The first match of the ongoing Indian Premier League (IPL) 2023 saw holders Gujarat Titans (GT) prevail over Chennai Super Kings (CSK). But a development of even greater significance took place during the action in the field. When CSK were batting, Kane Williamson tried to take a difficult skier offered by Ruturaj Gaikwad in the deep midwicket region but failed and ended up landing awkwardly on his right leg. Williamson moved quickly and prevented the ball from crossing the ropes, thus saving two runs by converting a certain six into a four. But he was seen clutching his right leg in pain and needed to be taken off the field. Reports came out after the match ended that he had suffered an injury on his knee and would not be taking any further part in this championship this year.
Williamson returned to New Zealand and undertook some tests which detailed the nature and extent of the injury. It has emerged that he suffered a tear of his anterior cruciate ligament of his right knee joint. The initial reports state that he will be out of active cricket for close to six months, which effectively rules him out of the International Cricket Council (ICC) World Cup scheduled to be held in India in October- November this year.
Knee joint is the one of the most important junctions in the body where two or more bones meet. Its significance arises from the fact that it holds up the entire weight of the body and helps a human being to walk, run, sit and squat. The bones in a joint are held in place by ligaments which help to maintain the stability of the joint while permitting the required mobility. In the case of knee joint, the ligaments that hold the lower end of the thigh bone (femur) and the upper end of shin bone (tibia) are placed in the manner of a cross, thus giving rise to the nomenclature of “cruciate”. The anterior cruciate ligament holds the front portion while the posterior one supports the rear side of the joint.
An injury to anterior cruciate ligament means that the support that knee joint gets in the front is compromised, which can lead to its instability. Hence this injury needs to be treated quickly by surgical measures and allowed to heal fully by giving it complete rest. Further, there will also be a need for undergoing a process of rehabilitation so that the muscles around the joint get back to their former strength. The whole process of surgery, rest and rehabilitation is bound to take a minimum period ofsix months and any attempt to rush things could only lead to worsening of the injury with life long consequences and complications. Further, in the case of Williamson there will be an added delay as the surgeons are waiting for the swelling to subside before placing him under the scalpel. This might add another month or close to it, to the whole process. Hence doctors and medical professionals attending to Williamson will, in all probability, not allow him to run the risk of playing in the World Cup, despite the adverse impact that this will have on the chances of New Zealand’s campaign to win the trophy that they missed by a whisker at Lord’s in 2019.
The week that went by also brought the news that Shreyas Iyer, who dropped out of this edition of the IPL due to persistent back pain, will be requiring surgical correction for his condition. Followers of cricket in India will remember that Iyer did not play in the-white ball series against Sri Lanka and missed the first Test against Australia. He could not bat in the fourth and final Test as the pain recurred and he was asked by the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) to report at the National Cricket Academy for rehabilitation under expert observation. It was also announced that he will not be playing in the first half of the IPL despite being appointed as the skipper of Kolkata Knight Royals (KKR). However, this did not yield the desired results and it has been decided to shift him abroad for a surgery.
The back pain that is bogging Iyer is on account of a bulging intervertebral disc impinging on a nerve root. Vertebrae, popularly known as back bone, protects the spinal cord from which nerves emanate and spread across the body. The vertebral column also holds together the upper half of the human body. There are 33 such vertebrae out of which some get fused by the time a person reaches adulthood.The remaining 24 unfused vertebrae are separated from each other by small intervertebral discs. Each of these discs contain a gel like substance which is enclosed in a thicker cover. Discs perform the role of acting as lubricant between the adjoining bones and also gives a cushioning effect.
Damage of the discs result in protrusion of the gel like substance through the outer cover. In the initial stages this is called as herniation while a full blown case is named as prolapse of the disc. Whether herniation or prolapse, the symptom will be intense pain for the patient as the protruded disc will impinge on the root of the nerve emerging from the spinal cord. In the case of an active sportsman, a surgical interference might offer the only path towards relief as he will be using the muscles, bones, joints etc continuously. Here also the surgery should be followed by a period of rest to allow the tissues to heal followed by rehabilitation. Though it is announced that Iyer will be out of action for IPL and final of the World Test Championship, in all likelihood his return to active international cricket is likely to be further delayed.
In the Indian camp Iyer joins Jasprit Bumrah and Rishabh Pant among the list of those forced to stay on the sidelines on account of injuries. In addition, there will be some players carrying minor injuries but hiding them. This is due to fear that any break from the game will affect their future prospects, especially if their slot gets occupied by a youngster who grabs the opportunity and cements his place. This development does not bode well for a side that is preparing for a World Cup campaign on their home turf.
It can be seen that all the above injuries have come on account of an excess of cricket. Players in the national side and those in the reckoning for a place there are required to play the game without a break, month after month, year after year. This places a heavy burden on the body and mind and leads to breakdown. Though the injury to Pant was due to a road traffic accident, the circumstances surrounding the incident highlights the role that the game had to do with it. He was rushing home to meet his mother for a few hours by driving from Delhi to his home town late at night. Players are also human beings who need to spend time with their families and friends, bask in their company, and relax and recharge their batteries. The round the year schedule involving playing the game, touring, spending time in the conditioning camps and living from the suitcases takes its toll on the mind and body of even the fittest and the youngest and lead to indiscretions and lapses.
Sunil Gavaskar played international cricket for 16 years and during this entire period he never skipped a game, domestic or international, due to fitness related reasons. The only time he could not turn out for the country was on account of a injury caused to his thumb while playing in a Ranji Trophy match. Same is the case with Kapil Dev who never a missed a game due to injury or illness during his 16 year career. They could achieve this as they could get their minds and bodies attuned to the needs of the game. But it is doubtful whether either could have survived the present schedule of Indian players without a breakdown.
It is high time the BCCI stepped in and devised a domestic and international schedule that allows players some period of rest away from the game. There is no point in saying that “players are the best judges” as invariably they are not good at deciding when to take breaks for their own benefit. The BCCI has a committee for deciding tours and fixtures and they should be entrusted with the task of devising schedules that allow a period of rest for the cricketers. It may not be possible to place shackles on the IPL or reduce the number of matches played therein given its popularity and its potential for mobilising financial and other resources for the game. But it should be possible to work around it and prepare a match calendar that provides respite for the players and helps to minimise the stress and demands on their minds and bodies.
One hopes that the long list of players among the injured rolls prompts the BCCI to initiate action to bring down the workloads of cricketers and allow them the benefit of a short annual vacation. Every profession offers this basic amenity to its practitioners and cricket should be no exception.
(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)