NEW DELHI : Last week, Ishant Sharma, the highest wicket-taker among the current crop of Indian pace bowlers, injured his ankle in a domestic match. This was happening even as India’s pace spearhead Jasprit Bumrah was returning from a six-month cricketing hiatus caused by a stress fracture on his back.

Ishant Sharma joins Deepak Chahar, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Hardik Pandya and Shikhar Dhawan on the bench. Such is the cautionary tale that player fitness has become, the Indian cricket board recently asked wicket-keeper Wriddhiman Saha, returning from an injury, to not risk himself in a domestic match and instead save himself for international duty.

The long line of walking wounded begs the question: are players, especially Indians, working more than before? Data shows they are not. On the one hand, there’s generally more cricket being played, especially with new T20 leagues, and the international calendar is packed. On the other hand, policies of rotation and rest have gone from debate to diktat in cricket, and format specialists have emerged. As a result, leading players are playing as much, or even less, than they were playing a decade ago.

We compared the workload of a set of 40 leading international male cricketers in 2019 with a similar set in 2009. Given that test matches are the longest format, as a starting point, we took the 10 players who played the most tests that year for four countries: Australia, England, India and South Africa. We added the other matches played by them that year, both internationally and domestically. We assigned four playing days to a test match and a first-class game, and a day to one-dayers and T20 matches.

On average, the 40 players in 2019 registered fewer playing days compared to their 40 counterparts in 2009. This was true for all four countries. For example, the pool of 10 Indian players averaged 64 match days in 2019, the same as in 2009. The big drop was in the case of Australia, where the average of 80 days fell to 66 days.

One reason why the drop is more perceptible for Australia, England and South Africa is that they have fewer players playing across formats internationally. In India’s case, there’s a core group playing all three formats, and also test specialists, such as R Ashwin and Ajinkya Rahane choosing other assignments like playing county cricket in England.

The concept of specialist players for different formats gained momentum only in this decade. Of our set of 80 players, 20 players played only tests in a year (and no ODIs or T20 matches). As many as 17 of these 20 players are from 2019. The three from 2009 are VVS Laxman of India, Simon Katich of Australia and Paul Harris of South Africa.

Across these 80 players, in the list of the top 10 by playing days, there are only two players from 2019: Ajinkya Rahane and Rory Burns of England. Virat Kohli is ranked 16, with 82 days.

This list is dominated by players from England. Five players are from England, who, if they were not on international duty, turned out for county matches.

Number of playing days is one thing. Number of matches is another. Tests apart, the norm is to have a spacing of 3 days between two matches. Thus, a player who is playing more of test cricket and long-format domestic cricket will experience a different workload than a player who is more active in shorter formats and is moving around. For example, test-specialist Alastair Cook’s 104 playing days are across 38 matches. Kohli’s 82 playing days are across 58 matches.

The player with the maximum number of matches is Rohit Sharma, a shorter-format specialist, who tallied 62 matches in 2019 for 77 playing days. Assuming a spacing of three days between matches suggests he spent about 240 days a year moving cities, and the endless triumvirate of airport, hotel and field. In terms of matches played, six Indians feature in this list, though once again it’s the 2009 set that seems to be doing more.

The rise of T20s and franchise cricket has meant more, and lucrative, cricketing opportunities. But there are tradeoffs. All profiles of players are, on average, logging fewer playing days.

In our set, fast bowlers, who are most injury-prone, have seen their average playing days drop 10% between 2009 and 2019. In shorter formats, the drop is 25%. Further, the 12 fast bowlers in our set from 2009 all played other formats internationally as well; in 2019, 4 out of 9 pacers only played tests at the international level. That’s specialists and time management at work.

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