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The Rediff Special/M D Riti
At King's command...
August 22, 2003
Bhajji, dressed in black tracks, T-shirt and turban, ran gracefully towards trainer Greg King. As he approached at a fast sprint, King tossed a cricket ball at him. Bhajji caught the ball easily and threw it hard at the single white stump in front of King. The ball hit the stump hard, and set it waving to and fro.
The few privileged spectators, who had managed to sneak past the vigilant security at the gates, sighed in relief. "Looks like his finger injury has healed," they whispered to one another. "We could not have played New Zealand without him and Sachin."
The tension in the air was palpable as the diminutive figure, who is always the centre of attention whenever he is around, ran slowly towards the single stump. He did not miss a beat as he caught the ball easily and threw it at the white stump.
This time, the gasps were more audible. "He's alright!" sighed a schoolboy, obviously playing hooky from school to watch his idol practicing his fielding skills. He waved his autograph book jubilantly in the air. "He's going to knock those Newzies out!" he cried, even as his family shushed him, afraid of drawing attention to their presence in the stands.
Outside the cricket stadium, the pavement is lined with spectators, trying to climb on each other's shoulders and somehow peek into the stadium, to catch a glimpse of their heroes. They seem oblivious to the fact that the cricketers are practising at a spot from which they cannot be seen from outside. The men outside crane their necks and call out to each other: "Was that Ganguly walking in?"
Thirty-six of India's best and brightest are at a conditioning camp in Bangalore, in preparation for the approaching series against New Zealand in October. The Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore has now become a hub for cricket training in the country, thanks largely to the National Cricket Academy, which operates from its campus.
Many trainers and therapists are working with the cricketers. Leading the pack is South African Gregory Allen King, who is working with the Indian cricketers closely for the first time since his recent appointment. Then, there is team coach John Wright and physio therapist Andrew Leipus, who has until now, also been doubling as the team's trainer.
Also helping are Dr Tej Kaul of Chandigarh, the physical trainer attached to the NCA, and Dr Sooratwala, the sports injuries expert. As King and Wright put the men through fielding tests, Kaul, dressed in black tracks, T-shirt and cap, ran between the groups, lending a helping hand wherever necessary.
"All our trainers are helping at the camp," says Col R K Nair of the NCA.
"Several factors contribute to good fielding," says Kaul. "Brilliant co-ordination of hand and body, excellent reaction time, good balance of the body, mental fitness to accept the challenge, all these. Training on technical aspects as well as the psychological and physical fitness. The human tendency is to escape something difficult so that they are not blamed later, for something like a dropped catch. Often players would not even attempt hard catches for that reason. Now, they do so readily."
"Ashish [Nehra] and Virender [Sehwag] are here mainly for the rehabilitation of their older injuries," says the tall, lanky Leipus, as he walks off the field.
Nehra has an old ankle injury while Sehwag has a bad back. However, Leipus says he is confident that they will be in peak condition before the approaching series.
"Our exercises are also designed to get these players, many of whom have never played with each other, comfortable with one another," says Greg King. "We are also keeping a competitive spirit going in this camp, to keep players at their best."
The players have been divided into groups, to make training them easier. In the course of each day, they spend some time swimming, either in the stadium clubhouse's pool or at the pools in Hotel Grand Ashok, where they are staying. Their morning begins with yoga at the hotel. At some point in the day, they also hit the NCA's excellently equipped gym for a couple of hours at least. While one group is at the gym, another group is doing fielding practice, a third group is in the pool and so on.
The gymnasium of the NCA, which is on the first floor above the academy's offices, is all gleaming steel and polished floors. The clean, streamlined dumbbells make you want to reach out and grab them. The diminutive Parthiv Patel walks in and starts limbering up. The rest of his group follow, some stripping off their shirts quite unabashedly.
The gym is strictly out of bounds for the media and for all rubbernecks. Down below, just outside the office of the NCA, a sports equipment supplier has spread out his wares, consisting of exercise balls, skipping ropes, massage balls and pads and so on, hoping to catch the cricketers, as they walk past to the gym.
Back on the pitch, players are divided into pairs. Each player wears a mitt on his left hand. The pairs throw cricket balls to each other, from some distance apart. Each catches with the left hand and throws with the right.
A group of children watching fielding eagerly from the stands sighed ecstatically. "When will Sachin run up?" asked the smallest boy in the group, sweating valiantly in a black and white checkered coat, obviously hoping that his natty attire would earn him a smile from his idol when he ran up to him with his autograph book.
The blue-clad guards at the door to the crease threw him a warning glance, watching out carefully for enthusiastic fans or children who might try to run out on to the pitch and disturb the players' concentration. "Ah, there he is," sighed a teenaged girl with silver hoops in her ears, pointing towards the crease. "That's Zaher Khan: he's so sexy, yaar!"
As lunch time approaches, and the players take a break from the camp. Almost all of them head back to their hotel for lunch and possibly a short rest. The stadium is full of enticing aromas as a magnificent spread from Hotel Annapurna in Chikpet is laid out for the NCA trainees, who do not have the luxury of taking a long break from their routine.
"Many of them seem to have gained a few inches in this long break," says a former Test cricketer regretfully, as he watches the players troop off the pitch, and waves out to a few of them. "Cricketers need not follow strict daily diets or menus," says Kaul, as he too watches. "A basic understanding of which foods have what nutritional values is enough. The players can then see that they get the right mix of proteins, carbohydrates and fats in every meal. It is the duty of the physical trainer to communicate all this adequately to his trainees."
Some years ago, the players would simply have gone straight out of their homes to a short orientation camp and then gone on to the series. It is only now that the realization that, as Kaul puts it, a break of even three days is enough to bring a player back to ground zero.
If the focused and rigorous training that this correspondent witnessed at the fitness camp is any indication, then it seems quite certain that whichever eleven players out of this group makes it to the finals, it will certainly be a team in peak physical condition.