Azam Khan has used being trolled about his weight to motivate himself, and remains in demand as a batter in T20 leagues around the world
Azam Khan has used being trolled about his weight to motivate himself, and remains in demand as a batter in T20 leagues around the world
How strict is too strict when it comes to fitness testing, and what challenges do large players deal with? Azam Khan, Rahkeem Cornwall, Sisanda Magala and Lizelle Lee tell us
Laddu. A round sweet.
Not exactly the kind of motivational messages you would find on the Notes to Strangers Post-its scattered around the London metro, but Azam Khan chose to immortalise those words anyway. He scribbled them on scraps of paper and stuck them to his wall. He looked at them every day.
"My dad was like, 'Are you mad, why are you doing this to yourself?' Azam tells the Cricket Monthly. "I said, 'This is giving me motivation.'"
He doesn't have to spell it out: the cruel nicknames are all over the internet. Google Azam Khan and the top results include references to his father and Azam's body shape. Living with the weight of both has proved a heavy burden to carry, in every sense.
Azam is the son of former Pakistan captain Moin Khan, known, among other things, for his athleticism. Moin is also the coach of Quetta Gladiators, the PSL team where Azam got his first professional gig, at the age of 20. Cue chatter about nepotism. He only played one game for them in the 2019 PSL season and scored 12 off 15 balls. Cue criticism that his lack of runs (he had four List A innings for 53 runs at the start of the domestic season) was a direct consequence of his size. Both allegations hurt Azam so much that he created a written record of it, in his personal space.
"People will always judge me because my father has played for Pakistan but it's not my fault I was born at his house," says Azam, now 24. "But after I got my chance in the PSL, people criticised me because I was overweight and said my body is not suited for the elite game [level] of cricket."
A year later Azam believed he'd proved them wrong. In the opening match of the 2020 PSL he scored a match-winning 59 off 33 balls. But with no other scores of note in that season, he had not done enough. In fact, he realised that even though he trusted his own ability to score runs, he had to lean into the advantage of physical exercise and the importance of image.
He spent the next year working towards fitting into a sporting ideal. Some of that time was spent at Pakistan's National Cricket Academy, on an exercise and eating routine. Much more was spent in the gym, working on his aerobic ability. In 12 months Azam lost 30kg. In the 2022 PSL he finished tenth on the run-scorers' list. In between he made his international debut, and was snapped up by Barbados Royals in the CPL and signed by Desert Vipers for the forthcoming International League T20 (before the Pakistan board denied its cricketers a No-Objection Certificate for that league).
"It takes more energy to move a bigger body around, and with that extra energy expenditure, you also have to consider the fatigue factor" Greg King, former international-cricket fitness trainer
The story could end here, with a clear moral for aspiring players to get fit and lose fat, but it doesn't. Azam was named in the Pakistan squad for the 2021 T20 World Cup, and then replaced by Sarfaraz Ahmed at the last minute because of what he was told were "certain performance criteria", although he does not elaborate on what those were. He was not even part of the conversation for the 2022 tournament. Last year, former Pakistan player Aqib Javed told ARY News that Azam should either "quit cricket or transform himself into a cricketer" - a not-so-subtle assessment of what a cricketer should look like.
Azam has a ready retort. "It's not about being overweight. It's about performance. If a guy is scoring 400 runs and he is super-fit and another guy is scoring 800 runs and he is not super-fit, I will keep the guy who scored 800 runs in my team. That's my point of view."
But what if the player who is scoring 800 runs could score more than 1000 runs if he was a bit fitter or a bit leaner?
That's the argument presented by Greg King, former fitness trainer for India, South Africa and Chennai Super Kings, who is currently working on a PhD in strength-training for fast bowlers at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand.
"It's not to say that if a cricketer is skilful, he is not going to be successful," King says. "But if you put more underlying fitness around that skill, the longer you will be able to execute those skills, and you will be able to execute them at a higher intensity and get injured less. We've seen over the years that people who are not fully fit still come out and have some remarkable performances but the question is - how much better would that person be if they were at a better level of fitness? Because cricket is so reliant on skill, you can get away with not having a decent level of fitness, but that doesn't mean that you couldn't be better than you are."
