Fitness improves skill: Leipus

K. C. VIJAYA KUMAR

HE hates losing, "I am an Aussie, mate," he says. But he felt privileged sitting at Eden Gardens while his boys gifted disbelief to Steve Waugh's men. Tempted to question his patriotism? Hold on, he is a professional.

V. V. KRISHNAN

Andrew Leipus has a tough job. Mending cricketers who defy time zones, play back-to-back matches, inflate laundry bills and often read the fine-print of injuries rather late.

The Indian team physio briefly sounds like a tourist department official - "I love the job, else why should I be here when my wife is in South Africa and my folks are in Australia? It's a honour being associated with a great country and working with John (Wright) has been a pleasure. To be honest, when we were in South Africa, I was waiting for the home series against England. There's magic in playing here."

Sometime back, he was travelling all over India in 1996 with his girl friend. And at Varanasi, people called him "Allan Border". "That was embarrassing. She dragged me here and now that we are married, I want her to savour the atmosphere here", he says.

But a heartburn surfaces when the word 'accountability' drags a euphemism called 'chopping block'. "That hurt. Some chaps insinuated that I was responsible for injuries. But I am positive and when BCCI president Mr. Dalmiya wrote to me, I took it as a reflection of his urge to know what is happening in the team," he says.

Sisyphus - rolling a boulder up the hill, only to see it rolling down - perhaps can draw inspiration from Leipus' fight against a physical clock that ticks backwards in Indian Standard Time. Leipus is up against a country known for intelligence, dainty fingers and a phrase - 'oriental wizardry.'

Muscles and sweat? He might well look for them in his Aussie backyard. "Fitness has to be addressed from within. Initially rubbish like weight-training makes cricketers stiff. Thankfully, the players, especially the juniors, were receptive. Cricket is skill-based. But fitness improves skill. God gives skills while fitness is something we can work at," he says.

Does Indian players' fitness at least figure in the rear-view mirrors of Australia and South Africa? Leipus delves upon genetic dividers that leave Indians with a weak upper torso but a better flexibility. "We can catch up with the Aussies and the South Africans. The difference lies in energy levels. Those guys want the ball always, they want to bowl with the same intensity all through. We had that energy in the Nairobi ICC knockout. But now its a slump," he says.

The reasons? "There are two view-points and I understand both. The players mention too-much cricket. Fitness needs time off. Its like you do weight training, the development happens while you sleep. Even Olympians have four years to peak. But our guys are shuttling between places. Sometimes we are lucky, like in South Africa where we had an airport gym. On the other hand, the Board feels that matches increase resources. All teams have packed schedules. The key is to widen the base. Rotation policy helps," he says.

Sachin Tendulkar's back-injury and the shoulders of Anil Kumble, Srinath and Dravid leaves a grimace. "Sachin's injury was freakish while Anil, Srinath and Dravid had generative injuries that happen with overuse of specific muscles. Dravid is in South Africa and his right shoulder weight-deficits will be corrected while Sachin, Srinath and Anil are absolutely fit," he says.

Indian cricket never lacked shadows and Leipus' insistence on players wearing workout-monitor watches hinted at faultlines "These South African watches monitor their exercise intensity and I can download this data. These watches don't lie," he says.

The Leipus-report plucks a few soft muscles. "There are a few players who are content with their threshold levels. They are not pushing hard. If at 32 I enjoy the gym, why can't they? I criticised some players and they improved. So I got what I wanted," he says.

The lack of support crew tempts him to fire an agony-aunt letter. "When an injured player returns home, his State association never matches the facilities he gets at the National level. Thankfully, the Board recognises this and the fitness infrastructure will be standardised. Sports science is in its infancy here. Sometime later, we will have a physio's seminar and even basic stuff like what you carry in your medical kit-bag will be made uniform," he says.

Leipus will also get an assistant fitness trainer. "That would be great help because I have to monitor fitness levels, tend to injuries and also help recovery patterns," he says.

He watches the ebb of the hour-glass and says, "I am happy with the team's collective improvement. Our Bleep test (which juxtaposes heart rate with work intensity) hovers at 11.8. We are realistic and are aiming at 12 by the year-end. The Aussies and South Africans are probably at 13. I aim to keep the players fit and playing while nurturing the nucleus for the World Cup in 2003. Winning that would be special," he says.

The man who was a triathlete dabbling in Sport science at the University of South Australia, has traversed two Indian summers. Sport is a family heirloom with the eighties spent watching sister Natalia at Wimbledon. Now he wakes up to Indian days mixing hope with humidity while his grandfather's words echo - 'nothing is impossible.'

They are old words with a potency that never fades. It's a phrase which the Indians etched in their memories while humbling the Aussies. Their physio wants them to wake up, smell the coffee, sweat in the gym and scream 'nothing is impossible.'