Friday, April 5, 2013

On Raj, "Resting", and Player Rotation

India Women have just concluded a T20I series whitewash against Bangladesh, minus two of their leading players, Mithali Raj and Jhulan Goswami. Prior to the series, it was announced by the BCCI that they had not been selected. The word "dropped" was very carefully not used when the announcement was made. Instead, Gargi Banerjee, chair of the women's selection committee, stated that the two players were being "rested" for the course of the series.

This is an interesting use of the term and in my view, it calls into question broader issues about the "resting" of players in both women's and men's cricket.

The resting of players, or "rotation policy" as it has been termed, is a fairly recent phenomenon in the cricketing world. A trawl through recent history suggests that it has come into vogue largely since the introduction of T20Is into the cricketing calendar nine years ago, a fact that has not only increased the workload of players at international level, but has lured many into further loading their personal schedules by heading abroad to play in T20 leagues, notably the IPL.

Notable examples from the past 12 months include Anderson's exclusion from the squad for the third Test against the Windies in June 2012, the non-selection of Anderson, Swann and Trott for England's ODI series in India in January 2013, KP missing the New Zealand ODIs in February, and of course a number of high-profile decisions by Australia to rest players - including, possibly most controversially, Mitchell Starc, who missed the second Test against Sri Lanka in December 2012 after taking 5-63 in the first Test. I could go on...

But you might be wondering why it is that I haven't used a single example from women's cricket. Well, player rotation in women's cricket is practically non-existent. Why? Let's think for a minute about the chief reasons which have been put forward to explain why player rotation is now regularly practised in the men's game:

1. There is a hell of a lot of international cricket being played these days.

2. It prolongs the careers of players, in particular fast bowlers, if you don't select them for every single match.

3. Resting players will mean they perform optimally when they return to the side, and will possibly return hungrier for success.

4. It's a good idea to have a large pool of players to choose from, in case of injury (which is inevitably going to happen to your top players at some point). To improve the performances of your secondary players, they need to have as much international match experience as you can possibly give them.

5. It gives the fans and journos something to moan about.

None of these (bar reason 5, ahem) are applicable in the women's game. While it would be amazing to have a large player pool, in a sport where resources are stretched to the maximum and there is minimal funding, most squads for international tours contain only 15 players. Players cannot be rushed over from abroad mid-series, and, with only limited contracts available (this varies between countries), there is far less opportunity for new players to break into the squad at short notice.

Too much international cricket? The concept in women's cricket is, frankly, laughable. In 2012 Raj played 28 days of international cricket. Yes, 28. (By comparison, the top male players are playing for probably 10 months of every year, not including stints in the IPL.) The next series India are scheduled to play has not yet been fixed (such arrangements are often made at the last minute), but will most likely not be for several months. The women's game is crying out for MORE cricket, not less. This also invalidates reasons 2 and 3, because players by most measures simply do not play enough cricket to worry about being too tired to perform at their best, or having their careers cut short (for most women retirement still comes at a time when other commitments, such as the careers they are forced to have outside cricket, take over, and not when their bodies wear out).

In short, "resting" players in women's cricket is - right now, anyway - totally unnecessary.

Which leads me to think that ultimately, this whole thing isn't really about player rotation at all. What is it about? Banerjee said the following when questioned about the decision:
the seniors such as Mithali and Jhulan have played more than 100 ODIs. Also, they are 30 years [Raj is 30, Goswami is 29] and I don’t see them playing in the next World Cup, which is four years away. We have to look at the future.
Aside from the fact that 30 is hardly past it, especially for Raj, a batsman; that neither player looks past their prime; and that both performed admirably at the recent World Cup, in spite of the team's overall poor showing there, this throws into question the use of the word "rested". The term is totally inappropriate to describe what has happened to Raj and Goswami. They don't need rest (unless there's something going on behind the scenes with either player, which I doubt). They've been sidelined to make room for newer players.

There are wider issues at stake here. In my view there is nothing wrong with "resting" players in theory. The real problem with player rotation is that no one is quite clear precisely what it means, or when it is being used.

Is it only about giving players who look tired a rest, or is it also about not using players in formats of the game in which they are weakest? (Then again, isn't that just being "omitted", or "dropped"?) Is it partly about making players keener to compete for their place in the side, even if they don't feel tired? Should players miss whole series', or just individual games? Should it be used when there is a dead rubber, to "blood" new players? Should it be used against "lesser" teams, when there is a bigger series like the Ashes coming up?

