Andy Balbirnie allows himself the luxury of a smile as he describes himself as ‘Ireland’s COVID captain’. Having taken over the reins of the Ireland cricket team in November, Balbirnie and his team have had to spend a significant part of his tenure in lockdown like the rest of the world.
Since sporting events came to a screeching halt in March, the demands placed on elite athletes by the pandemic have been severe. With access to training spaces and gyms cut off, most athletes have had to contend with working out by themselves at home with whatever equipment they could find in whatever spaces they had. But while the impact the lockdown had on athletes physically is well documented, sportsmen, just like the rest of us, also had to focus on maintaining emotional and psychological equilibrium during the new normal.
“I think mental fitness was equally as important (as physical fitness) as you’re going through a time that you’d never gone through and sometimes I didn’t know how to deal with it, there was so much going on in the news… I had days when I struggled, and didn’t really want to talk about it, but I surrounded myself with my family and my girlfriend who really helped,” Balbirnie told Firstpost in an interaction on Friday.
He added that Ireland’s strength and conditioning coaches sent the players their training regimen early on during the lockdown to keep themselves match-fit.
“A majority of what the coaches sent us was body-weight stuff because we didn’t have access to any gyms. I purchased a static bike and brought it into the house so I had that to be able to do exercises as well,” he said.
Ireland reported its first set of positive COVID-19 cases in the last week of February, and more than four months later their caseload stands in excess of 25,000, which includes 1,752 deaths.
Across the world over 13 million have now tested for the novel coronavirus, with one million cases coming from India alone, but competitive sport has managed to slowly stir back to life along with the rest of society. Balbirnie and men, too, are getting ready for an ODI series against the Englishmen later this month.
Does the break do a world of good for some members of the side grappling with fitness issues, especially some of the more senior members? Balbirnie certainly thinks so.
“Cricket has gone through such a demanding schedule all over the world. Getting on flights and playing Test matches and ODIs can be damaging to the body, so I’ve no doubt that a period of RnR (rest and rehabilitation) will extend a lot of players’ careers.
“Hopefully that’s the case for most of us. We’ve got a relatively young squad, but at the same time, we’ve got guys that are in their mid-30s that we want to get the best out of in the years to come. Hopefully this period of rest and no cricket can benefit them.”
Cricket’s return to action after the coronavirus-enforced break that lasted for more than three months was marked by a four-wicket victory for the West Indies over England at Southampton in what turned out to be a close affair that went down to the final day.
Jason Holder’s men were lauded particularly for their bowling efforts as the pace unit tore through an English team that boasts of one of the deepest batting line-ups in the modern game. Jermaine Blackwood’s superb knock of 95 during the chase was the cherry on top of the cake.
The victory reiterated the belief for some that West Indies returning to winning ways after a period of decline over the years was in fact a good thing for world cricket. Among those who subscribe to this line of thought is Balbirnie.
“The first Test was brilliant. It was brilliant just to see cricket back on our screens and it not being a re-watch from 20 years ago. I think, having played the West Indies recently and been out there for the first time, the passion that they have for cricket is incredible, and I think a good West Indies team is very good for world cricket because they are such a flamboyant team and they just look like they’re always enjoying their cricket, with Phil Simmons as their head coach who we know very well. It’s great to see them back doing well,” said Balbirnie.
The Irishman however, expects England to bounce back at Manchester in the second Test, which would then set up an intriguing series-deciding third Test, to be played at the same venue.
“I think you probably will see a bit of a backlash from England, it’s such a quick turnaround. I saw Shannon Gabriel went off yesterday (Day 1) for a period, he might be carrying a knock. Look I’ve never played back-to-back Tests, but I’d imagine that to be quite difficult on the body. I’d like to see England win this game, and the third Test will be intriguing,” added Balbirnie.
Among the changes to the playing conditions introduced by the ICC in response to the coronavirus outbreak is a ban on applying saliva on the cricket ball — a common sight in the sport that helps bowlers in getting reverse swing after some wear and tear on the leather.
Balbirnie, however, felt that the saliva ban wouldn’t have much effect when his side takes on England.
“It’s certainly a regulation that we’ll have to get used to. I suppose in white ball cricket it’s not as necessary as in red-ball cricket (where) you’re looking for that swing and searching for those wickets. More so in Test cricket I think, white ball wouldn’t swing as often as the red ball.
“…but like everything else in the last three or four months, you’ve just got to grow accustomed with the new normal I suppose,” said Balbirnie.
India-born Ireland off-spinner Simi Singh, who is part of the group that travels to England for the one-dayers, agreed with his captain.
“I think like Balbo said, it’s more to do with the red ball when you’re trying to get the swing. So with the white ball, a lot of time you’ll be bowling scrambled seam as well so it doesn’t really come into play that much. But it’s just habit more than anything else, just getting used to it, and I think if we do it in practice enough, we should be able to do it in the games,” said Singh, who along with Balbirnie, were among those present in a virtual press conference in which Cricket Ireland announced ITW Consulting Pvt Ltd as a sponsorship rights holder for Ireland men’s shirt and Official Sponsorship Consultancy Partner until 2022.
As the shirt sponsorship rights holder, ITW Consulting has roped in Mobile Premier League (MPL) and automobile giant Skoda as the brands to be featured on the Ireland jersey for the ODI series in England.
Having spent months without competitive action, the Irish team will finally get some taste of competitive action later this month.
“Look we all went through the same sort of emotions (during the lockdown) no doubt. But I just think we’re all excited to get back to playing cricket. We are getting on a plane tomorrow (Saturday). It’s what we’ve done our whole lives,” said Balbirnie before adding, “But it’s going to feel so strange.”
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