What more? Over to Dav!

“Test cricket to now, where we play the T20 format of the game — it’s really brought in new skills and changed the game. The researches tell us that sports science, when applied to individuals, help them become fitter and better up there in the head,” says reputed coach Dav Whatmore.

Former Australian cricketer Dav Whatmore stresses how science has provided the cutting edge to one’s ability to play cricket.   -  M. VEDHAN

“We didn’t know what to do when our shoulders were hurt or knees injured,” Syed Kirmani recounted his playing days while inaugurating the Trucoach CSS-Whatmore Centre for Cricket in Chennai.

Support staff, in his playing days, were mostly non-existent or singular in number. The 1983 World Cup winning team had one support staff for 14 players. Last year, India, reportedly, toured West Indies with 17 players and 17 support staff members, including three coaches, three trainers, a physio and a video analyst.

Kirmani and his colleagues honed their skills through playing; the techniques, they developed with experience; but the science behind them, they were unaware of. Now, a young cricketer can know from computer screens what ails his or her game. The scientific lacuna of Kirmani’s generation perhaps explains why his mind was boggled by what he witnessed at the Centre for Sports Science (CSS) at the Sri Ramachandra University.

Spanning over 1.6-lakh square feet, the CSS houses a multipurpose sports hall, a high performance centre, a gymnasium, a swimming pool, a shooting range, several sports labs, a high-altitude training room, indoor and outdoor cricket nets, and its piece de resistance: the ICC-accredited biomechanics lab, which is used to test bowlers with suspected illegal actions among other things.

All of these will now be utilised for developing young cricketers. And, overseeing that will be former Australian cricketer Dav Whatmore. After coaching various international teams for over two decades, Whatmore has decided to “nurture talent” at the grassroots level, which is why he’s journeyed to the Sri Ramachandra University in Chennai. His stay at the campus won’t be intermittent, he promised.

“The Centre for Sports Science is by far the most modern fully equipped facility for sports science in entire Asia,” he said during the launch of the centre for cricket. “As a coach it is always about nurturing talent in the best possible way, and my visit to CSS made me realise that it was a perfect fit for me to achieve that.”

In a chat with Sportstar, Whatmore spoke about his plans for the centre for cricket, sports science, mental conditioning and more.

Excerpts:

Question: What’s your objective with this centre for cricket?

Answer: My primary objective is to play a major part in helping young cricketers. It’s a developmental role; it’s a role that involves working with other coaches and the other support personnel here to ensure that each individual is given the right information from a theoretical as well as a practical point of view. In a nutshell, you come here to learn and become a better player.

Whatmore and former Indian stumper Syed Kirmani, who was the chief guest, at the inauguration of the Trucoach CSS-Whatmore Centre for Cricket in Chennai.   -  M. VEDHAN

 

Will this help international cricketers more or the ones at the grassroots level?

Well, the camps here will be open for the youth — from all over India; not just in Chennai. We’ll also offer our facility to the visiting teams, who’d like to come with their coaches, use our facility, and get some valuable practice in these conditions before their competitions. And also, we’ll be having specialised high-performance camps, say, for batters, spinners and wicket-keepers.

Cricket has been using sports science for a long time now. Perhaps just before the dawn of this millennium…

Yes.

So, how much has it advanced?

Oh, leaps and bounds. Cricket’s changed leaps and bounds as well. Test cricket to now, where we play the T20 format of the game — it’s really brought in new skills and changed the game. The researches tell us that sports science, when applied to individuals, help them become fitter and better up there in the head.

Some of the former batting greats like Gundappa Viswanath and Inzamam-ul-Haq were chubby during their playing days. With the emphasis given to fitness these days, will players of their size be pressurised to get fit irrespective of their batting talent?

Yeah, that’s an interesting one. We’ve had examples in the past where players are naturally built that way. Unfortunately, those players have genes that always require them to watch their weight. Arjuna Ranatunga was another one. I fall under that bracket as well. Lots of these players were very skilful. Unfortunately for them, the more weight they carry, it becomes harder to extend their concentration time. Because the fatigue factor sets in a little bit quicker and their performance goes down. If you’re a batter, you may get out. Or, if you’re a bowler, you lose your length and direction. So, you need to pay particular attention to weight if you have that type of body.

In terms of diet, how much does it change for a cricketer the moment he or she enters the international level? Will he or she be required to stick to diet during off-season as well?

That’s one of the ways of improving an individual at the youth level… So, what we are going to do here is we begin to give information on what are the right things to do for competition or training, what to eat before and after. So, slowly, slowly, it will sink in as the individual gets older. As you get older, things get harder. And hopefully, the information they get here becomes part and parcel of their day-to-day lives.

Virat Kohli was a plumpish boy. I was lucky enough to be the coach of the (India) under-19 team (in 2008, when it won the World Cup). And, as captain, he led by example. He was very physical — he’d dive and cut his arm. But he was carrying a bit of weight. It wasn’t until a year or two ago, he lost quite a bit of weight and that, to me, was a very disciplined thing to do. Once you do that, you’re showing everybody that with that discipline, I’m gonna make it. So, there isn’t a coincidence between Virat being where he is today and him doing things that he didn’t want to do to get better.

