Professional players on the road

KNACKERED from playing two back to back matches, it was a weary lot that boarded the team bus in London. Pulled out of beds early in order to make the long journey across the country players groaned as they settled into their seats. "I am leg and leg," wailed one as he clambered on. Then, realising that this confession could prove counterproductive, he displayed admirable presence of mind to add: "Andrew ko nahin batana."

There was a scramble to get into the bus, understandable because every minute's delay attracted a five pound penalty. Sachin, expectedly, was punctual, trademark shades in place, music system in right hand, travel bag slung over the left shoulder. He took his place in front, to his immediate right sat Harbhajan, behind him the captain. Like their batting order, players guard their positions in the bus, and some protocol operates in a rudimentary manner. Seniors normally huddle in the front, team management occupies the middle, juniors (who tend to be noisy) in the rear.

As the coach negotiated the London traffic, players were on mobiles sorting out schedules. Rahul Dravid had his nose in the morning newspaper (picked up from the hotel lobby), others made strawberry chai from the dispenser. Soon most activity ceased and the gentle motion of the bus induced sleep among passengers. Sourav used his lightweight Morrant pads as pillows, Yuveraj stretched out in the aisle.

The bus rolled along the motorway, passing through miles of English countryside, endless stretches of carefully kept fields on which, surprisingly, nobody seemed to be working. The bus crept up north, passing Yorkshire and other counties but the players showed not more than a passing interest in the scenery - their attention arrested by Dil Chahata Hai playing on the video but the print was scratchy and the music, so tuneful otherwise, painfully screechy. No wonder a powerful voice from the rear demanded the thing be turned off, these instructions were quickly followed, much to everyone's relief.

If the above narrative conveys an impression this is some school outing, the truth is far from it. A cricket tour is serious business, it is tough work, a grind which involves enormous stress. Sure there is the comfort of deluxe hotels and the thrill of travelling to new places but a long tour is a test in more ways than one. Careers are on line, reputations made/unmade, runs must be scored, wickets taken and most important: matches have to be won.

All this demands solid commitment because cricket is Focus Number 1, if one is to use the language and expression of DD (not Doordarshan but David Dhawan). Which is why, just as the boys spilled out of the coach after a 7 hour journey the trainer announced in a flat voice that everyone reports in one hour (time enough to check in and unpack) for a stretching session.

Two years ago a similar suggestion would have ignited loud protests but now, in 2002, with the modern work ethic of muscles and mehnat, players understand that tough training is part of cricket. Fitness is no more a faltu fad of mad pehelwans, it is absolutely crucial, as much as basic game skills. Happily, the Indian team - a bunch of focussed pros - has internalised this reality.

Everyone knows only a fit cricketer can lunge that extra foot to cut the ball on the boundary, run that much quicker to take on the throw from wide mid wicket for the third run or stretch to make the catch at point. There are other, indirect but equally vital benefits of fitness - injuries are avoided and concentration levels enhanced which helps cope with stress. When Dravid/ Yuveraj or Dravid/Sachin made impossible singles in the last 10 overs or players hold their nerves towards the death it is substantially a result of superior fitness.

The Indian team has learnt other lessons, among them the need for self discipline because the trainer, however watchful and accomplished, can do only this much and not more. Rahul Dravid puts this in proper perspective when he says that at the dining table, confronted by a delicious chocolate cake, "it is your conscience not the coach that matters."

Not that the coach/physio/trainer are not looking. The Indian team is subjected to rigorous weekly fitness tests, they are measured (actual logs kept of work outs) and assessed on parameters like body fat content. Awareness about these is rapidly increasing, Sehwag admitted groping in the dark till exposed to scientific training methods. It is as important as playing skills, he now feels, "international cricket is very competitive, there is no margin for error."

On tour a player's focus is challenged by several unavoidable obligations.

They are ambassadors of India which means attending social functions some so dreary the patience of an enlightened saint would be tested. It is always nice meeting good people, explains a harassed player, but sometimes, specially after a hard day in the field, one just likes to watch TV and order room service.

There are other problems besides putting on fake smiles and manufacturing meaningless conversation. Being alone for extended periods can be a drag more so when the ball is eluding the middle of the bat. As it is Indians have a tradition of not travelling well, they take time adjusting to alien surroundings, strange food and stranger language. But now most of these are non issues because players tour frequently and England anyway is more desi than Delhi. The crowd support is amazing, khaana or khabar from home is also not a problem. Moreover, compared to the past, players are well connected with mobiles a vital lifeline.

Yet, the relentless routine (hotel - ground - travel) is a burden, the monotony of the schedule tires players as much as actual physical exhaustion. In this unceasing whirl it is easy to forget the day of the week or be unmindful of what is happening in the world. Add to this the hassle of living out of a suitcase and packing/unpacking every other day.

Says a seasoned pro: "One of the first lessons I learnt on the road is never to unpack - you only take out what you need from the suitcase !"