Bishen Kumar is a paraplegic who lives on cricket. The 19-year-old is a permanent fixture at the Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore whenever India plays there, and his tickets are sponsored by the team. For him, nothing is as good as the sight of the “men in blue”. But even Kumar was surprised when he first saw the 15 men who make up the Indian squad for the 2011 ICC Cricket World Cup check in for their final, five-day preparatory camp at the National Cricket Academy (NCA) in Bangalore from 9 February.
“They all looked like they were playing for Manchester United,” Kumar said, and he wasn’t much off the mark. The dazzling red outfits gave the team a distinct new look, and one could mistake them for the Red Devils.
Gary Kirsten, India’s coach, loves to open his training sessions with a short football game. It serves a dual purpose, both warm-up and quick mood-lifter. Captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni is the star footballer in the squad, with good ball control, excellent passes, and a strong shot. Most teammates struggled to keep up with him.
On the ball:Indian players started training sessions with a football game.
“It’s difficult to get the ball off his feet,” said Virat Kohli.
Kirsten and mental conditioning coach Paddy Upton joined in these games, in which S. Sreesanth was the victim of many pranks. In one game, Zaheer Khan crossed towards the goal from the left, and Sreesanth, who was the goalkeeper, intercepted the ball with his hand. Khan shouted, “Foul, foul!”, and a bewildered Sreesanth dropped the ball, only for Kirsten to come up and tap it into the goal. Sreesanth’s face dropped as the team erupted in laughter.
After football, and some conditioning exercises, the rest of the mornings were spent practising specific skills. Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir spent the longest time at the nets with Sreesanth, Munaf Patel and Khan testing them over long sessions with their mixed repertoire. Sehwag focused on playing outrageous shots against the spinners as R. Ashwin, Yusuf Pathan, Piyush Chawla and Harbhajan Singh tried to stop him. Only Harbhajan and Chawla managed to emerge relatively unscathed.
“It’s always a challenge to bowl to Sehwag,” said Harbhajan, “even if it’s a practice session. He comes so hard at you. It gets me thinking on how I can trap him. I guess I did pretty well, I did get him and Sachin a couple of times each.”
Gambhir and Yuvraj Singh were often at the receiving end of Kirsten’s “throwdowns”—where the ball is hurled at the batsman from a distance of 16-18 yards. Kirsten was a machine with the throwdowns, hurling the ball at around 140 kmph even when it was for the 100th time in the day.
“Throwdowns have helped me assess my technique,” said Gambhir. “There was a time when I was not getting behind the line to faster bowlers. But Gary’s sessions have helped me get on top of the ball quickly.”
Kirsten says he focused on Gambhir and Yuvraj because they were just coming back from injuries, which always slows the reflexes a little.
“It’s difficult to read what’s coming at you from this short distance,” Yuvraj said after a session. “You will need your reflexes to be sharp to play them.”
India’s bowling coach Eric Simons set up a two-wicket target every day for the fast bowlers to work on their accuracy. The stress was on trying out as many variations, while keeping the ball on a tight line—slow bouncers, yorkers, yorker-length balls that land just a shade outside the off-stump.
“Just hitting the deck won’t help on these slow pitches,” said Munaf Patel. “In subcontinental conditions, you need lots of variations.”
Most days, there would be a short session of “rocketball”—a game Kirsten and Upton introduced to the squad. Teams are divided into two, and players pass around a frisbee with the aim of crossing a goal-line with the disc (like rugby). It’s non-contact, but players only get 10 seconds to pass the frisbee, and need to pivot on one foot as they pass. Kohli, Khan and Nehra were unbeatable.
For a quick psychological boost, Kirsten and Upton also arranged for South African adventurer and motivational speaker Mike Horn to spend a day with the squad. Horn, who has circumnavigated the globe without motorized transport, circumnavigated the Arctic circle on his own and climbed 8,000m-plus peaks without oxygen, spoke of controlling the mind and conquering fears to achieve impossible goals.
“I didn’t know who he was when I first met him,” Yuvraj said, “but then I saw his expeditions. It was fantastic listening to him.”
India’s camp ended on 13 February with a practice match against the reigning champions Australia in Bangalore, which India won.
Sanjeeb Mukherjea is the chief cricket correspondent for CNN-IBN.
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