Ben Gardner makes the case for the introduction of injury substitutes to international cricket.
When Sri Lanka last played a Test series in South Africa, the result was as historic as it was surprising. No Asian team had ever won a series in the country, and when Dimuth Karunaratne’s team rolled up off the back of a pair of whitewashes in New Zealand and Australia, no one expected that to change.
Another blanking followed, only this time it was the Lankans who triumphed, with the Kusals, Perera and Mendis, headliners in a holistic team performance. Its joyous unexpectedness emphasised just how tough the challenge of winning Test matches away from home is, and it set the scene for Sri Lanka’s return to the country this winter.
Once again few gave them much chance – though their hopes of a win did not seem quite so fanciful this time – but as they raced to 396 in their first innings, the prospects of lightning striking twice grew. However, as South Africa began their reply, the tourists had already been dealt two significant blows. Dhananjaya de Silva, who took 5-51 in the second game of that 2019 series, had retired hurt on 79 having sustained a hip injury while running through for a single, while Kasun Rajitha sustained a groin problem 13 balls into his opening spell. On day three the injury list grew: Lahiru Kumara was forced off a ball into his 22nd over before Wanindu Hasaranga hurt himself in the field, though he did eventually return to bowl later in the day.
In the meantime, South Africa took themselves to a mountainous first-innings total of 621, with Faf du Plessis – who fell one short of a double-ton – and co. ravaging upon an attack of overworked frontliners and unthreatening part-timers. Sri Lanka finished Monday on 65-2, trailing South Africa by 160 runs. A once-promising Test match is headed for a one-sided conclusion.
What’s worse is how avoidable this situation was. As cricket prepared to resume after its Covid-19-neccessitated sabbatical, the suits at the ICC put their heads together to figure out what needed to change for the game to be feasible in the ‘new normal’. The temporary regulations included banning the use of saliva to shine the ball, the allowing of non-neutral match officials to minimise the need for overseas travel, and, somewhat puzzlingly, the introduction of an extra space for a logo on the front of Test shirts, but nothing about player fitness, despite plenty of other sports taking precautions. Naturally, the demands of sponsors took precedence.
In football, many leagues now permit the use of five substitutes, to guard against fatigue and account for the increased likelihood of injury, and even that hasn’t prevented a slew of ‘soft-tissue injuries’ from wreaking havoc. And yet cricket is yet to arrive at the allowance of one, except in the cases of concussion and coronavirus.
Of course, the two sports are not directly comparable, with the gradually building strain of a months-long season different to the effects of the condensed bursts of high-intensity action that the pandemic has necessitated international tours become. But shorter, compacted tours bring their own stresses, and these are exacerbated by the increased difficulty of staging warm-up games with the 14-day quarantine periods required by some countries also making it tough to enter a series properly match-fit, especially for touring teams.
Sri Lanka arrived in South Africa straight from a domestic T20 competition little over a week before the start of the Test series; it’s little wonder their players are undercooked. Meanwhile, India’s Umesh Yadav is another who has seemingly seen an appearance come to an early end in the Australian Boxing Day Test, and while his side have at least rallied to ensure shouldn’t matter too much, it still emphasises how the fitness of away sides is what should concern us most.
As the cricket calendar condenses, with fixture congestion piling up to make up for months of lost action and lost revenue, it’s an issue that is only likely to get worse. Already the demands on players are becoming unbearable, mentally as well as physically, with rest periods mandated and cancelled BBL contracts piling up. Surely the least we could do is stop teams from becoming hobbled when their players are?
Still, some will grumble. Besides the arguments that you’d call either philosophical or sanctimonious depending on how generous you’re feeling, there are two main pragmatic concerns. Sceptics claim that teams will either gamble on a half-fit player, safe in the knowledge that if they pull up lame, a replacement can be called for, or else game the system, making injury substitutions for tactical purposes, perhaps bringing in a spinner for a batsman after batting twice.
But the former is fanciful and unlikely to benefit any team in the long run – England took a chance on James Anderson’s fitness for the first game of the 2019 Ashes, and after four overs lost him for the rest of the series – while the latter fear could be eased by requiring teams to nominate like-for-like replacements pre-match, with injuries potentially judged by an independent assessor.
With these safeguards, the worst even the most dastardly team could do under is swap out an injury-faking all-rounder for a specialist when their duties in one discipline have been discharged, a tactic with limited benefit and shelf-life and fraught with the danger of being rumbled.
That, incidentally, is what some Australia fans felt had happened when Ravindra Jadeja was ruled out with concussion in the first of three T20Is just as he also sustained a muscular injury. With Jadeja having already contributed handily with the bat, leg-spinner and specialist No.11 Yuzvendra Chahal was subbed in, and proceeded to claim the Player of the Match award for his fizzing spell.
But aside from the fact that there is no evidence that India did act outside of the concussion rules in anyway, consider what the alternative would have been had Jadeja not suffered a blow to the head. India, having put up a competitive first-innings total, would have, through little fault of their own, been severely hampered in their reply. The game was all the better for the sub having happened, and it’s the perfect example of why injury subs should come in permanently, rather than just as a pandemic precaution.
In these times of home dominance, thinning squads and plentiful distractions, cricket can ill-afford to allow the product to be diminished unnecessarily. Injury substitutes will make cricket matches better, closer, more exciting. The rest falls away once you realise that.