Rahkeem Cornwall is routinely written about as the heaviest person to have played international cricket, and could be thought of as one of the anomalies King describes above. Cornwall, who says he comes from a family of "big-boned" people, was a sporty child who played cricket and football. He gave up the latter when he was contracted by Leeward Islands as a bowler at 20. Between December 2014 and July 2019, he played 55 first-class matches, took 260 wickets at 23.90, including 17 five-fors, and scored 2224 runs, with one century and 13 fifties. In the 2018-19 WICB regional four-day tournament, Cornwall was the leading wicket-taker, with 54 wickets at 17.68. He made his Test debut later that year and in his second Test took a ten-for. "It was such a special moment for me," he recalls. "I put in a lot of work before the series and then the results come in."
Rahkeem Cornwall: "Everybody is not going to be slim and trim and everybody is not going to look ripped. Whatever structure you come in, make sure you can finish the day's play and make sure you do well for your team"
Gareth Copley / © ECB/Getty Images
Rahkeem Cornwall: "Everybody is not going to be slim and trim and everybody is not going to look ripped. Whatever structure you come in, make sure you can finish the day's play and make sure you do well for your team" Gareth Copley / © ECB/Getty Images
But even before Cornwall played his third Test, West Indian spin legend Lance Gibbs asked on the Mason & Guest podcast how Cornwall could only "take two steps and bowl", and questioned his rhythm. The likes of Kenny Benjamin and Curtly Ambrose came to Cornwall's defence. Cornwall, who has never had a problem with his own body, found himself having to think about how other people judged it. "I can't change my body structure. I can't say that I'm too tall or too big. Everybody is not going to be short, everybody is not going to be slim. All I can do is go out there, back myself and show my skill."
Between his second Test and his third, Cornwall had surgery on both knees because of what he said was "an old injury" in an interview to ESPNcricinfo in June 2020, and a result "wear and tear and playing on hard surfaces" when he spoke to TCM for this article. When he returned to the team, Cornwall managed just 21 wickets in seven Tests at 47.14 and was dropped midway through a West Indies series in Sri Lanka in late 2021. He has not been picked since, missing home series against England and Bangladesh and an away rubber in Australia.
There are a variety of reasons that Cornwall's performance dipped, including the conditions he played in and the opposition he played against. Similarly, the cause of his injury could be put down to a range of factors, including bad luck. But there may also be some clues in what King explained, talking generally, about sportspeople who carry excess body fat, or what he calls "non-functional weight".
"Think about if you go for a run as you are and then if you put on a ten-kilogram backpack and go for a run and the extra effort you will need," King says. "Maybe with the ten-kilogram backpack you can do one sprint but it will be difficult to do repetitively. In general, it takes more energy to move a bigger body around, and with that extra energy expenditure, you also have to consider the fatigue factor."
Excess body fat could also restrict what a cricketer can do on the field and where. The former Bermuda player Dwayne Leverock, for example, and Cornwall, both field in the slips rather than the outfield. Cornwall puts that down to "having very good hands". And he says there is no limit on the number of overs he can bowl in a day, and that he does not necessarily feel more sapped than his team-mates. "Most times you might get a little bit more sore because you have bigger muscles and stuff but it depends on your workload."
In saying this Cornwall perhaps presents the argument that bigger muscles could work in one's favour, especially in a game where power-hitting has become central. Chris Gayle and Rohit Sharma are among those who can stand and deliver and Cornwall is too. He recently hit a 77-ball 205, including 17 fours and 22 sixes, in the Atlanta Open, an American T20 league. The standard of cricket aside, what's notable is that he scored as many as 200 of those runs in boundaries. Afterwards, Cornwall said he believes he is "strong enough" to put the ball away anywhere on the field.
If it sounds like Cornwall can do anything, he can't. His knee problems mean he is not able to do the regular fitness test required of West Indian players: the yo-yo, which involves running multiple shuttles at increasing speed between markers placed 20 metres apart. Instead, his assessment "is cardio on the bike - I have to do a certain amount of time on the bike".
