A light meal for Inzi
A light meal for Inzi

Imagine Pakistan coach Mickey Arthur landing in Lahore for the first time, hungry not just for cricket but a healthy meal too. Had Arthur run into Shoaib Akhtar, the former fast bowler would have presented a plate of steaming hot trotters from Lahore’s renowned Phajjay ke paye. If Arthur had met Nasir Jamshed, a plate of nihari and parathas. And had he gone to the Akmal residence, there would be Umer Akmal with a plate of chicken biryani.

Undoubtedly hospitality is woven into Pakistani culture but is the greasy, protein-rich diet that we thrive on actually good for our sportspeople and athletes?

In Arthur’s world, the answer was a resounding ‘no.’ And it made sense too: food which may increase the cholesterol, uric acid and fat levels of those consuming it should not make it into the regular diet of an average individual let alone a high-performing international athlete.

A proper diet for a sportsperson can elicit fine performances for him or her

It was not long ago that Umer Akmal was sent home from an international tour after Arthur deemed the batsman to be unfit. With a protruding bulge, Akmal believed that his talent would sway the coach’s opinion, as was the case in the regimes before Arthur.

But talent alone does not cut it at the international level. The greater professionalisation of international sport has meant that physical fitness is central to what makes, or breaks, a career. This does not mean merely dieting or taking to the gym for a short period of time but in fact to adopt a lifestyle which includes proper nutrition, physical exercise, and sufficient rest.

Take the case of cousins Umer Akmal and Babar Azam. While Akmal threw a fit over a perceived insult, a fitter Azam — mentally and physically — assumed the mantle of Pakistan cricket’s greatest batting hope. While talent and training help in developing a player from a novice to an international star, following a focused diet plan religiously is vital as well. While Akmal took to fatty foods, Azam enjoys a lean chicken meal to keep fit. While Akmal let go of discipline in his daily life, Azam maintains his 7am routine even in the off-season.

Similar is the story with Fawad Alam. Although the batsman remains out of national reckoning, he has stuck religiously to his fitness regime. He wakes up at a particular time, trains at a particular time, and maintains a particular diet that is lean and mean.

Away from home, Virat Kohli is an example of how physical fitness changed the trajectory of the Indian captain’s career. In 2012, Kohli was a very good player but one who did not have the measure of consistency. After a conversation with former coach Duncan Fletcher, and a torrid IPL that year, Kohli shed about 12 kilos and put himself on a routine. In one interview, Kohli narrated: “I was in the gym for a hour-and-a-half every day, working really hard, off gluten, off wheat, no cold drinks, no desserts, nothing.” This then was the beginning of Virat the legendary batsman.

With a certain set of exercises, the diet plans are designed specifically to boost the immunity, stamina, power and performance of players, but mostly to augment the ability of those bones and muscles that are critical to the player’s playing needs. Players might sweat profusely when playing during the daytime, in extremely hot and humid conditions.

It is normal for them to weigh themselves before and after a game as the difference in weight is calculated as the fluid lost from their bodies via sweat. This is why during the games and after they are made to drink the compensatory amount of liquid generally with additional solute mixed in it to neutralise the fluid loss. The equated fluid for the weight lost is supposed to replenish the body with optimum hydration. If fluid intake and water balance bears so much value, imagine how important diet would be in such circumstances.

What ails our country’s sports scene is that fitness comes as an after-thought. Even today, some complain of Arthur’s “fitness first” mantra to be unnecessary. Most would perhaps want him to have a plate of paye with Shoaib Akhtar. The truth is that a few rounds of jogging around the stadium or a two-week fitness camp is not enough. It never was.

Many years ago, skipper Wasim Akram brought Richard Pybus to these shores, in the hopes that he’d be able to change the attitudes of players towards physical fitness. That did not happen, instead Pybus lost his job. Akram and other captains are on record stating that Pakistani fielding was historically horrible because our youngsters aren’t athletes. If you were to compare Shoaib Akhtar with his contemporary, Brett Lee, their careers and their fielding on the ground said much more about professionalism and fitness than anything else. To his credit, though, Akhtar did everything possible to regain some ground on Lee but to little avail.

Akhtar’s success on the field could be called an anomaly. But if we consider the time he lost due to being unfit, it becomes obvious that the secret to success was in physical fitness. A culture of promoting unhealthy dietary habits might have pushed our sportspeople towards abhorring physical fitness. But if Pakistan are to climb world rankings, in cricket or in other sports, fitness is where it all starts.

The writer tweets @Ali_Shahid82

Published in Dawn, EOS, November 12th, 2017