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November 10, 1997


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Of pros, and cons

Amrit Mathur

Former Delhi all-rounder Sanjeev Sharma has held many blinders in his career -- but what he caught in Jaipur the other day was truly remarkable.

Returning to his hotel one afternoon after coaching kids, he thought he saw someone familiar passing him on the street. With skills sharpened by regular appearances on a TV cricket quiz programme, Sanjeev hit the buzzer pretty quick -- the player riding a creaking scooter-rickshaw in the Pink City had to be Nasser Hussain, England's vice captain.

Enquiries revealed that Nasser Hussain was in fact in India, taking a break, 'slumming' through India, doing the tourist thing before settling down to the serious business of cricket. When Sanjeev caught up with him, Nasser Hussain was on a three-week holiday, covering the usual tourist sights with a bit of river rafting thrown in at Riskhikesh. "The weather is warm and nice, unlike England where it is just plain cold," says England's deputy skipper.

After an indifferent start to his international career, Nasser is now firmly entrenched in the England side, thanks to having scored good runs against Australia in the recent Ashes series. Now, he is not only the England number three, but is also being hotly tipped to take over the captaincy, sooner than later, from Atherton.

While in Jaipur, Nasser along with Arun Lal and Sanjeev himself, spent an afternoon with young kids at the nets, as part of a sports mela. The trainees, needless to say, were thrilled to see the unexpected guest. Nasser enjoyed himself hugely, though he declined the offer of having a bat -- the pitch being a bit damp, the England star apparently did not want to run the risk of needless injury. But he obligingly signed autographs, and passed along words of advise to the young players -- the sum of his message being, if you enjoy the game, your skills improve automatically.

From India, Nasser travels to Spain -- not, this time, on holiday but to join his England team-mates, already assembled there, for a pre-season conditioning camp. During this camp, Nasser told us, there won't be much cricket, no nets are planned, the emphasis is totally on physical fitness and training.

Apparently, coach David Lloyd is clear about the needs of the team. For him, fitness is of paramount importance. Thus, every player is given a strict schedule to follow. A specialist trainer keeps tabs on this aspect, while a dietician supervises the food intake of the players and a psychologist is always around to ensure their mental health.

Actual cricket, though not a priority in the camp, is not neglected altogether. Players do hard work on their fielding aspect, strategy sessions are a daily norm, the team sits down for collective brainstorming sessions, the opposition is analysed player by player, their top batsmen studied on video to sort out bowling options and field placements.

All this sounds terribly organised, and shows the effort that goes into top level cricket, the extensive preparation, the admirable attention to detail and seriousness of approach. Obviously, gone are the days when team meetings lasted a mere half hour on the evening before the game, and were in actual fact nothing more than a meaningless ritual.

Contrast this with the Indian team's camps, where the approach is annoyingly shoddy and the whole thing is treated like a bit of a joke. Players stretch sleepily, hold a few catches, throw some balls at the 'keeper and then hit the dining room to tuck into vadas and eggs, all of them swimming in oil.

Indian cricket's infrastructure is rooted in medieval times, preparation is unscientific and disorganised, awareness about physical and psychological requirements of top sportsmen extremely low.

Nasser was telling us how, thanks to better training facilities, his own game had improved tremendously. The most notable benefit, said Nasser, came from mental toughening. All sport, as the cliche goes, is played between the ears, and more than technique or cricket skills it is this ability to absorb pressure that separates the boys from the men.

It is an ability that other countries are spending much thought, money and time developing in their players. It is an ability the importance of which the Indian cricket establishment is not aware of, nor feels the need for.

Amrit Mathur

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