The fitness test is an evolving measure of the standards required for professional sportspeople to take the field, and it is a relatively new concept. While strength- and weight-training have their origins in ancient Greece and Rome, fitness as a discipline only came into focus in the 1700s in Europe, where gymnastics was growing in popularity. The American College of Sports Medicine came up in 1854. By the late 1800s, there was an emphasis on physical culture in the Western world, aimed at developing strong, muscular bodies, mostly among men in the wake of the industrial revolution.
It was not until the 1990s that personal-training qualifications existed and professional sports teams began regularly employing trainers. King began working with the Border cricket team in the South African city of East London in the late 1990s and has been involved in the development of fitness testing ever since.
"There is nothing set in stone on which tests you need to do," he says. "Every team and every country has their own standards. It's also important to know that fitness is not one thing, so the tests are about specific aspects of fitness. There will be a test looking at aerobic and cardiovascular ability, another for flexibility and another for strength [see sidebar]. If a player is good in one, it doesn't necessarily mean they are good in another, and what it's really about is trying to make the athlete into a better, more capable individual."
In general, sportspeople are assessed on their aerobic capability and recovery rate through a running or yo-yo test, their ability to change direction quickly through an agility test, their strength through weight-training exercises, and they have their body composition measured through weight, height and skinfolds. Of these, the running and body-composition tests are the two where the results matter to the point that players could be left out of XIs if their numbers are not up to standard.
"Mental health is affected by the expectations and pressure and how the sportspeople perceive their body. If they think they're far away from what they should be, they might not perform as well Dr Maria-Christina Kosteli, lecturer in psychology
But, adds King: "Cardiovascular and body composition are two areas that can change considerably with training and diet. Aspects like speed, power and endurance can be harder to train and usually rely heavily on genetics. We test those just to know where the sportsperson is at."
So where should they be at? There is no globally accepted benchmark; the standards players are expected to meet are determined by their peers. "We take people that are playing a specific sport, we measure them over time and then we see what the average scores are," says King. "From that, we determine a standard and you'd expect most athletes in the sport to be around that level."
In the two and a half decades King has been involved in this work, the standards have not changed much. When he started at Border, the cardiovascular test was done as a 3km running trial, and players had to complete the distance in less than 12 minutes, or four minutes per kilometre. Today, Cricket South Africa requires its players to run two kilometres in less than 8m 30s, or 4m 15s per kilometre.
It is more difficult to establish norms for the yo-yo and body-composition tests because these are highly individualised. But, as an example, according to a 2013 textbook from the Australian Institute of Sport, a nationally contracted male player between 5ft 7in and 6ft 6in is expected to weigh between 72 and 102kg, while a female player between 5ft and 5ft 10in should weigh between 55 and 86 kg. The variations take into account build, bone density and body-fat percentage. India's National Cricket Academy medical team, meanwhile, recently recommended the institution of the DEXA scan - a test that measures body fat, bone mass, fat tissue and muscle - to determine whether cricketers are fit to play.
In most contemporary set-ups a cricketer is only expected to compete against themselves. "Let's take Dale Steyn," King explains. "The basic standard was way too easy for Dale. He was that gifted in terms of his physical ability. For those individuals, we are not pushing them in any way or making sure they're keeping themselves sharp physically, so we had higher standards. Those standards were individually determined over time, so we were never comparing players against someone else, we are comparing him against his own results."
What physios test when they test cricketers
1. Body composition (anthropometry)
Skinfolds; girth; mass; height
2. Aerobic Function
2km/3km time trial; Beep test/yo-yo test
10m-40m sprint (time taken or max speed)
Run-a-Three test; T-test (i.e. forward, backward and lateral sprints); 5-0-5 test (i.e. change-of-direction sprints)
1/3RM test (i.e. one or three repetitions with maximum weight) on the following: bench press, squat, deadlift, pull-ups.
