Covid-19 threw most of us off our plans, and cricketers were not quite in a position to go through their regular training routines, forget staying match-fit. Now, with IPL 2020 set to begin on September 19, what will be the focus when they go out to train? How will they prepare? How important is the mental aspect? We spoke to L Balaji, Irfan Pathan, Mohammed Shami, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Jaydev Unadkat and Sandeep Warrier to get an idea.
What are the challenges fast bowlers face when they return to high-intensity training after a long break?
Bhuvneshwar Kumar, the India and Sunrisers Hyderabad pacer: I remember that once my pace increased, I struggled for almost six-seven months. I didn't get injured during that time, but my body took time to adjust. I was fatigued. My body wasn't used to the workload. At times I used to feel niggles. Luckily, the trainer and physio back then addressed my issues. Instead of going big with training, they focused on the smaller things, which helped me a lot.
Irfan Pathan, the former India allrounder: If it's a break without injuries, coming back is easier - it's like returning, getting on to the horse and riding it. If it's an injury, depending on the severity, it's harder. I remember when I was unfit and struggling with injuries. I wish I had the knowledge then as I do now. If you're injured, planned injury management is key. You need to be pain-free, recover from muscle or bone loss, and then ease yourself [back in]. If it's something as small as a Grade-1 hamstring strain, you can come back within two weeks. In fact you can start bowling from the third or fourth day. If it's a stress fracture, it could take six to eight weeks after your four or five months of rehabilitation.
L Balaji, the former India pacer and current Chennai Super Kings bowling coach: Athletes develop certain set routines that were put on hold. You couldn't have practised these skill sets at home, so bowlers will take two-three weeks to adapt. It's pretty much like coming out of an injury layoff. You can't expect 100% intensity when you're just coming back.
Jaydev Unadkat, the Saurashtra and Rajasthan Royals pacer: In 2014, I was out of the game for five months because of a stress fracture on my back. That was more frustrating than this forced pandemic break. This time, it was more challenging mentally than physically.
"If it's a break without injuries, coming back is easier - it's like returning, getting on to the horse and riding it. If it's an injury, depending on the severity, it's harder" Pathan
How did you train during the peak of the lockdown?
Kumar: I was very motivated for the first 15 days of the lockdown. No one knew how long it would last and I didn't have any equipment to exercise at home either. I did bodyweight workouts to keep myself fit. But after 15 days, I started finding it difficult to motivate myself. I then ordered equipment at home and things have improved since. We, or I rather, generally give excuses that I don't have enough time to improve my fitness given we end up playing so many matches. So I am working on coming out of this lockdown as a better version of myself. On-field performance is different, but I can work on my fitness, or my athletic ability, or gaining more strength.
Mohammed Shami, the India and Kings XI Punjab pacer: I made a practice facility [at his farmhouse], and have been using it for the last few months. I created practice wickets to play on. These couple of months have been tough for everyone, including players. You might have seen my training videos. I haven't been able to bowl properly. That's something that has come to a halt.
Unadkat: I was looking to take a break from the Irani Cup [in March] itself because of my workload. The body had a couple of niggles, which was building up as we approached the Ranji final, but at that stage, there was no way I was going to miss out. So the forced break helped me a great deal. Playing an IPL season immediately after the Ranji season could have been a little taxing. The time away has given me the opportunity to work on building my skills and working my way into an IPL season.
I started training with Cheteshwar Pujara at his academy from the end of June. For the first two weeks, I only focused on getting back the feel. Initially, I bowled from two or three steps. The focus was just on landing the ball, without dwelling too much into the technicalities or skills. After two weeks, I started a mix of gym training and bowling.
Sandeep Warrier, the Kerala and Kolkata Knight Riders pacer: In July, I started bowling with Vijay Shankar at his house. He has nets in his terrace, so that kind of gave me the freedom to exercise my main skill sets. We trained thrice a week there. So I have slowly eased my way back. Maybe once the quarantine in the UAE is over, and we have a couple of open nets or practice matches, I'll be back to my full rhythm. [Previously] my body hasn't responded as well as it has this time, and that's exciting.