Is it only really applicable to fast bowlers with a large workload? Do the players get a say in it? Who decides when a player needs rest? The player themselves? The coach? The sports scientists behind the scenes?

As far as I can see, no one has answered any of these questions satisfactorily.

This isn't the first time the term has been used deceptively. At the end of last year, Peter Siddle missed the Boxing Day Test. The selectors claimed at the time it was because he was being rested - but we later found out he was in fact already carrying an injury. This was deliberate deception on the part of the Australian administration. The concept of "player rotation" has also been used to justify the poor treatment of Usman Khawaja and Steve Smith, who were brought in for the first match of the ODI series and then discarded for the remainder. All this quite possibly explains why Inverarity is so touchy about use of the term "player rotation".

Inverarity reckons the fans and the media have no right to know if a player is being "rested" or is injured. In his words, in the press conference following the Test matches against Sri Lanka: "I don't think it's in the interests of the player to reveal every little niggle. Players don't want to be seen as vulnerable or physically suspect and we respect that. We'd rather take the heat than the players. We won't always say that he's got a bit of a bad knee because more can be made of it and it's awkward for the player." I happen to disagree with Inverarity here. I can't quite see the point of trying to cover up an injury when presumably it will come out at a late date anyway. Does being dishonest really benefit anybody in the long run?

But in any case, the trouble with so-called "Informed Player Management" is that it's not informed at all. I'm willing to bet that both Raj and Goswami, given the choice, would have bitten your right arm off to play those three T20Is. So what if it's "only" Bangladesh? They play so little cricket as it is that for these women, each time they get to walk out onto a cricket field in an Indian cricket shirt and represent their country is doubly, no, triply precious. It's obvious they had no involvement in the decision.

I think it's similar for male cricketers - because the risk always, of course, is that someone else will come in and do well, and possibly knock you out of the running. Anderson made it quite clear that he wanted to play in that third Test against the Windies. He didn't get to. Back in 2007, Kallis was "rested" for the T20 World Championship without being consulted first - and promptly quit as vice-captain. Presumably the vast majority of these decisions are made without input from players?

Do players even understand whether they are being rested or omitted due to lack of form? As Stuart MacGill said recently, in reference to the Australia selection policy:
I don’t think the rotation system has been clearly defined to the players. If it is clearly defined you might have a difference of opinion. For example, in one day cricket I thought the best way to stem to flow of runs was to take wickets, whereas John Buchanan thought it was to keep the run rate down. I disagreed with him, but I was comfortable with the selection policy at the time. I don’t think that same clarity can be claimed now.

The latest example of confusion came only yesterday. Matt Prior has been omitted from England's provisional squad for the Champions Trophy this summer. Eh?? This is the best wicketkeeper-batsman in world cricket, who has just miraculously saved a Test for England. Several people on twitter described this as "resting" Prior. Is it resting? Or do England still not consider him good enough to bat in this format? It would be helpful to know.

So, here's my point: the selectors, in both men's and women's cricket, need to come right out and actually say what they mean. Trying to obfuscate the issue by using the terms "rested" and "rotated" when what they really mean is "we lack faith in this player in this particular format", or even just plain "we have dropped this player", is not helpful for the players, the media or the fans. There are occasions when resting is appropriate, of course, and maybe it's fair enough to not have selected Raj or Goswami for a series against a weaker team like Bangladesh, and to bring in some newer players - but to use the term "rested" as a synonym for other issues is a problem. It doesn't tell the whole story, and it undermines the whole concept of player rotation.

We'd have one less thing to moan about, but it would be nice, all the same, for the selectors to practice a little bit of Informed Fan Management when it comes to player rotation.

1 comment:

  1. The selectors in India until quite recently used to be defensive in their treatment of senior pros. There clearly existed, and perhaps still does, a culture of dealing softly with senior cricketers, something that might have to do with the high-emotions that run in the country for its' cricketers. This deferential, and somewhat timorous attitude would often lead to announcements of 'players being rested' when instead they were in all certainty being 'dropped'. It was a ridiculous thing to do, and would fool no one, but the selectors continued with the charade anyway. There might be similar tendencies taking shape,growing root in the other cricketing nations and they should be as wary of it, as we should be bothered of its' persistence in India. It is something that does not help anyone. The term rested should only mean what it really stands for: a player who is worn out, is depleted, or is on the verge of risking it, kept out of the squad. It should not be treated as an euphemism for 'discarded', 'out of favor',or 'injured/unavailable'.