After India lost their sixth straight match at home – a 36-run defeat to Australia in the women’s T20I tri-series on Monday – captain Harmanpreet Kaur made a very important statement.

“We definitely need fit players in the team and when we go for the next tournament, I would suggest to our support staff that we need fit players who can run all over the ground. We don’t need players who can just stand within 30 yards, because as a captain it is very difficult for me to run around and then set the field.”  

About a week back, India’s ODI captain Mithali Raj was asked a similar question on India’s fitness as compared to the other teams in the tri-series at a press conference. This was her response:

 “Firstly, I don’t like to compare because Australia as a country is very different from India. We do have a trainer in place, the girls have really been working on their fitness. If you have noticed us in the World Cup, you know that we look very different now, we look are more agile and fitter and we are definitely on the road to becoming a far fitter team than we were in the World Cup.”  

Fitness has been quite the buzzword for Indian cricket in the past few months. Even before the team began their packed season heading to South Africa in February, Raj had said that they had worked on fitness a lot in the seven-month long off season.

However, a double series loss at home after a double series win in South Africa has brought the India’s fitness aspect in sharp focus.

In a way, a series against Australia and England, arguably two of the strongest sides in cricket, holds a mirror to India’s fitness standards. Observing the two teams in Mumbai, it was evident that the athletic bent when they run around or dive on field comes to them far more naturally. Harmanpreet, who has played two seasons in the Women’s Big Bash League, knows exactly the kind of international standards India should aim for.

While comparisons are not always fair, they do show a benchmark. In the shortest format of the game, this is the level India should aspire to be and the captain and coach recognise that.

“Certainly lot to learn from both the ODI and T20I series, we have seen their fitness level and where do we stand,” India coach Tushar Arothe told The Field. “England and Australia play in T20 leagues so they are used to this format and our girls are still not used to it and maintain the standard,” he added.

Echoing Raj’s views he said, “After the World Cup, [fitness standard] has certainly gone up. But if you compare with these sort of teams, it is difficult to match up with them. This doesn’t mean the players are unfit, but need more work.”

Work in progress

India have already begun work in this direction.

After her first international half-century in the same match, 17-year-old Jemimah Rodrigues was asked if she would like to play the WBBL.

“I would like to play. [But] I will have to improve a lot on my fitness and batting. I have not spoken to the Australians yet, but if I get an opportunity I would love to play,” she said.

She also explained the kind of work that is going on behind the scenes as there is increasing emphasis on fitness in the Indian camp.

“Bjiu [George, India’s fielding coach] and Tushar sir have worked a lot on our fielding, because if you look at the past two years, India has been lacking in fielding.

“After every practice session, we used to have one hour of fielding... take 30-40 catches. That is how we have improved on our fielding. And this time, we had special camps for fielding and fitness. Everybody in BCCI is stressing more on fitness,” she told reporters in Mumbai.

While this is still a work in progress, Arothe is aware that once this comes naturally to the Indian players, it will raise their overall game.

“Once the fitness level will go up it will certainly affect in our batting, bowling, fielding,” he said. This is definitely a big advantage, given how running between the wickets is also an area India needs to improve on.

“We are working on it but it takes time it is not an overnight job. Be patient with the team,” he added.

A plan in place

This natural fitness is something all teams have had to step up on gradually, more so after the widespread popularity of T20Is. England’s pacer Jenny Gunn laughingly admitted that she was a chubby kid when she played the first-ever Twenty20 International back in 2004, but was made to put in the hard yards.

“I was a bit of a chubby kid in 2004, and had to get fitter so I can actually run long off to long on. For some reason, my captain makes me do that,” she told reporters in Mumbai during the series.

“We used to play on huge boundaries back then, and that was probably a negative thing that they did. Like no one had the strength to hit a six or a was skilled to hit sixes, whereas now, yes, there’s a decent sized boundary and you manage to hit sixes still, so that’s probably the main change in skill level of batting and bowling,” she added.

Talking about the changes in the women’s game, she pointed to fitness being the biggest factor. “I think people are fitter; they have to be. It’s a fast game. People think you just stand around and field all day, but there’s a lot of coverage you have to do in the field. So you only have to get better and better.”

Several Indian players have shown some sparks as well, the inherent instinct to go for a lunge or time the run to reach the ball for a catch – cricket-based athleticism, if one may.

Rodrigues is good example of a natural athlete, with her sharp pick-up and throws, slides and running catches. Radha Yadav looked the part in Monday’s game as well, as did Pooja Vastrakar. All three are teenagers who made their international debut in South Africa last month.

This infusion of fresh legs in the shortest format shows that there is a clear plan in place for India in T20Is. And although India are out of final reckoning, this T20I tri-series is an important learning curve for the team with the need for improved fitness being one of the biggest takeaways.

In the year of the T20 World Cup, this assumes an even higher significance, with Harmanpreet spelling it out for the think tank. The onus is on the support staff to work on the methods and ensure that India can challenge the best in the world on a regular basis, and not be satisfied with one or two freak performances to carry them through.