It’s not happened for a long time – India’s cricket stars are getting a break. The fifth and final ODI against England ended in defeat yesterday (January 27) but the first Test against Australia does not begin till February 22. Given how things have been, the break seems almost impossibly ideal.
Left to their own devices, the players will quickly be whisked off by their agents to act in ads, a few parties will follow and public appearances as well. In between, the players will do their best to stick to their diets and exercise regimes.
But here’s where India coach Duncan Fletcher needs to step in and do probably what will be his first and last good deed. He needs to order the team and some of his other probables into a team bus and cart them to some unknown island. There, they need to regroup and retrain. An old-fashioned boot camp, if one can say that. If the BCCI can have these players skip the Ranji Trophy final, they can surely get them to skip other domestic assignments as well.
As the news of John Wright’s appointment as coach of Mumbai Indians yesterday came in, one immediately thought of one of the first things Wright did after being appointed coach of the Indian team.
In February 2001 – the first time the Indian team had a break from active cricket – Wright organised a training camp; a tough training camp that left the Indian team gasping. He followed a simple process: to build something new, you need to first break down the old. He broke the old habits and encouraged them to change.
For example, one day he arranged a special screening of Remember the Titans – the Denzel Washington movie about a newly appointed African-American coach and his high school team on their first season as a racially integrated unit.
Another day, he got them driven to the Fishermen's Cove resort. Once there, he asked the players a series of questions: ‘What are the values this team wants to follow? Does this team have a vision? What does this team want to do? Where is this team headed?’
He then split the players into three groups and asked them to discuss the questions and come up with answers. They defined goals, came up with tactics, ideas. It was team-building at its best. It was also something the Indian team had never done before.
Over the years, many teams have resorted to such measures. In a blog, former India mental conditioning coach Paddy Upton wrote about a training camp that the Proteas team undertook in Switzerland in July.
“A truck filled with mountain bikes awaited our arrival at the bottom of the cable car. Mike pointed to a mountain opposite the one we had just summited, and said; “we’re cycling over that mountain back to the hotel”. Ha-Ha, big joke. No one believed him, myself included,” said Upton.
“The peak loomed some 750m above us. Mike hopped on his bike and headed straight up, shouting, ‘follow me’. Joke over. The next 90 minutes saw players using every swearword in the book, until they were too exhausted to swear… and there was still more to climb. For 7km, we climbed, never once did the path level out. Not once. Honestly! I have never been so physically exhausted in my life. But I was in Mike Horn territory, so I refused to get off my bike, refused to rest, refused to walk. I found reserves that I never knew I had. AB de Villiers said that he had never been that exhausted in his life, and that he pushed harder than he had ever had before. He now knew he could do more than he believed.”
Ahead of the Ashes in 2010, the England squad took a ‘bonding’ training camp in Germany where they slept in tents and took part in a series of activities including bungee jumps and boxing. Australia regularly conduct boot camps of their own – which range from spending time in the outback (2006) to training at the Gold Coast.
Now, India may not need to do anything crazy. But a camp – away from the pressures of international cricket – will allow the team to really get to know each other. After all, you aren’t going to put your life on the line for a strange. One of the reasons, Sourav Ganguly got a lot of support from his younger players was that they knew he would back them all the way.
But what do Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Shami Ahmed, Ajinkya Rahane or Cheteshwar Pujara know about Dhoni? They only do as they are told. Are Gambhir and Sehwag finally on the same page as Dhoni? Do R Ashwin and P Ojha know what is expected of them in India? Are the fast bowlers up to the challenge against Australia? What will India be in the post Dravid and Laxman generation?
A training camp will allow them to communicate as individuals and that’s important. If they want to beat Australia, they need to play as a unit, not as a fragmented group of talented individuals pulling in different directions. Someone long deceased once said: “To know a species, look at its fears. To know yourself, look at your fears.”
The camp will also allow this team to work on its game in isolation. The openers need to work on their technique. The middle order needs to stay at the wicket for longer periods. The captain’s tactics have come in for a fair bit of scrutiny as well.
The Indian team has been out of its comfort zone for so long that they need to take a pause and rediscover what it feels to be comfortable. They’ve been edgy, they’ve been unsure, they've not been themselves – which is why a break is needed. And this is one thing Fletcher should insist on.