Was Kohli then aware of sports science and how it would make him better?

Yes, he was aware. He got information. He really absorbed it, digested it, and did something about it.

Of late, there are a few players like Jonathan Trott who have spoken about their mental issues. But how common is it in international cricket? And what do the mental conditioning coaches actually do about it?

With Jonathan Trott, it was a little unfortunate that he had a stress breakdown. One or two other players also have experienced that; it’s a little unfortunate. But having a very strong mental approach and a good command over the mental skills will be the difference between a really good player and an ok player. Because training is all about physiology. Sweating, running, diving. But once the game starts, his heart rate goes up because of stress. In competition, 90% is played in the head and you need to have the mental tools to be able to apply in stressful situations.

What do the mental conditioning coaches actually do?

It’s all about staying calm, staying in the zone, taking away the distractions. There are plenty of distractions. The crowd noise… Facing good spin bowling or fast bowling, one of these things will be playing in your mind. But you gotta be able to clear that, empty your mind. As a batsman, you need more time to build up than to make a decision. You make a decision only when the ball is released. It’s a read and react game as a batsman. To make a decision, it takes not even a second. So the time between the deliveries is very critical as a batsman to be able to face each event — each ball.

Many years ago, there was only a team manager. Now the teams have specialised coaches, physios, mental conditioner and what not. Has it become too much? Or is it a requirement these days?

Some teams have as many as 10 or 11, don’t they? England, Australia. The danger, there, is each person wants his pound of flesh — they all justify their positions by overcoaching. But it doesn’t happen too often. Head coaches now have a role to co-ordinate all this, to ensure that each individual is ready for performance day in and day out. It’s always handy to have a team doctor because if there’s a case of emergency, he is right there.

A coach, at the grassroot level, may not necessarily be well-equipped with sports science. But coaches at the international level would have an advanced knowledge about the subject, and resultantly, may have a different approach. So, is there a chance of a player getting confused because of the different approaches?

No. Along the way, he’s going to pick up the changes with the way coaches go about things. When cricket becomes harder and you get older, there’ll be a requirement to learn different things. But I don’t think there’ll be any confusion.

Biomechanics helps in identifying technical flaws and rectifying them. But is there a danger of a coach or someone else going overboard and, say, changing a bowler’s natural-yet-unorthodox action?

Happens when you’re not performing. There are many players who, biomechanically do things quite inefficiently. But they are effective. As a coach, you’d loathe to tamper too much with it. But if a player is not performing, then, biomechanically, you can show them the problem with movement patterns. So, the key is performance. And, there are lots of different actions, very inefficient actions. But they all yield wickets. So, don’t fix it if it’s not broken. But there are certain players for who you need to step in, purely from an injury perspective.

Can biomechanics tell us why only a handful of batters — including AB de Villiers — are able to play unorthodox shots like a reverse-sweep, even to the pacers, without practice?

There are two ways to analyse this. One, the biomechanical part. But the other part is the instinctive part. You’re so good at seeing the ball early… And, De Villiers is blessed with natural eye-hand coordination and the in-built confidence to go and play some of the incredible shots that he does.

Are orthodox strokes more effective than the unorthodox ones like scoop, reverse scoops?

Hah. I guess, the unorthodox strokes came into the game because there was a necessity to invent other ways of scoring; because the fielding has improved so much, the bowling has improved so much. So, we have seen the reverse-sweep, switch-hit and the scoop. They’re all effective. But a classical cover drive is also lovely to watch.

Whatmore was the coach of the successful Indian Under-19 World Cup team, which had Virat Kohli as the captain, in 2008. Kohli is following the tips given to him at that time even today and that is one of the reasons for his phenomenal success, says the coach.   -  K. MURALI KUMAR

 

Will there be a point where these shots will be practised regularly in the nets? Will you be recommending it?

Absolutely.

You have already?

Yeah. In my last team (Zimbabwe), I ensured that every batsman, after finishing his nets practised the sweep and the reverse sweep.

But if someone’s not comfortable playing them, then you let them be?

Yes. But you need to try them. You never know when it could be used. But you must use it properly. (Niroshan) Dickwella (of Sri Lanka) played a silly (reverse sweep) shot to get out (to Shakib Al Hasan against Bangladesh in the second Test in March), when he shouldn’t have done it.

Former English pacer Frank Tyson, in a 2002 interview said, “bowling in cricket is the most unnatural physical action you’ll ever see in your life,” because of the bowler’s body moving sideways. Do you concur and why?

I’ve worked for Frank before. Great man, Frank. Yeah, it’s very unnatural for the body to run, jump, land, twist, turn and bowl. There’s a huge amount of stress going on in the body, especially in the spine. It’s a very unnatural thing to do. And, it’s important to do it properly, to do it without injury. I agree with him.

India has seen quite a few fast bowlers dropping their pace after an injury. And most of them have been injured at least once in their career. What do you think is the reason?

Once you come back from an injury, I think you get wiser about being effective without having extreme pace. You can be effective by being able to direct the ball more consistently, by using the ball differently — by making it behave in a way that’s difficult for the batsmen.