"I will live in a nearby hotel but will not stay at home. That's it for me now, can't bear any more lockdown days. I am going to the ground, I really want to bowl. When there is a lot of cricket to play we say 'there is so much going on' but we start missing it when there is no action. I miss bowling – I am what I am because of cricket only. I will surely go and bowl at least a ball on the day lockdown gets over."
Though Yuzvendra Chahal had started off answering in a light-hearted tone when asked about the first thing he will do when the lockdown is over, it soon transformed into a desperate one. It was palpable as he spoke about the annoyance of being confined to his home in an Instagram live session with TV presenter Jatin Sapru. India was just 15 days into its first lockdown which has now extended into fifth phase, over 100 days have passed.
Most cricketers would have shared similar emotions to Chahal’s. They just want to get onto the field. Their exasperation may have reached its peak with the total lockdown. However, with the relaxations granted in the fourth and fifth phases, this frustration would have slowly started to fizzle out.
They can see hope with the England vs West Indies Test series on the horizon. Some of the individual players have gradually started their training. However, some are still in an inactive state. These are unprecedented times, the players are not used to such a long break. Yes, the biggest challenge was to deal with the state of inactivity, but problems are not limited to that alone.
Smooth transition is one of the critical challenges cricketers face now as they get ready to step out of their homes onto the field. This is crucial not only in the short run but for their longevity as well.
"In India because of the lockdown, most of them can't even step out of the house," says former India trainer Shanker Basu, who had been at the helm of Indian cricket team's fitness transformation between 2015 and 2019, and currently the strength and conditioning coach of RCB.
"You can do whatever you want in the gym (at home) – weight training, functional training, etc, but when you get onto the field, it is always a different thing. There is something called ground reaction force, these boys don't have access to running on the grounds. The first challenge will be the first week. A lot of people will be very anxious and get going gung-ho. They should not jump the gun and hit the ground running straight away. They should be working on their conditioning and move gradually for the first week. Especially the fast bowlers, in the first week it's not a bad idea to just get a feel of the ground, keep running, clock some miles under your belt, get your rhythm going and then start bowling."
While the players casually look to start off with their routines, there are some micro details they need to delve into as former India and one of the most sought after trainers, Ramji Srinivasan, explains.
"The challenges that they will face (when they get out initially) is the weather and ground conditions – these are real challenges," Srinivasan said. "No one has run outside, you don't know how the ground is going to be and the ground running reaction force because the technique of running is different on a treadmill compared to the ground. How you are going to cope up with ground reaction force on the surface where you run? And what sort of food do you eat? Right now, the dietary habits will be different. There has to be a total shift in what you eat, how you plan your means, your hydration. Because you are used to a certain type of food timing now. You can't do that. Suppose you have a training session at 12, and if you are having the habit of having lunch at 12.30 or 1 then now you have to change that. The hydration protocols have to change."
For John Gloster, former India and current Rajasthan Royals head physio who has over two decades of experience, there are three crucial things involved in a successful transition.
1) Time: How much time do we have between the end of lockdown and the return of play? (The time frame we've got to prepare these players in a training environment before they play). It does determine outcomes significantly.
"The more time you have got, the better chance you have got to work with and therefore the less chance of injury," Gloster says. "Shorter time means the injury risk goes up, particularly for an Indian player because of the extent of the lockdown and the physical constraints of the Indian player’s vs players from say Australia, England, New Zealand, who have got more space, and have come out of lockdown much earlier.
"Time is an athlete's best friend. They have got time now to work on things they've never got to work on hence use that now so that even if you have got a shorter period of time to return to play, you are better conditioned to adapt to the loads that will be asked of you during that period."
2) The format they are going back to. Because the preparation for T20 is completely different to that required for a Test. It's very format dependent.
"If they are going back to T20 then it's going to be easy to prepare to compared to say if they are going back to play 3-4 Tests," Gloster says.
Basu, who has played a vital role in Virat Kohli’s physical transformation and the revitalised Indian pace attack’s fitness, has an interesting way of looking at it.
"If it is a Test match, you think of it as a 5,000 metres race, for ODI – 400m and 800m races, while for T20s – 100m race. All three events are different with separate requirements and challenges. If you are working for T20, you are looking at explosiveness and speed. So you need to be very careful and train accordingly. In a Test, you are looking at longevity, lasting for five days, recovery and all those things. A fast bowler might be required to bowl 20 overs a day. After the lockdown, T20 is not a bad idea to start because it's just four overs for a fast bowler. It's a good place to start and then move on to the longer part of a game."
