Until a couple of decades ago, warm-ups for most cricketers meant a jog around the park, a few minutes of rolling the arms and wrists, and some side stretches. Now, they stretch every sinew to get better and better.
Current cricketers need no extra motivation to explore their limit. When they are successful, there is a world of opportunity to savour, accompanied by loads of fame and ever-increasing figures added to their bank account.
They look to build their brands by doing well for India and earn big bucks with superlative showings in the Indian Premier League (IPL). Call it the IPL impact, players earning big are also spending well to maximise their game. It can be seen in how they go the extra mile to train harder, experimenting with different methods. An interesting change happening in coaching is the way it’s getting more specialised, especially in batting where cricketers have started opting for personal coaches, tennis style.
Taking the plunge
It started with Robin Uthappa around four years ago. The Karnataka batsman-keeper’s career seemed to have hit a dead end and trying a different approach in training, he sought personal coaching from former India batsman, Pravin Amre. Now, Ajinkya Rahane, Suresh Raina, Naman Ojha and Dinesh Karthik all have stints with Amre, apart from training under the India coach. This summer, Gautam Gambhir travelled all the way to Australia for one-on-one sessions with former Australia opener, Justin Langer.
Cheteshwar Pujara has stuck to coaching by his father, Arvind; any suggestion on his technique has to be vetted by Pujara senior.
Even Sachin Tendulkar’s son, Arjun, a teenaged all-rounder, has a full-time coach in former India pacer Subroto Banerjee, an expert who mentored Umesh Yadav at the Vidarbha Cricket Association academy and worked with Varun Aaron as Jharkhand coach.
“It’s going to be the future. It is already happening. Batting is the most difficult art and needs constant coaching,” says Amre. “Students go to school, but need specialised, extra coaching. It’s the same.”
He adds: “It is not for everyone, it’s for elite cricketers, for a first-class player who wants to go to the next level, or for an under-19 chap who has the desire to break into the senior side.”
Referring to even someone with the experience of Gambhir seeking personal coaching, Amre says: “Gambhir has played enough cricket, but batting is a complicated skill.”
Striking a chord
Gambhir observes it is important to seek out someone who understands his game. “Look, when you play for a certain number of years, you need someone who understands your game, or at least your approach. After the death of my specialised one-to-one coach, I wanted to work with someone who could fill that gap. I thought I needed one-to-one coaching but wasn’t sure with whom,” he says.
“I had a brief chat with Langer when we were in Australia in 2011-12 and again last year during the Champions League in Hyderabad. He thinks a lot like me, or maybe vice-versa. He is intense and no nonsense and I have always liked the Aussie approach. All this made Langer a natural choice,” says Gambhir, a left-handed opener like the Aussie.
One reason why cricket didn’t have personal coaches was few could afford it; hiring established names as 24 x 7 coaches is expensive. However, armed with big IPL contracts, money is not a problem anymore. “This (personal coaching) is how it should be. In our days we couldn’t afford it,” says Subroto Banerjee. “It was there in other sports, it has come into cricket now.”
An expensive affair
Even booking a ground can cost a bomb. Uthappa was out of a BCCI contract when he had to shell out about Rs 25,000 for a two-hour session at the Bandra Kurla Complex indoor nets.
Amre and Banerjee see it is as the future in coaching. “Even pace and spin bowlers will seek former pacers and spinners for coaching,” says Banerjee.
Amre says: “I left the Mumbai team because I am the one who started this, so I have decided to devote full time to it for a few years. I also had an offer from the Uttar Pradesh senior team, but am sticking to specialised coaching.”
Gambhir, though, is not sure it is catching up. “I think it’s each one to his own, I don’t see it as a trend but more of a choice. It’s not easy to find a coach or a sounding board with whom you can share your thoughts, that’s why it’s tough. Moreover, these days (we) have good coaches for teams.”
The Kolkata Knight Riders captain is also not sure if the tennis model of having travelling coaches will work in cricket. “It can really clutter a player’s mind if there are too many coaches floating around,” says Gambhir.
That is the challenge for someone like Amre, who has been full-time into it with Uthappa and would often be seen at venues where the batsman was playing or training with his team.
Not very amused
It’s a break from convention, and expectedly there is some resistance from the team coaches. It’s not merely about ego clashes, there are team coaching staff’s inputs to deal with too. For instance, Rahane had to pay heed to India coach Duncan Fletcher, who is known to focus a lot on working on the technique of players. Now, how to balance this when it clashes with the inputs of the team coach?
“Ultimately, the player does what he feels is working for him. The final call is always his, we just make suggestions. Hence, there are no misunderstandings,” maintains Amre.
Rahane’s crouching stance, standing with feet wide apart rather than the advocated shoulder width, for instance is a Fletcher input.
The key is not to tinker with a player’s natural technique. “For Rahane, I didn’t alter anything, only in the last two years I changed his backlift,” reveals Amre.
“Raina, Karthik, Rahane all have played so many One-day internationals, they understand what their game is. It is about working on that one point they will have an issue with, not their overall game. Someone like Raina doesn’t work continuously with me; he comes when he wants to work on a specific area.”
What about dealing with the team coaches? “Earlier, some people in Karnataka were not convinced about Uthappa’s decision to have personal coaching. But when he got runs for Karnataka, it only helped the team and no one is complaining,” says Amre.
“The team coach has ten players to attend to; we work with one player for two hours. And I am mainly working in the off-season. It’s about time management.”
The personal coach’s job is challenging, for he is accountable for the player’s failures. But in this age of versatile players, it seems to be here to stay.