Two decades ago, an Indian cricketer did not bring to mind the image of an athlete. Be it, Virender Sehwag, Piyush Chawla or even the indomitable Sachin Tendulkar, ripping biceps or a six-pack weren’t for them. That has changed now and fitness is as important to players as batting or bowling technique these days. You see the skipper himself, Virat Kohli lifting weights wearing an elevation training mask designed to deny his muscles oxygen and improve his endurance.
Shikhar Dhawan’s tattooed biceps wouldn’t look out of place on a WWE wrestler. Hardik Pandya’s Instagram feed is peppered with photos and videos of him in the gym while Salman Khan-fan Kedar Jadhav — one of the oldest players in the squad — boasts of a six-pack. The age of overweight men trudging half-heartedly behind the ball is long gone. The Indians of today are athletes as fine as those in any other sport.
When John Wright first arrived on the scene in 2000, he was taken aback when he oversaw his first training session. The first foreigner to take over as India head coach later recalled in his book John Wright’s Indian Summers on how players, who were neither batting nor bowling, lounged about in plastic chairs where they would be served tea and biscuits. That was telling.
The laidback attitude then reflected on their performance on the field. But it was not entirely the cricketers’ fault as notable strength and conditioning coach Ramji Srinivasan points out. “I won’t say there was a negative mindset. The players were honest but they were not aware of fitness then,” the first Indian to take over as fitness coach in 2009 says.
The coach, who started out with Tamil Nadu, recalls how the mindset was back then. This was at a time when the focus was entirely on skills and the sport was less demanding. “The players used to do one/two laps, arm/him rotation and then after 10 minutes or so of warm-up, they would play.”
Wright did bring about plenty of tweaks in the routine of the players and guided the team to some memorable wins in his five-year stint.
It was around when Wright was leaving his role that a young cricketer from Hyderabad was looking to make his mark with domestic powerhouses Mumbai. Abhishek Nayar, who has always been drawn by fitness, sheds light on how the environment was then. “My coaches used to tell us how skipping was important. A lot of players used to run with weights in their hands. Push-ups and sit-ups were common practice. There was also a lot of concrete running.”The all-rounder did show plenty of promise to break into the Indian team in 2009. But with competition for places, he played just two more ODIs for India.
Nevertheless, he has soldiered on in the domestic circuit, scoring bulk of runs. Moreover, he has doubled up as a mentor to many cricketers, most notably to Dinesh Karthik. Nayar now occupies a specialised role that — though unheard-of in the past — is becoming fashionable. Mentor of IPL outfit Kolkata Knight Riders, he feels the scientific tools have lifted the sport. “Now, it’s scientific. Your routines are based on your body type. With science progressing, the sport is going to another level.”
MS Dhoni & Co playing football is a common sight. A lot of players also indulge in other sports. Those activities have helped them gain agility, according to experts. Known to be good with his feet, Dhoni has served remarkably for the team. Under his guidance, India tasted its second World Cup success in 2011. One who has baffled many purists with his unorthodox style of batting, he is seen an icon by many. Many consider him to be a naturally gifted athlete and he has never been seen as someone who will push himself to the limits when it comes to fitness.
That’s when Kohli came into the picture. When Kohli first entered the scene in the late 2000s, he was visibly chubby. It was around 2012 when his craze for fitness began after he met renowned trainer Shankar Basu. A man who grew up devouring butter chicken gave it up for the sake of fitness. It’s a well-documented fact that he is fond of sushi now. He has quickly picked up many health-related terms in his vocabulary. It was almost like a fixation for the man from Delhi. But the benefits were visible.
Chinmoy Roy, who has worked as a physical trainer for India A and NCA in the past, credits Kohli for taking the team to another level when it comes to fitness. With him as captain, he has ensured that everyone follows a strict regime. Food supplements and protein bars are part of players’ diet. Players, who would formerly shy away from lifting weights, have gradually embraced the changes. “When the captain makes the call, everybody listens. Players know that they have to maintain standard or else they might be dropped,” Roy, who has worked closely with Sourav Ganguly, observes.
Having a yo-yo test is a prime example of Kohli taking a stand. Even though there has been plenty of debate on whether the test is a true determination of a player’s fitness, Kohli has backed it. Unlike old training methods, yo-yo test is considered to be highly intense. “In the past, players would just jog around or do few sprints here and there, but now it is much more intense in every aspect of training,” Roy notes. Power-lifting has helped the players gain more strength. It’s something that has helped the likes of Kohli clear boundaries with more frequency. Even the bowlers are able to clock 140-150 kmph regularly.
Recovery is another aspect that is of paramount importance. With crowded fixtures, and the game becoming faster, how players rest has become integral. In general, there are three sections to this subject: training, match and recovery. If the fixtures are tight, they skip the first part and instead focus on recovery. Hitting the pool or taking an ice bath is the norm these days. “Ice bath brings down your core temperature. That helps you sleep well at night. That culture was not there in the past,” Roy, who served as an assistant trainer under Greg Chappell in the Indian fitness camp in 2005, says.
The stars of yesterday would just do cool down stretches.
There’s more incentive for players who are willing to tick all the right boxes in order to stay fit. “The fitter you are, the longer you will be without injuries and even when you get injured, your recovery is much quicker,” Ramji notes.