3) The role that individual plays in the team.
The transition will vary from cricketer to cricketer based on a lot of aspects like the skill, their fitness state in the lockdown, what they have been working on, the format they are returning to, and a lot of other factors. However, if one has to generalise things, according to Gloster, a batsman returning to Test cricket assuming he has a fitness program running during lockdown, "you are still looking at 4-6 weeks minimum before they are adequately prepared to return to Test cricket."
"Test cricket is not just about batting, it's about spending a long time in the field and accumulating a lot of distance," Gloster said. "So we know on the field during a matchday in a Test match, they can be covering anywhere around 15-18km of total distance in a day. For fast bowlers it's around 22-25km. So they have got to be prepared for that. For a fast bowler, it will be 8-10 weeks because the numbers tell us that fast bowlers that come from no fast bowling to sudden spike, have a high risk of injury. A T20 pacer would need six weeks to get ready for play while a batsman would require four weeks assuming they have had a physical intervention during the lockdown."
While undergoing the transformation, Srinivasan – who is also a consultant to CSK – asserts on employing the 'working backward, moving forward' formula.
"For example, if I know IPL is starting in October. Right now it is 6 July, you have your IPL itinerary so you start your camp well ahead. For example, if the training is opening in July, you have three months, so you need to know when you need to peak. For that you need to work backward. What I need to do from 1 July to peak at the right time which is the first match. That is working backward and moving forward. Without knowing the itinerary I don't know when I am going to peak. You need to plan preventive measures. You can't plan now without knowing the schedule. You have to make the athlete ready for the path and make the path for the athlete, rather than changing the path."
One of the most crucial aspects will be progression and transition in a phased manner. Basu further explains in detail the different phases a batsman and a bowler needs to go through to return to competitive cricket.
Phased progression for a batsman:
"A batsman’s build-up has to be very gradual. You cannot straightaway get on the field and start training for six hours, it cannot happen. Because if you go into the nets and bat for two hours from the get-go, you will suffer back spasms or other problems, so again, more than science you require a little common sense.
"The first phase: Since he didn't have access to the field, he should go to the ground, stride, run and see whether all the sporting movements are fine. Imagine your bike had gone for servicing, you'll check everything before you drive, no?
Second phase: You start introducing skill, when you do that keep it for a limited time and break it down into different sessions. Don't do it in bulk. Instead of three hours session in a day, break it down to morning one hour and evening one hour. First isolate and integrate.
Third phase: By that time the coaches and trainers would have had a decent idea of what's happening to each fellow. A few guys might have some niggles and fatigue while a few might say I am fine. So again it is very unique. You cannot treat everyone the same. So there it's the collective effort of the team and support staff that comes into the picture."
Phased progression for a bowler:
A fast bowler's transition is more critical and sensitive than a batsman's. A lot of young fast bowlers will be very anxious to get back and bowl. But they will have to be smart and at this juncture it’s not the quantity but the quality of work that will matter.
"Look at it practically, give them the ball but tell them we will only do drills in the first ten days," Basu asserts while talking about the phases.
"Phase 1: The first week can be dedicated to getting his conditioning back. Do a little bit of jogging, mobility, striding and some rhythm runs, to get the feel of the ground.
"Phase 2: In a week's time they will be itching to go, then probably you can introduce some sessions, limit the number of balls he bowls in the second week.
"Phase 3: From the third week increase the number of balls he bowls and from the fourth week probably try to play one-day practice matches and then taper off and play the test.
"It is like getting into a new classroom, straightaway you can't say give me the final exam paper I will write,” said Basu. The pacers straightaway can't do long off to long on fielding, running, sprinting all those things. It can be injurious to the soft tissue. Whether you are a batsman or a bowler, the first 10 days you need to make sure you get your condition back. Put the car in neutral for some time, see whether it's starting. Then put the first, second, and third gear and then hit the top one."
Gloster keeps emphasising that a lot will depend on what the players have been doing in the lockdown period. There might be losses that have taken place during the period of inactivity which need to be minimised and the cricketers need to work on the foundations as a stepping stone before they enter the field.