More recently, isometric tests performed on a force plate, such as an Isometric Mid-Thigh Pull
Vertical Jump; Standing Long Jump; occasionally, Standing Triple Jump
Medicine-ball tests: Overhead Medicine Ball Throw, Rotational Medicine Ball Throw
7. Muscular Endurance
Front and Side Planks for time (usually a minute or more). Less frequently, max push-ups or sit-ups
8. Mobility and flexibility
Earlier, Sit And Reach test. Now, Functional Movement Screen. Physios also perform Range of Movement assessments
As explained by Greg King
It is that kind of nuanced approach that South African fast bowler Sisanda Magala is asking for. Magala has played seven white-ball matches for South Africa and was the leading wicket-taker in the 2021-22 domestic one-day tournament, but he has not been able to establish himself in the national side owing to his fitness standards.
"Fitness in South Africa is only running," Magala says, referring to the 2km time trial every domestic and international player must pass before they are eligible for selection. Before November 15, 2022, the best Magala had clocked was 8m 42s, 12 seconds over the target time, which not only ruled him out of contention for the national team but also saw him benched for the start of the domestic season. The experience of testing, failing, training and testing again left him "very angry and frustrated". Even though he admits he is "100% responsible" for his fitness, he has questions.
"When do you run a whole two kilometres consistently on a cricket field?" Magala asks. "You don't. Your maximum sprint is probably when you are chasing a ball on the boundary."
King explains that the purpose of the running test is about more than just how quickly an athlete can cover ground. "When we do the 2km time trial, we are looking at things like aerobic and cardiovascular ability. Aerobic fitness provides an indication of an athlete's endurance capacity, which is important for pace bowlers. However, it also plays an important role in how quickly we recover from high-intensity activity. If you have a poor aerobic system, when you do a sprint, you might be able to sprint that first one fast but it might take you a minute and a half to two minutes to recover properly. An athlete who is well conditioned can do that sprint and it might take them 30 seconds or 40 seconds to be properly recovered or ready to put an effort in. Being able to recover quickly after a sprint is important for cricket performance since it greatly impacts how a bowler can execute the next delivery or a batter can complete the next run."
South Africa fast bowler Sisanda Magala contends that running a 2km trial does not simulate the actual running that cricketers have to do on the field
Rodger Bosch / © AFP/Getty Images
South Africa fast bowler Sisanda Magala contends that running a 2km trial does not simulate the actual running that cricketers have to do on the field Rodger Bosch / © AFP/Getty Images
Although King is of the view that "any half-decent male professional athlete should be getting eight minutes" in the 2km run, he agrees the needle can move. "The norms have to change according to who you are dealing with. Eight minutes is not an easy run for an average person but we are talking about a professional athlete. If you're not able to do that, and I'm talking about if you're getting 15 minutes or something, you are clearly a long way off from where you need to be."
Magala has never been that far off and believes his performances make up for the few seconds he lacks in the time trial. More importantly, he thinks the running test should not be used to deny him.
"Cricket is my livelihood," he says. "I am able to support my family. I am able to make sure I am going to have a good future. When they say you can't play because of such and such, that hampers me because you're not only coming at my cricketing skills, you're coming at something that is only part of cricket. You are taking away my ability to earn money for my family. It's very frustrating."
He describes the experience of yo-yoing in and out of teams based on fitness as a "moerse [massive] emotional roller-coaster", causing him to withdraw from those closest to him in ways he had not before.
"I didn't want to talk about it. Even when my girlfriend would ask me what was wrong, I didn't want to say. I just wanted to sort it out with the coaches and myself. I have never let the way I look put me at a disadvantage. Even though I have a hefty size, I don't make an excuse to do less. I've been drained and it's overflowed at times. It's been very tiring mentally. Exhausting."
Magala's admission about the mental-health effects of his physical struggle is a rare example of a sportsperson speaking out about body image. Cornwall has never tried to justify or defend how he looks and maintains that "everybody has their own opinion". Azam is known for playing with a poker face. "When I am in the zone, I don't care about anything," he says. "Whatever they are saying from the crowd, I don't mind."
