Before heading across to UK in June for their elongated tour featuring the World Test Championship (WTC) final and the five-match Test series against England, India captain Virat Kohli and head coach Ravi Shastri were asked whether the trend of countries sending different teams to different places at the same time will become a norm?
The question was pertinent since India were about to send an alternate squad for their limited-overs tour of Sri Lanka in July, played after the WTC final versus New Zealand and before the England Test series.
With the pandemic regulations leading to a mandatory 14-day quarantine and making it extremely difficult for India’s regular players to leave and return to England in time for the Test series, the selection committee had no choice but to keep them in the UK and pick an entirely different touring contingent for the Island nation.
Speaking to the press before their England departure, Kohli and Shastri both nodded in agreement about the prevailing situation, with Shastri saying it would be understandable if fielding two different teams at the same time becomes a norm in current times.
“At the moment it is happening because of the current situation and restrictions on travel. But you never know in future… if you want to expand the game in the shorter formats, it could be the way to go,” Shastri was quoted as saying by The Hindu.
On his part, Kohli said the mental toll that players have had to endure because of the stringent bio-security bubbles also has a major role to play here.
“It’s very difficult for players to stay motivated for long periods of time and find the right kind of mental space,” he had said. “Just confined in one area and just doing the stuff day in, day out, and dealing with high-pressure situations… so, this will definitely become a norm where apart from the workloads, I think the mental health side of things will also come into picture big time because you don’t have an outlet at all in today’s day and age.”
Even as countries speed up the vaccination rollout, the end of the pandemic is still not close to sight. Cricket is in for another extended period getting played amid excessive restrictions, which would only force teams to continue prioritising their players’ physical and mental well-being and rest and rotate them on separate tours. But what are the cricketing advantages of the same? Would this inadvertently imposed situation help cricket globally in the long run?
Pros of cricket amid COVID-19 pandemic: benefits of nations fielding different teams concurrently
1. Helps rest the regular all-format stars
India’s wise decision to not force the issue and keep their regular white-ball players stay put in UK, has helped ensured that the likes of Kohli, Rohit Sharma and other members of the main team are able to rest up their bodies amid a cramped schedule while maintaining focus solely on the series at hands.
Any mingling of players part of separate tours, would’ve not only resulted in excessive physical burnout and bubble fatigue but also some compromised planning and preparations for the respective series.
Sending a different group of players and standby options with separate coaching staffs to England and Sri Lanka has helped India take care of both on and off-field issues and most importantly, keep their best men fresh.
England did the same throughout last summer, where they appointed an entirely different squad for red and white-ball versions of the game. More teams are expected to follow this template in the next few years and make sure their players are able to sustain fitness levels and perform at their best whenever they play.
2. Gives exposure to fringe players
Sending alternate squads on separate tours also helps teams assess the progress of their fringe players and keep a track of their talent depth. In sending a new-look touring party to Sri Lanka, India have availed themselves a great opportunity to gauge what are the areas these players need to improve at before potentially pressing their cases for selection in the regular team.
Selection and performances on such tours boost players’ confidence as well. Being made to feel important to the national setup on such trips, these developing players know they are not too far away from breaking into the first team and just need to continue piling on their stocks whenever and wherever they get an opportunity.
3. Less one-sided matches improve the competition, speed up cricket’s growth
One of the unhighlighted pros of teams picking their fringe players for clashes against lower-ranked teams is that it reduces the chances of having one-sided games, which then inspires confidence among struggling sides and indirectly speeds up cricket’s growth.
After getting comprehensively beaten in the first ODI, the much-weakened Sri Lankan team showed a lot more fight in the second ODI that followed in Colombo. And even though the Indians still prevailed, Sri Lanka took a lot of confidence out of the fight they had shown. It inspired their victory in the final game of the series where they nearly dominated the visitors.
It could have easily been a no-contest if India had opted to send some of their prominent stars, but with a fringe team still finding its feet at certain aspects, Sri Lanka had just enough breathing space to compete and take the game back to their opposition.
Previously as well, we have seen instances of a side like Zimbabwe getting better with each game over the course of a series when the strength of the opposing team isn’t quite 100%. Zimbabwe nearly defeated a second-string Indian side in a T20I series back in 2016 when they won the first match in Harare and almost pulled off the decider at the same venue.
In 2010, Zimbabwe reached the final of an ODI tri-series ahead of a weakened Indian side, which they defeated twice during the league stage.
While performances against full-strength teams is what would truly aid the growth of such sides, the confidence gained out of stretching their slightly understrength version is also of immense value at times. It gives them belief to compete and more competitive teams in the world means a globally healthier sport.