How did it feel to get out of home and get back to bowling?
Unadkat: Just having the ball in my hand felt really good. I felt pumped, because the last ball I'd bowled was the delivery that won us the Ranji Trophy final. So I was kicked to be bowling again. For me, it's about my rhythm. If the synchronisation of my action, my run-up and follow through is good, I know it's half the job done. Rhythm matters more to me. If that feels all right, I know it's just a matter of time before I can bowl what I want to. I'm somewhat 70-80% there at the moment. After three weeks, that is when I started bowling off a full run-up. And by the end of July, I felt I was nearly 70% of my full intensity.
Balaji: The bowling rhythm comes when you don't have restrictions. When you're constrained within four walls, you do routines with minimal body movements. Rhythm can happen when you have freedom of your own body. Once that freedom comes in, you express yourself; that's the way I look at it. But again, [as bowling coaches] we have to be mindful of fast bowlers, especially, of overloading. Players have all been starved of any cricket in the summer, so it's only natural that when they're back at training, they want to bowl, field, do all the routines they're used to for long periods of time. But because many of them haven't played for long or are coming back from injuries, we need to gradually phase them back into full-intensity training.
Warrier: It feels amazing to be back bowling. I'm in the best shape possible fitness-wise, and this has helped me a lot with the ball. My run-up, rhythm - everything is slowly coming back. I know if I can prepare well, it will help me not just for the IPL, but also the Ranji Trophy and the T20s [Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy] possibly.
"Rhythm matters more to me. If that feels all right, I know it's just a matter of time before I can bowl what I want to. I'm somewhat 70-80% there at the moment" Unadkat
What are the things you want to avoid when returning to cricket after a break?
Pathan: When I was working with the Jammu and Kashmir team in the previous season, because we played nine games with three rest days in between, the focus was on recovery. My aim was to see the fast bowlers were all properly rested. Yes, if someone was struggling, I'd be happy for them to bowl. But if they were in form and in good rhythm, maximum I'd have them bowl 12 or 18 balls, just so that they felt good about their bowling. You don't want to overload them. One niggle could lead to a bigger problem.
Kumar: Generally, when I come back from an injury, I have some niggle or the other. If I keep bowling and get my body used to that rhythm, I stay fine. In the last couple of years, it has happened with me a few times that when I took a break from playing for two or three weeks, I had some niggle or the other on return. I worked on that as well. Whenever I took a break from playing, I didn't stop bowling. I may rotate my arms at home or bend my back to ensure that my body is used to the bowling action.
A lot of players have focused on gym fitness during this break - your thoughts?
Pathan: At times [in the past], I overdid the gym stuff, made mistakes. But things have changed now. The fundamentals of training have changed, they've become format specific and with schedules being the way they are, there's a lot of emphasis on recovery and bringing in some level of functional training. The connection between gym fitness and on-field action is very close now, so you have to embrace it while maintaining a balance.
Balaji: You can last a day without eating too, but won't have the energy. Gym fitness complements your abilities as a bowler, that's how I look at it. Beyond gyms, you need to have the actual feel of running in, hitting the right lengths over and over again. It's like us looking at food as a component to give us energy, not be dependent on it to survive.
Warrier: I looked at skills mostly. I wanted to use the time to focus on my weakness, which you don't have time to work on when you're playing day in and day out at the IPL for two months non-stop. I wanted to get stronger physically. My flexibility levels weren't great. I worked on it. I went to an advanced studio for stretching and mobility exercises daily. Then gradually once I found difference in the way I feel physically, it helped in my bowling too. I tried to work on that perfect outswing. I also worked on my scrambled seam.
How much sync has there been between coaches, players and physios during this period?
Warrier: I've been in touch with Abhishek Nayar, Omkar Salvi and Dinesh Karthik [at the Kolkata Knight Riders]. The general chatter within the group has been to keep ourselves fit and ready. So we've had a lot of things tailored to ensure fitness levels don't drop. We've all been doing it for many years now, so this forced break won't make much of a difference skills-wise, but could fitness-wise - the change [for the better or worse] could be huge either way.
