Paddy Upton

Fitness in Cricket

Fitness in cricket is a bit like how you dress in a corporate environment. 

It is secondary to performance, but it plays a supporting act.

Recently, captain Dane van Niekerk was dropped from the South African women’s cricket team (Proteas) for failing a 2km running test by 18 seconds. 

A year ago, batsman Lizelle Lee was dropped from that same team for failing a weight test. 

Contrast to when Gary Kirsten and I coached the Indian national men’s team, we had some of the best players in the world who repeatedly fell below the minimum required fitness levels. Instead of dropping these players, we dropped the concept of fitness tests. Literally, we stopped testing! 

We redefined fitness as to consistently deliver results whilst remaining injury-free

Each player was given free rein on what fitness they required to meet the selection criteria. If they didn’t deliver, they would get dropped, and if injured, they would get replaced. 

For the next year, a handful of players would have failed the minimum fitness standards had we tested them. The team did, however, go on become the World’s number 1 Test team and then to win the 2011 ICC Cricket World Cup. 

Did Gary and I get it right? 

Did Cricket South Africa get it wrong by dropping their captain before a World Cup at home? Especially in a climate where cricket in South Africa desperately needs good news stories?

Maybe we were both right, or wrong. 

Just like how one dresses in a corporate environment, context is key.

Let us look at fitness testing in cricket. 

International cricket has changed running tests at least four times in the past decade. Minimum standards also keep changing and are at best an educated thumb suck. They have not yet, and possibly will never be scientifically validated for cricketers. I believe that having one minimum level, like 9min 30seconds that van Niekerk failed to achieve, is as useful as it is misguided. My experience is that a 20-year-old and a 37-year-old should have different standards, as should a batsman and a bowler. This suggests ‘different strokes for different folks’ approach. Gary and I used ‘a different strokes for different teams’ approach. 

Although possibly the most realistic and sensible, this approach generally only works in healthy and mature teams. It tends to not work in immature or dysfunctional teams, or in those teams where there are culture and behavioural issues. Imagine a slightly dysfunctional work corporate environment that says, ‘come dressed as you please’. 

The Indian cricket team Gary and I worked with had developed a strong ‘team-first’ culture. Everyone agreed that individual behaviour should move the ship in the right direction. In pursuing the World number 1 Test spot and winning the World Cup, we needed to find that tenuous balance between team-unity and accommodating individual differences. 

Metaphorically, if someone wanted to come to work in boardshorts, flip-flops and a t-shirt, that was fine as long as they delivered results and were positively contributing team-members. 

We also had several very good players waiting in the wings, so nobody’s place was guaranteed. 

Sport and business are about delivering results – first and foremost. This is what keeps both alive. 

The supporting acts to delivering consistent results over the medium- to long-term are things like clear strategy, good processes, and a healthy culture. At least in team sport, it’s ideal if these ‘good process’ and ‘culture’ guidelines are decided by the team, and advocated equally by players, captains, and coaches. 

Where any of these supporting acts are being compromised in the pursuit of success, leaders may want to set standards. For a period, they might also set the example by dressing in long pants and closed shoes, rather than in their preferred shorts and t-shirt. 

In business and sport, performance and results are the main show. 

Sustained success requires solid supporting acts. 

And designing these are as much of an art as they are a science. 

I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts on this topic.

* Written in a coffee shop near the beach, wearing flip flops, boardshorts and a T-shirt.

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