Pakistan’s poor performance at the cricket World Cup this June, when some cricketers looked distinctly unfit and overweight, has prompted the new head coach-cum-chief selector, Misbah-ul-Haq, to impose a ban on biryani and junk food at the national camp. He has issued orders that only barbeque items and pasta with lots of fruit should be on the menu for all teams in the domestic season while the same diet plan would be followed in the national camps. No surprise, the announcement has generated consternation and outrage in equal measure. Haq may have attracted reproach from the players but he must be praised for doing his duty and introducing modern techniques to the team’s training routine. Globally, top sportspeople — including chess players — follow strict dietary regimens as a matter of routine. A typical footballer’s intake, for instance, consists of 65 per cent carbohydrate, 20 per cent fat, and 15 per cent lean protein.
With minor variations, this is par for the course for most field sports (cricketers may need more lean protein for explosive power and endurance). Alcohol is severely restricted to a glass of wine or two bottles of beer a day, though most top sportspeople eschew alcohol altogether (notice how Formula 1 champions spray the winning champagne magnum with gay abandon but rarely take more than a small sip). Sweets and pastries are out of the question. Martina Navratilova, whose awesome fitness had her winning tournaments into her forties, allowed herself a sliver of cake if she won a tournament. Deep fried foods, similarly, are a no-no. Biryani and snacks such as samosas, pakoras and the like, would all fall in this category.
Is Haq overdoing things? As many, including cricketers themselves, have argued, some of the subcontinent’s greatest cricketers — Pakistani, Indian, or Sri Lankan — have been notoriously gluttonous and big drinkers with no noticeable diminution in the quality of their game. This is a problematic argument to make in the 21st century sports business. The manic fan following in the subcontinent masks the fact that cricket has been (and remains) a marginal game in the global context, and, until recently, involved far less money than football, tennis, golf, or even rugby and basketball. Till the 2000s, cricketers also played fewer matches, which allowed many top performers to get away with that extra bit of weight or a less rigorous lifestyle. The expansion of the World Cup venues outside England after 1983 marked the start of the sport’s super-popularity, a trend that accelerated with the T20 format, which has generated enormous wealth. With the growing frequency of matches and owing to the fact that players play in three formats, the reflexes required in batting and fielding mean that the sport now demands superior levels of fitness, of which diet is an integral subset.
Virat Kohli, unquestionably a world-class batsman and fielder, backs his punishing training regimen with rigorous diet control. It is worth noting that Australia, whose cricket team brought a whole new dynamic of fitness to the sport — including dietary controls — have won five of the 12 World Cup tournaments so far. Pakistan’s talented cricketers would do well to follow the dietary restrictions set out by their coach if they want to become the world-class team they once were in a new and demanding environment. As for biryani, India’s highest-ranked women’s tennis player, Sania Mirza, often comically rued her inability to eschew the dish. Had she done so, she may have done far better than a career-best ranking of 27.