Balaji: It's very important. You can't overnight prepare your body for six weeks of heavy workload. The idea is to ensure players finish the tournament without injuries, and for that management and conditioning is important. The key is to accelerate your training slowly and decelerate when your body has come to a certain level of repetitiveness, so that you recover to do it again. We've put in place a proper workload management system, it's important.
Unadkat: I worked with Steffan Jones at Rajasthan Royals last year, and related a lot to his methods. So before the domestic season, I took time off and trained with him one-on-one in the UK. The emphasis was on functional training and how small changes in technicalities - like my run-up or my landing - can transform my bowling. It helped me bowl longer spells and bowl with the same intensity throughout [the domestic season]. All along, you do things that have worked for you, so when you have to embrace change, it can be challenging, so I wanted to break the pattern to see how a change can help me and I had a great time working with Steffan. It took a while for the results to show, around four to six months, but I'm happy with the change.
"You can't overnight prepare your body for six weeks of heavy workload. The idea is to ensure players finish the tournament without injuries, and for that management and conditioning is important" Balaji
How much of a role does recovery play a part in a tournament like the IPL?
Balaji: Huge. Although it's just 24 balls, your intensity levels have to be high right through. Your adrenaline is pumping. Invariably, the next day you travel, so there's hardly any rest. With this [no flights in the UAE], bowlers get more time to recuperate.
Unadkat: Travel days in India aren't rest days at all. After late games, your body goes through the rigour of flights, and it can take a toll in a high-intensity tournament. Sometimes you may want to schedule a session at the gym, but may not have the time due to various other commitments. The opposite is true too. Sometimes in my case, I've felt not having a session has helped me more than, say, putting in two hours at the gym before a game.
This time, recovery time [available to players] could be a little more since the travel will be less owing to proximity of the venues, but we still have the bio-bubble and protocols to follow. So mentally, it will be challenging for all of us.
How important is the mental aspect, when you're not able to do what you have been doing all these years?
Pathan: In my case, when I went to Australia for surgery in 2011, there were multiple stress fractures in my back. After I came back, I was in rehab for six months at the NCA [National Cricket Academy]. It's a painful process, more on the mental side, because you're doing rehab, away from family. And just for 45 minutes. It's just mild muscle activation, core or glute activation. You can't bat or bowl, can't run around. So for me, it was mentally demanding. It took me nearly a year of proper cricket after rehabilitation to come back into full rhythm.
Kumar: When you go to the NCA, your rehab work lasts only for a couple of hours in the day. The rest of the day is when you start feeling frustrated. I remember before the lockdown I was at the NCA, and the last one month there was a tough period. Somehow, I used to stretch my time training at the academy for up to three hours, but after returning to the hotel, it was difficult to kill time.
What are some of the other things you've done during this forced break?
Shami: One thing I've done, which I haven't told anyone, is that I have been running a free food service. I have been arranging free food, water and fruits for people walking on the highway. There are small villages around here where I have arranged for food packets with grains, oil and tea leaves for the residents.
Balaji: Being able to spend a lot of time at home has been good. Something that I haven't been able to do a lot, with coaching and media commitments.
Unadkat: I have used the break well to recuperate. I feel a different bowler, honestly. When things work for you, we always wonder why we didn't do it earlier. But it's still not too late for me, I'm at the peak of my career and the next five or six years will define my game. So I haven't felt like I lost out on time. The most important thing is I'm feeling fresh, in a great space mentally. The time off helped get some quality time with family.
Warrier: I learnt to cook, started reading a lot. The pandemic has taught me there's more to life and, as cricketers, you sometimes lose track of that. We're lucky to live the life we all have. I've seen a lot of people suffer, my own sister lost her job, and it has been very tough. We as cricketers are worried about not going to the gym or bowling for a day, when many others don't even have meals. I've learnt to be more appreciative of the life we have.
Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Mohammed Shami spoke to Deep Dasgupta on ESPNcricinfo's Cricketbaazi