"When they say you can't play because of such and such, that hampers me because you're not only coming at my cricketing skills, you are taking away my ability to earn money for my family. It's very frustrating" Sisanda Magala
But the bravado belies what could really be going on for these players, especially in a world where the visual medium (thanks, Instagram) is so powerful. "Mental health is affected by expectations and pressure," says Dr Maria-Christina Kosteli, a lecturer in psychology at Edge Hill University in Lancashire, whose research focuses on the psychosocial determinants of physical activity and body-image issues. "For male sportspeople, there's an ideal to be muscular and athletic, and to be toned. There's something called body dysmorphia, which for men, particularly, is seeing themselves as less muscular than they are, so there is an obsession with going to the gym or exercising a lot to become muscular."
Magala is an example of this. "The perception and social construct of being a man is that you have to be strong," he says. "You also have to have a thick skin and block all the negatives out." So not only do men have to be seen to be physically tough, they also have to be emotionally stoic, especially in a boys' club culture like South Africa's.
Magala never lets on that he felt let down by Cricket South Africa until pressed, and admits that the regular press releases with details of his failed fitness tests affected him. "Every time I did well or I didn't do well, it was immediately publicised. I take 100% responsibility but to be constantly publicised was tough."
By the time South Africa had a female player in the same position, they acted differently, choosing not to disclose anything about her case. Lizelle Lee was dropped from the South Africa women's side for not meeting a weight requirement, and she retired from international cricket shortly thereafter. CSA did not reveal any details because, if you believe some insiders, it wanted to protect her from negative comments about her body. According to others, an organisation that had just been through the Social Justice and Nation-Building hearings that exposed institutional racism did not want to risk being accused of sexist discrimination as well.
Lee's story was made public by the player herself, in an interview with the BBC show Stumped. She explained that she passed her running test (the 2km time trial) and weighed herself the morning she was due to see the CSA biokineticist tasked with assessing her skinfolds; she did not want to weigh herself again because she feared any fluctuation would rule her out of contention for the squad. When CSA found out that Lee's weight had not been verified by its official, and that she was subsequently over the benchmark, the board dropped her. She took the incident personally, as a player and as a woman.
Lizelle Lee may not have met the fitness standards set by Cricket South Africa, but she was still contributing as a batter, leading the run-scoring charts in women's ODIs in 2021
© ICC via Getty Images
Lizelle Lee may not have met the fitness standards set by Cricket South Africa, but she was still contributing as a batter, leading the run-scoring charts in women's ODIs in 2021 © ICC via Getty Images
"I made fitness physically, I did the running that I had to do. I got dropped because of my weight and I told them, you're dropping me because of the way I look and how much I weigh," she said. "They said, no, we're dropping you because you failed the fitness battery. I said, yes, but if you break the fitness battery down, what did I not make? I made the fitness, the running, but not the weight. So you're dropping me because of weight. As a woman that breaks me."
Kosteli agrees that females, in general, face greater pressure than men to look a certain way. "There's also the societal ideal, especially for women, to be lean and thin and to have a low body weight. We see that all the time, in magazines, on television, we know what we are made to think attractive is," she says. "Athletes that are lean fit closer to this societal ideal."
In Lee's case, it's a cruel, intersectional double whammy. Not only is she grappling with the expectations of what she should look like as a woman but what she should look like as an athlete, and she feels she failed on both counts. "I don't even look at myself in the mirror anymore because I don't like the way I look," she said. Despite that, just like the male players we spoke to, she is confident in her ability. "I know I don't look like an athlete but that doesn't mean I can't do my job. I looked like this last year and I had a brilliant year."
Lee was the leading run-scorer in women's ODIs in 2021, averaged over 90 and was ranked No. 1 in the format by the ICC. In Kosteli's mind that should be enough to keep Lee on the park irrespective of how she looks. "Larger-sized athletes who feel bad about their bodies in a social context because they are very far away from the societal attractive body should focus on the functionality of their body and what the body does, rather than how big it is."
