The sight of two Australian cricketers, Usman Khawaja and Marcus Stoinis, hobbling off the field with injuries in a key World Cup game against South Africa brought into focus the extraordinary transformation of India’s cricketers from being a bunch of laggards to the fittest players in the tournament.
This amazing transformation has come in less than a decade is the telling reason why this team is dominating the 2019 edition of the World Cup.
The present batch of Indian players’ fitness in terms of strength, speed, agility, mobility and recovery is a far cry from a dozen years ago when some cricketing legends were actually found wanting in most of these parameters.
Erstwhile coach Greg Chappell, who wanted to push them out of their comfort zone, was keen that batsmen were fitter and quicker to squeeze in 30 extras runs while running between the wickets and fielders were agile and sharp enough to save 30 runs in a 50-over game. In between he hoped the fielders would be able to convert one or two half chances.
Appalled at his aggressive push which called for discipline, nutrition and lifestyle changes, the players rebelled.
It was not until MS Dhoni became skipper and, in his own way, eased out some slow movers that India’s cricketers embraced a new fitness culture.
Around this time a young, impressionable and ambitious Virat Kohli came in contact with Royal Challengers Bangalore fitness coach Shankar Basu. In him he found the ideal strength and fitness conditioning coach who could catapult him to international fitness standards.
Kohli dived headlong into Basu’s training schedule and found that it had a terrific impact on his overall game. Soon, Basu was made Indian team's strength and conditioning coach and given a free hand to help bring other players up to speed.
Even as Basu was inspiring a young Kohli to work on his fitness, the Karnataka State Cricket Association honorary secretary Brijesh Patel recruited Anand Date who had done his masters in Kinesiology and Exercise Science from US and had designed and implemented fitness programs for university sports teams in US.
However, Anand had to quit when succeeding KSCA office bearers were not quite on the same page. Fortunately this opened the doors for a larger role as the National Cricket Academy, which also operates out of KSCA, grabbed him.
Anand, these past 8 to 10 years, has worked on India, India A and India Under 19 cricketers and the work ethic Basu and he have promoted has stood the cricketers in good stead.
Simultaneously, Dhoni and Kohli’s quest for a higher fitness levels slowly spread to the rest of the team and even to many first class and junior players. In fact almost all aspiring cricketers now look up to Kohli’s fitness as the gold standard and work towards it.
However it must be pointed out that this fitness program, which includes the yo-yo test, is not just running a few laps around the ground and then hitting the gym. It is scientifically calibrated for various parameters like:
a) Strength: To get stronger, more powerful. However the training to get stronger is in movements which are specific to cricket requirements.
b) Conditioning: to improve endurance. This is done mainly through running, with sessions designed according to the player’s level and goals.
c) Speed, Agility and Quickness: sessions are aimed to make the player faster and agile. Strength is needed to apply force on the ground to run quick, turn and slow down quicker.
d) Mobility, Stability: Sessions are used to handle requirements of upper body and lower body stability and movement patterns.
Two other factors of critical importance where the strength and conditioning coach and physio play a major role are in workload monitoring and recovery sessions.
Many injuries take place because players do not monitor their workload and at the same time do not pay heed to the body’s subtle signals. This is one reason why external help and supervision is so important. Likewise recovery sessions too are tailor-made for individuals based on workload and rest.
Here it must be pointed out that one of the biggest fears during the series in Australia last season was the strenuous workload that the main players would have to undergo both during that series and in the IPL which preceded the World Cup.
While many players such as Kohli, Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami, Bhuvaneshwar Kumar and a couple of others were rested, some like Dhoni, were not part of the Test series. But the real threat to player fitness was the IPL.
Basu and physio Patrick Farhat charted out a fitness program which India team players had to follow. This program was player and task specific and chosen players had to keep in touch with Basu and Farhat every single day of the IPL.
It is the strict adherence to this program and the success that it brought which drove skipper Kohli to remark that he had never seen Shami as fit as he was at the World Cup.
The same could be said of Kedar Jadhav, Yuzvendra Chahal, Rohit Sharma, Bumrah and the rest.
Meanwhile, a classic example of workload monitoring was seen when Bhuvi had a hamstring niggle during the match against Pakistan. He had bowled just 2.4 overs when he felt a tightness in his hamstring. But the team management swiftly decided that he was too valuable to flog in that game and pulled him out.
Contrast this with Andre Russell of the West Indies. He was made to bowl even though it was apparent that he was hobbling around. The team lost a game changer to injury after that.
Likewise Australia, England, Pakistan have all been hit by injuries. These are different from external blows suffered by Sikhar Dhawan and Vijay Shankar.
Indeed India’s players who were exposed to a lot more cricket in the year and months leading up to the World Cup got away relatively unscathed thanks to terrific work done by the strength and conditioning coaches and physio travelling with the team and at the NCA. This includes Basu’s handpicked assistant Sohum Desai.
Basu and the Australian Farhat who plan to quit at the end of the World Cup have been away from home far longer than many players. It is understandable that they now want to stop travelling and focus on other avenues. However if Indian cricket is on the threshold of a fitness revolution these two have had a huge hand in guiding it.
The fruit of their labour is the matchless fitness levels of the Indian players which, besides being showcased to the world, is powering the quest for the World Cup.