For a decade and a bit now, the Indian Premier League has manfully accepted its status as a punching bag. The blame for all the evils in the sport — and some well beyond its ambit — has been laid at its doorstep.
It came, therefore, as little surprise that Justin Langer attributed the spate of injuries in the Indian camp to the timing of last season’s IPL. Originally scheduled between March and May, the sweeping tentacles of the coronavirus necessitated it to be pushed back to a September-November window in the UAE. The Indian squad left Dubai for its full tour of Australia less than 24 hours after the IPL final on November 10.
The IPL was the first competitive slice of action for all Indian players since March, when they returned from New Zealand. It helped them shed residual rust and find some semblance of match fitness without which they would have hit the Australia series cold, not having played for eight-and-a-half months.
India’s injury woes in Australia are too well documented to bear repetition. They must, however, be recalled if only to determine whether there is a correlation between the IPL and the raging march of injuries within the beleaguered camp.
So, here we go. Mohammed Shami (broken forearm). Ravindra Jadeja (first concussion/hamstring, now a dislocated and broken finger). KL Rahul (sprained wrist). Mayank Agarwal (suspected hairline fracture in the hand). Umesh Yadav (calf strain). Hanuma Vihari (hamstring tear). Jasprit Bumrah (abdominal strain).
The first four are what are generically termed cricketing injuries, owing to contact between hard ball and said body part. They are no pointers to the fitness or otherwise of the player concerned. Shami might have been struck on his forearm, whether he had played the IPL just before boarding the flight to Australia or not. Likewise with Jadeja, Rahul and Agarwal, all significant cogs in their respective franchises.
The potentially fitness-related injuries revolve around Umesh, Vihari and Bumrah. Had Langer, the former Australian opener and now the coach, done his homework, he would have known that Umesh played in just two of Royal Challengers Bangalore’s 15 games, sending down a grand total of 42 deliveries — seven overs — in the first week of the competition. And that Vihari wasn’t even a part of IPL 2020.
Bumrah came through nearly the entire tour unscathed, his workload and the weight of expectations multiplying manifold once Shami was rendered unavailable after the first Test and Umesh during the second. A frayed case can be made for a tenuous link between his exertions for Mumbai Indians and his current predicament, though even Langer will be hard pressed to present his point forcefully, logically and with the weight of solid evidence in support.
All that being said, there is no disputing the fact that never before has an Indian team been so badly struck down by injuries during an overseas tour. The closest parallel one can draw is to the final game of the three-Test series in Sri Lanka in 2008. At the P Sara Oval in Colombo, Sachin Tendulkar, Ishant Sharma, Parthiv Patel and VVS Laxman all picked up injuries on the field. If there was any consolation in defeat, it was that this was the last Test of the tour, just like it had been in Kingston in 1976 when Michael Holding and Vanburn Holder unleashed unchecked hostility through a bumper barrage that sent GR Viswanath, Aunshuman Gaekwad and Brijesh Patel to the hospital within the span of an hour.
This tour, though, has been unprecedented on all counts. Owing to the strict bio-bubble protocols in place, India arrived in Australia with a playing contingent of 32, among them four net bowlers. Going into the fourth and final Test starting at the Gabba in Brisbane on Friday, they have, at best, 18 to choose from. Several in that list are carrying a niggle of some sort or the other, most of them sustained on the field or a flare-up of old injuries exacerbated by heightened tension and a tightening up of muscles in a series that has seen the most gripping, compelling action.
Australia have had their fair share of injury concerns, most notably the one involving David Warner. The opener led Sunrisers Hyderabad to Qualifier 2 in the IPL, but his injury came on the field when he dived to stop the ball during the final One-Day International in Canberra and ended up with a groin strain. Will Pucovski missed the first two Tests through his latest concussion injury, and will be unavailable for the last game after diving in the outfield and doing his shoulder in Sydney. No IPL connect there, surely, Mr Langer?
How India have managed to remain upbeat and competitive despite the ills that have struck them down over the last month is little short of astonishing. Even going into the last Test, severely weakened with a minimum half-dozen first-choice personnel ruled out, there is a spunk which has taken Australia by storm. “Most difficult circumstances, but we aren’t taking a backward step,” a member of the squad said defiantly over phone from Brisbane on Thursday evening. “No house-keeping staff, no worries. We aren’t here to complain, we are here to play cricket.”
In normal course, India would have had the luxury of flying out replacements for their injured warriors, but with two weeks of hard quarantine in effect, they have had to make do with the resources at hand. There haven’t always been like-for-like replacements, like now for instance, with a paucity of a middle-order batsman as well as a spinner who is reasonably handy with the bat, but that’s how the ball rolls sometimes. Sri Lanka found themselves in a similar predicament in South Africa recently, especially during the first Test in Centurion when one player after another hobbled off the park. Where they rolled over and surrendered, India have courageously chosen to look past the injuries and embark on a diametrically opposite path.