But CSA, and most other sporting federations, appear to disagree. In CSA's case, it continues to strictly apply both the running and body-composition criteria to determine players' eligibility, which King believes is necessary for ensuring peak performance. Apart from the importance of a strong cardiovascular system on an athlete's ability to recover, he also argues that cutting excess body weight is always an advantage in cricket and every other land-based sport. "The only time it [excess body fat] is likely to be an advantage is if you're a long-distance swimmer, because it helps with buoyancy and insulation. It's not going to help you hit the ball further or bowl the ball faster, it's not gonna help you be quicker in the field, it's not going to help you run faster between the wickets. If anything, it's going to make you slower and it's going to put more stress on your joints. So it was sort of like a no-brainer that being leaner, to a point, is going to be better."
"You can't exercise your way out of a bad diet," is a phrase attributed to Mark Hyman, an American functional-medicine advocate. Essentially, Hyman argues that health is built in the kitchen rather than the gym.
"If a guy is scoring 400 runs and he is super fit and another guy is scoring 800 runs and he is not super fit, I will keep the guy who scored 800 runs in my team" Azam Khan
While training is an obvious necessity for sportspeople, nutrition has become increasingly important in how they prepare themselves for elite-level sport. Keshav Maharaj, who went from being what his father called a "plumpy fellow" to one of the leanest members of the South African squad, described diet as a way of taking control of one's own body. But not everyone experiences it that way. "Some people just have to look at food and they pick up weight," King says.
Azam jokes that "even if I drink water, I will gain weight". But he has not been able to use that as an excuse. "There are certain things I am not eating these days. That's what I am working on right now. I am cutting out junk food from my diet. I understand that it is physically hurting my body because it has a lot of fats."
Cornwall is "focusing on protein", and while he still eats carbohydrates and fats, he has to monitor his portion sizes. That's not always easy on the road. "If you're travelling a lot, it can be exhausting," he says, "because there's different foods in different countries and you're eating at different times."
This is also something Lee cited as one of the reasons for carrying excess fat. "When you're on tour, you don't have the same facilities as at home, so what are you going to eat? You're going to eat food that is not healthy," she said on the BBC show. She also admitted to considering extreme measures to bring down her body weight. "I actually spoke to our team doctor before they dropped me in Ireland. I asked, 'What do you want me to do? Do you want me to put my finger in my mouth before testing?' It definitely crossed my mind so many times. How do you lose weight quickly? It can't be healthy. There's just no way. Not eating comes to mind. I've tried that. But you need to eat because you have so much training to do."
Issues with his knees prevent Rahkeem Cornwall from undertaking yo-yo tests, so instead he does cardio on a bike to assess his fitness
© AFP/Getty Images
Issues with his knees prevent Rahkeem Cornwall from undertaking yo-yo tests, so instead he does cardio on a bike to assess his fitness © AFP/Getty Images
Although Lee never had an eating disorder, the fact that she even considered forcefully ejecting food from her own body is worth noting. Even among males, who in general report fewer eating disorders than females, there is the mental exhaustion, as Magala put it, which could have the opposite effect on performance than what the fitness trainer hoped for.
"Mental health is affected by the expectations and pressure and how sportspeople perceive their body," Kosteli says. "If they think they're far away from what they should be, they might not perform as well because they will be using negative self-talk and they will be putting themselves down that they need to lose more weight. It's like an internal dialogue, and obviously this is going to be a distraction. It is going affect performance. Anything in sports is about mental states and how you feel and how you perceive things. You might not be the leanest person in the team, but if you feel confident and you believe you can achieve a certain outcome, that would make a difference."
So ultimately it seems that what the science does not consider is whether or not the gains made in performance from losing excess body fat or attaining a higher level of fitness are offset by the mental-health implications of trying to lose that weight. In other words, would a slightly heavier or less-fit player who is happier, less stressed and liberated in their body perform better than a ripped player who is stressed and obsessed?
Cornwall says the answer to that is yes. "Everybody is not going to be slim and trim and everybody is not going to look ripped. Everybody's not going to be short, everybody is not going to be tall. Whatever structure you come in, you have to monitor that and make sure you can finish the day's play and make sure you do well for your team."
He has reached a level of acceptance. "A lot of people, especially big and tall people, say to me that I am a representative for big and tall people. And the most I can say to them is that don't make anyone make you feel uncomfortable because you don't make yourself. If you know what you can do and you want to do it, don't let no one tell you can't do that."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent
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