It is a tough life

WE see cricketers as great stars, forever in the news, whether in newspapers or on TV networks.

AMIT MATHUR

WE see cricketers as great stars, forever in the news, whether in newspapers or on TV networks. Players are powerful role models and hot celebrities who earn serious money, and enjoy, as the cliche goes, name and fame. Cricketers are modern day royalty, contemporary rajas and, basically, for them life could not be better.

Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh during a training session. The present day cricketers have to work harder and spend a lot of time at the gym to keep fit and in shape . — Pic. V. V. KRISHNAN-

All these wonderful things are only partially correct. The life of a cricketer appears fantastic, but only from a distance, from outside. Not immediately apparent is the fact that behind the glamour and glitz lies a lot of grime, sweat and dirt. Becoming a cricketer is not easy, and the lucky ones who make it have to work exceedingly hard to stay there.

Explains a player: "Cricket is terribly uncertain, one is not sure of making the grade because millions are competing. And even if you get the right breaks there is no guarantee of staying there. Each day is an exam and players are no better than daily wage earners — employment may not be renewed or extended for the next day".

This could be an exaggerated fear because, why just cricket, all sport depends on current performance. Yet it is true cricket has extra pressure which corrodes the mind and numbs muscles.

Pressure is from within, which can be a motivating factor, and from demanding fans who think Sachin is Superman and Tinu Yohanan some sort of Tarzan. Pressure, a silent killer, devastates players because it has a serious bearing on performance. Moreover, there is considerable confusion in a player's mind due to cricket's unique position of being an individual sport played within a team structure. Unlike hockey or football where judging a midfielder's performance is a difficult task, it is easy to evaluate a cricketer because the scorebook tells the story in stark terms. Cricket is group activity, 11 versus 11, but players are handed out individual mark sheets, everyone is judged strictly by statistics. Hence the tantalising dilemma of individual versus team interest.

Apart from endless tension, players have to endure other pain as well. As the cricket calendar stretches for months (with Ranji played from October to May), players are away from home and offices for long periods. This creates obvious problems on both fronts, and while the player could have the support of an understanding family, the position at work is worsening rapidly. In recent times, job opportunities have shrunk, only in part due to an economic slowdown. Employers have wised up to the reality that cricketers are absent from work and don't have time even for office matches. And, how does a company productively use a retired player, someone only 30 but unskilled, untrained and lacking administrative experience ?

Given this background, is it a wonder that many players, among them people on the fringe of national selection, are currently unemployed. Most of us see the dazzle and sparkle of cricket, not realising that the wealth and fame is restricted to the top 20 players, perhaps even less. The rest are condemned to an existence below the poverty line; this vast majority slogs and struggles, hoping good fortune or a stroke of luck will visit them one day.

Till that happens, cricketers have to punish their bodies to remain match fit and perform. Which means a relentless race to shed weight, develop muscle and become athletic; hours are thus spent training in the gym, lifting weights and working hard. All this to bowl a little quicker, run the third run faster, move more swiftly to cut the boundary at deep point and throw harder from the fence to prevent the extra run. The game is getting younger and faster, and on a highway full of sleek Mercedes cars there is no place for a slow moving Ambassador.

This realisation drives Zaheer Khan and Nehra to the gym after a match. On tours, players hardly have a day off, on days without nets they are busy doing sessions with Andrew and Adrian.

All this hard work comes at a cost. Ask players what is the most difficult aspect of being a cricketer and the unanimous answer will be training. Said one player: "People talk of too much cricket but that is no problem. Every cricketer wants to play, nobody is tired of playing. But what kills you is training."

Training strengthens the body but no player in the circuit is hundred per cent fit, everyone is battling to keep his body together. Earlier only bowlers: (Srinath, Kumble, Nehra) broke down but now the epidemic has spread to batsmen, and there is hardly anyone who has not pulled out of a game for physical repairs.

The list of the injured includes Dravid (shoulder), Ganguly (back), Laxman (groin), and many others who constantly grapple with all kinds of fitness problems. Sachin too has had his share of injuries — at different times he has been caught by a bad back/ toe/ hand/ hamstring and shoulder.

One way to avoid physical burnout is to take selective breaks which allow the tired body to recover. But this is difficult because competition for slots is intense; if someone steps off the escalator he may not get a chance to get on again. No cricketer, therefore, wants rest; he either hides injuries or carries on playing, ignoring the discomfort. In that sense players are no different from animals trapped in a circus who are always on show, their lives governed by their ringmasters, the trainer and the physio.

What, some may logically ask, is the big deal in this, pointing to the huge rewards cricketers receive. Which is a fair question but as always there are two sides. Players have a tough life but every push-up in the gym pushes up their bank balance. And every stretch extends their fame and celebrity status.

While this is true, there is no denying that a cricketer's life is not a picnic, a roll in the garden. It is a steep and slippery climb, fraught with danger — not good for persons with jumpy nerves or weak hearts.