Saturday, 9 June 2012

The Question of Rest-ing

It’s become accepted wisdom that international cricketers play far too much cricket. The words ‘burnout’, ‘fatigue’ and ‘rest’ have crept their way into cricket’s terminology, and don’t look like going away any time soon. In the giant hamster wheel that is top level cricket, the players are expected to jump on and keep running for years on end, with a test series in England followed the next week by a 14 match ODI series in Australia, before jumping on a plane that for a T20 exhibition in Kathmandu against the Allen Stanford Invitational Eleven.

Understandably, what with all this cricket, cricket boards have realised that their 100mph fast bowlers won’t be able to bowl 100mph for 365 days in a row without picking up a variety of injuries, so it makes sense to give them a week off here and there. And that’s what England have done this week by not picking Jimmy Anderson or Stuart Broad for the third test match. A few days to sit at home with their feet up will keep them fresh and prepared for the challenges ahead.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to deny Anderson, Broad, or any England player from any much needed rest. It would be foolish to expect every England player to play in every game for their country, as the short-term view would ultimately lead to some very long-term injuries. However, the idea that Anderson and Broad are missing this game at Edgbaston infuriates me beyond belief.

Another long held mantra that keeps getting trotted out is that “test cricket is sacred”. And it should be. Test cricket, by its very definition, is the best eleven available players from one country pitting themselves against the best eleven players from another. It is the ultimate test between the cream of the crop, between master batsmen and skilled bowlers. There is no room for passengers or also-rans – test cricket is for the best of the best. Test caps shouldn’t be thrown around like confetti – they should only be deserved for those who truly deserve them. So to take players who are the best and to rest them, the entire set of values that test cricket is based on is undercut and diminished. Yes Steven Finn and Graham Onions are both top-class bowlers, but the selectors don’t think that they are in the best eleven cricketers in the country. So they should not be playing in this test match. Anderson and Broad should be.

What rankles more with me though is the timing of the rest for England’s regular new ball pair. Again, I’m not denying them the valuable feet-up time, but really? Now? Jimmy and Stuart are missing a test match, which is fundamentally wrong, but the fact that they are missing the test match but will play in 8 ODIs against the West Indies and Australia sickens me. Again, I enjoy ODIs. I don’t want to see them disappear. There is a place in the international calendar for the fifty over format. But the day that the England powers-that-be looked at the calendar when working out when to rest their two strike bowlers and decided to pick a test match for them to miss rather than 8 pointless and unnecessary ODIs is the day that cricket lost its soul. It baffles me beyond comprehension how the ECB feel it appropriate to protect the ODI series while devaluing and diminishing test cricket. Anderson and Broad both said that they were fit and wanted to play in this test, but their views have been overlooked.

It’s not even as if they’d get more of a rest by missing the test match. If they’d managed to get five full days of play in at the test (which with the weather forecast was never going to happen), Anderson and Broad would around 50 overs over the course of 5 days (this year Anderson is averaging 41.57 overs per test), and they’d then be finished. In 8 ODIs they stand to bowl 80 overs each, spread over the space of a few weeks. Those weeks include travelling around the country, lots of days of net practice, and a lot more opportunities to break down. So it can’t even really be said that the resting is down to a cricketing decision.

Sadly, as with many things in cricket, money talks, and the ODIs are where the big bucks are. The packed houses and the money Sky that pay for fifty over games keeps the ECB afloat, and without the star names for those games, the ODIs aren’t worth half as much. Why else are England playing Australia in a ridiculously thought-out series slap bang in the middle of the summer if it isn’t to keep the accountants happy? Why else did the ECB try to block Pietersen’s ODI retirement by threatening to stop him playing T20s (only for him to call their bluff and walk out on it anyway) if it isn’t to push the punters through the turnstiles and the cameras through the gates? And why else are they ensuring Anderson and Broad are available to wear the new blue adidas kit in the first ODI on the 19th by resting them in a boring, dull, pointless game of test cricket?

Cricket has been more of a business than a sport for a while now; we all know that. And it’s a sad state of affairs that the international game has become so saturated that players are required to rest in the first place. But it’s another thing altogether when test cricket is being devalued by withdrawals and rests just so some can line their pockets. While England  are choosing to let their players sit out tests, the West Indies have been faced with some of their top talent preferring to play in the IPL rather than at Lord’s and Trent Bridge, and it all looks a very sorry state of affairs. Cricket is a gruelling game - England’s ODI series in Australia last year, where a half-fit squad limped their way to a 6-1 defeat after an incredibly gruelling Ashes victory took its toll on most of the team shows just how damaging cricket can be on the body, and with the international calendar as it is, it would be ridiculous to suggest that resting players is not a viable option. However, the fact that international players are on a never-ending treadmill with no natural breaks and as such need to pick and choose games is fundamentally wrong. While it’s a great shame that Anderson and Broad are missing a test match, the bigger shame is that the international calendar being what it is means they have to miss a game in the first place. It’s a slippery slope, and with the international calendar only getting worse, and with the money men only getting greedier, it might not be long before players missing test matches so they can put their feet up becomes a regular occurrence. But as long as they play in that T20 game for the Pyongyang Princes against the Baghdad Blitzers (live on ESPN), then that’s all right.