“Speed is the first thing (they would have lost during lockdown). Then physiological losses like bone density. Studies show that they can lose up to two percent of bone density in three months of lockdown. And then endurance and strength. There might be a deficiency in certain vitamins and then some more structural issues around bone density which could affect them detrimentally, especially fast bowlers. Bone density is determined by Vitamin D3 and because we are all indoors and not getting exposed to sunshine, diets are different so we are not getting enough loading hence bone turnover and bone density is affected by physical loading, so weight-bearing loads are down.
"Vitamin D is down so bone density will be down, if that’s the case and you try to ramp up fast bowler to full loads, then you can start getting bone stress issues, stress reactions and stress fractures. That's why nutrition is extremely important during that period."
"They have to work on the foundations first,” Gloster continues. “That's what they will be doing now. If the foundations are not in place then you can't build speed and strength. The core stability, single-leg stability, balance, muscle symmetry all those things need to be in place. Then you can build speed, endurance and finally strength. You can't get to building strength without the other foundations in place. So for a batsman, I wouldn't straight away start working on his strength, because that's not most important, his endurance and his speed are more important. Whereas for a bowler it's a combination of speed, endurance and strength. All three as priorities. But primarily they need to have foundations in place else there are chances of getting injured in the transition period let alone the playing time."
All through the transition process, the role of the trainers, physios and the strength and conditioning coaches becomes equally critical. They need to have frequent debriefing sessions with the players and keep monitoring their fitness constantly during and after the lockdown periods. Rajasthan Royals are one of those franchises that are actively and constantly monitoring all their players through advanced digital methods.
"The beauty and advantage that we (RR) have, is we have three years of GPS data of players available with us captured through Catapult GPS tracker. So we already know what the data sets are of each of our players. Until they attain the match fitness from their data, it will be difficult for us to let them go back to play. Over the last three years, we have collected: Maximum speeds attained, total distance covered in matches, particularly T20s, how much time they spend in various speed bands: 15-20 kms/hr, 20-25 etc, hence what their average speeds are for the match. So we know that if they are not meeting the match numbers, they are not adequately prepared to return or fit to return to play. Having that data available is extremely valuable to us. Because we then know exactly when they are ready to return to play. When we return to training, all the players will need to meet the criteria before they are allowed to return to play otherwise the injury risk will be high. It's a very graded, calculated data driven program and that's very individual based because every player in the team has different data sets."
The other things that the RR support team consisting of Gloster, fast bowling development coach Stefan Jones and other staff consider are the blood screening markers and nutrition.
"Blood marker tells what they are from the inside. We need to know whether they have the all-round health. Their iron levels, vitamin D levels, B12, HbA1c, Lipid profiles, hormones, and inflammatory markers. Every single marker has to be normal again before they are fit to play."
The RR players have been actively involved in the fitness program handed out by Gloster and Co during the lockdown period which is being continuously monitored and they have been handing out a lot of advice on nutrition as well.
"It's also a good time as a team and unit to work on team values, team culture and setting some of the values and getting everyone to buy into," Gloster said.
While working in conjunction with the support staff is paramount, the players in return must develop that trust with the support system, have physical intelligence and ingrain adaptability.
"You have to be like commandos," Srinivasan says. "They don't face war or terrorist activity every day but once they are called, they are ready to give the final blow. The mindset and physical preparedness has to be there, like a commando: Anytime, anywhere."
Also, there is the aspect retaining the skill component as well. Skill is something that many of them can still be training for, particularly the batsmen. They could be doing batting, hand eye coordination, eye training and action speed drills but still, Gloster reckons it will take four weeks even for a batsman to return and be effective and confident around with the skills they had before.
For a bowler it's very different, it's more of physical demand. They can't run in and bowl until they get on to the field. A fast bowler returning to T20 cricket will need around six weeks to retain the skills while they will need at least 8-10 weeks for Tests according to the RR physio.
International cricket's return to action when England take on the West Indies in a three-Test series could act as a catalyst to appease the nerves, enhance the learning process and set some benchmarks.
"The good thing is that a pool of our (RR) players will be returning to the field before our Indian boys. So we are going to have them to learn from, not just from a training perspective but also from the safety perspective. We often have first-mover advantages in certain spaces, well this time there is an advantage to being a second mover because we can learn from those who have returned and take the best practices from that that we can use for our players.
"We’ve got to get this transition period right. The team that handles the transition period well from lockdown to play will have the advantage in terms of reduced injury rates and better performance," Gloster said, giving food for thought as cricket emerges out of the lockdown darkness.
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