelter any poor movers. Even if there isn't much data suggesting those players are a huge drag.

But as much as the fielding (and running) is an issue. In truth though, one of the reasons people don't pick players they see as overweight is that they think they should just get fitter. The most common thing I hear in the game is those players are seen as lazy. That isn't just a cricket thing of course though, it's a societal issue.

The argument that all pro athletes should be fit makes sense. And there are plenty of players - even many who look fit - who could work more on their body and game. Also that they're getting the most out of their body. I think all cricketers should try to get as fit as they should be. And women's cricket is going through what the men's game did.

What strength and fitness people in cricket would say is that even though a 2K run is not an ideal test, it does allow them to see the base levels of fitness for players. And cricket is a skill and decision-making game. If you are more tired, you will struggle to make the best choices.

However, the other side is that if you're way more skilled than another player, your drop might still be higher than another player. If fitness matters so much in cricket, those who make the top level without it must be incredible, right?

But I think ultimately you are paid to be good at cricket, not be fit. And if your fitness means bringing the team down through obvious runs being turned down, or hiding in the field, this is an issue. Although, those are tough things to calculate objectively.

Players get dropped for personality, work ethic, professionalism, skill, form and pitch conditions.

Players make themselves vulnerable to being dropped in several ways. They get dropped for personality, work ethic, professionalism, skill, form and pitch conditions. If you are fit, but can't field. That is an issue. All bowlers who can't bat have a similar issue, as do the rarer cases of batters who can't field. The fewer parts of your game you are a plus, or even average, the worse it is.

It seems that being seen as non-fit stands out more. Especially as cricketers get more athletic, anyone not like this does stand out. And the 2k times South Africa are requiring are not that hardcore. Many athletes in the world could easily slip under them. And if it is your job, you will fight hard for it. Magala did, and van Niekerk did her best time even trying to make it and was still short. It is clear that she is a cricketer but not a runner.

And we have had others. It would be hard to say that Chris Gayle was not a great athlete. He was one of the best hitters of the cricket ball we have ever seen. And we have seen a lot of him topless over the years to understand that he is incredibly fit.

Yet Chris Gayle is slow as fuck. In fact, when he was asked to do a beep test for KKR, he allegedly walked off the field. He struggles in the field to move sideways at all. And his running between the wicket was statuesque. Some of Gayle's problems seem to be hamstring related. Early in his career, every quick single seemed to tweak something.

Yet, he is clearly a liability for any T20 team when he is not hitting sixes. He did enough that his fitness didn't matter. But it was discussed a lot. And some franchises did pass up on him at times because in hiring Gayle, you knew that there was greatness, but it wasn't a seamless fit.

The interesting thing about van Niekerk is that there are many ways a cricketer can help a team. And she does nearly all of them. She can bat and bowl well enough to be a plus for her team. She is not only a good tactician but also a good leader. The rare captain brings in both elements. She is an above-average international player. But she can't run. Despite quite literally her best effort. That is a negative, but it would not appear enough to make her a drag on her team.

Cricket has throughout history tended to pick on skill over fitness. Even as the game has become more athletic. South Africa is taking a stand in the other direction. And it seems they are so serious about it that they are willing to be worse in a World Cup to prove their point. If they are right, the results won't come now, but in the future when all their cricketers coming through will be fitter.

The question is, whether they will be worse if they routinely don't pick players with higher skill. And there is no way to judge that.

I want to finish with one final thing. We talk about cricketers being fit in a way that doesn't always make sense. We are looking for sprinting speed, but forgetting about how fast someone can get off the mark. We worry about their overall times, when often in the field is the first step. We look at basic athleticism and forget that a fast-release accurate throw is probably better. On the Thinking basketball podcast, they talked about the different kinds of athleticism recently.

That is a port way more obsessed with athleticism than cricket. But you can see by this visual they made that athleticism in basketball is far more about how high you can jump or fast you can run.

Balance is an athletic skill, as is hand-eye coordination and cognitive load. These are all parts of cricket. Athleticism in cricket is much more interesting than how we think about it.

And that brings us back to Rahkeem Cornwall. In cricket, he has been mocked for his lack of fitness and athleticism. Even though, he is skilful enough to make contributions with bat and ball, and also has great hands in the field.

And while we don't think of him as a great athlete, we don't measure or value many of the great things he has. Cornwall may not be like a normal player, he's taller and stronger for a start. That helps his bowling and batting. He's an incredible athlete, his hand-eye coordination is really good, and he has great wrist flexibility. His power is kinda obvious. He also reads the game brilliantly, you can see a lot of his bowling comes from his thoughts as a batter. He's an incredible package really.

But if his cricket doesn't explain that, how about the fact in his mid-20s he was asked to trial with the San Francisco 49ers Not sure many other cricketers have been offered that. This is a cricket athlete, even if he might struggle on a 2K run. That said it would take him fewer hits to cover that distance than others.

It's such an interesting sport because of the differences between each player. Cricket is magnificent because there are so many different types of athletes that can be good at it.