There was a time, not long ago, when a cricketer’s build-up to a match would be made up of an extended session at the nets, and run-of-the-mill fielding and catching drills. It was a time when a cricketer was deemed ‘fit’ if he could get by the season without having to sit out matches for injury. It was a time when concepts like cardio sessions and running 10 km in the pouring rain were as alien to cricketers as the Twenty20 format had once been.
Cut to 2009, and the concept of staying fit has changed. Cricketers today are almost as devoted to their fitness regimes as they are to their net sessions, and skipping a session in the gym is almost as criminal as getting out on a duck.
“It was very different earlier,” says Suresh Raina, widely regarded as one of the fittest men in the Indian cricket team. “The emphasis in training for cricketers earlier would be on batting and bowling well; they would spend their time preparing for a match at the nets. Everything was about cricket.”
For the likes of Raina, however, the accent on fitness is more pronounced. Sessions at the gym involve elaborate routines of cardio and weights and push the cricketers to the limits. “Staying fit is hard work, but it is very, very important,” Raina says. “The schedules are getting longer and tougher with each passing year and unless you are fit it is very difficult to last a season without doing yourself in.”
And it is not just cricket that keeps them fit. “I play a lot of games like basketball and badminton. It is very important to play other sport as well; it gives your body a complete workout,” says Raina. The trick, he says, is to know how much is too much while working out in the gym or playing another sport.
“It is very important to know how far to push your body. I gym on alternate days. If it is cardio one day, it is weights the next,” he says. “I also try and avoid playing injury-prone outdoor sports like football too much.”
A product of the famous sports hostels of Uttar Pradesh, Raina has had the importance of staying fit drilled into his system at his alma mater.
“We would wake up at the break of dawn and run 20 km on paved roads. Apart from that, running cross country during my hostel days really helped,” he says. “Now, I can easily run 5 km in under 20 minutes, or in 18 to be precise.”
On matchdays, however, Raina likes to keep it simple: Yoga in the morning, followed by a relaxing session in the pool and a few stretching exercises.
It was almost unthinkable a decade ago that a cricket team would spend a couple of hours each day doing yoga when they could have instead perfected the cover drive or the doosra. But times have changed. A yoga trainer is almost a regular fixture in a team’s support staff.
The Delhi Ranji Trophy team, for instance, had a 60-minute yoga session during their conditioning camp, with the cricketers being asked to ‘let go’ of themselves and ‘feel free’.
Delhi’s Shikhar Dhawan, who had a terrible run of injuries last season that kept him out of most of the Indian Premier League and the India ‘A’ team games, says yoga has helped him get over that disappointment. “Yoga is brilliant,” he gushes. “It has made me calmer and helped me a lot.”
The time away from the game, however, stopped Dhawan from doing what, he says, is the second most important thing in his life after cricket – gymming. “It was very frustrating, not being able to hit the gym or play cricket,” recalls Dhawan. “Though I am blessed with a body that does not gain fat quickly, I was beginning to feel unfit when I wasn’t doing my cardio or weight training.”
Soon, the itch to pump iron got too much and Dhawan decided to hit the gym but only concentrate on strengthening his lower body.
“It helped me ease the disappointment of not being able to play,” he says. “At least I was doing something worthwhile with my time.”
Dhawan gyms for at least one-and-a-half to two hours a day when he is not playing and believes in sticking to only weight training in the gym. “I do my cardio workout in the ground. I do the 100 m and 200 m sprints and play a lot of different sports like table tennis and squash,” he says.
Very passionate about being fit, Dhawan admits he goes to great lengths to make sure he does not miss his regular cycle of working out even for a day. “Sometimes, when you are playing a 4-day or 5-day game, it becomes very difficult to take time out and hit the gym, so what I do is gauge the situation of the match and then decide my workout.
“If, for example, I am batting overnight, I stick to very light weights training, or sometimes just do push-ups. But if I have already lost my wicket or it is likely that my turn to bat won’t come that day, I give myself a good workout. The bottomline is, the body has to have a workout every day,” he says.
Dhawan says the idea behind gym workouts is not to build muscles and look like a ‘superhero’. “At the end of the day, I am a cricketer. And my job is to do well at my sport. If I can do that while staying fit and looking good, it’s great! But the emphasis is on lasting the season, not lifting weights.”
Dhawan’s Delhi teammate and former India U-19 skipper Virat Kohli too has a specific regime he follows during the season and out of it.
Kohli has a detailed one-and-a-half-hour session in the gym that he follows around 4-5 days a week.
“In the gym, the emphasis is on weight training,” says Kohli. “There is a lot of running on the field anyway, so during the season, my cardio is limited to the outdoors.” When the season is not on, however, Kohli does a 15-20 minute run on the treadmill.
Tennis is what keeps Kohli going when he can’t find the time to pump iron or do cardio. Kohli says it provides his body with the perfect workout.
Being on the road for most of the year also means cricketers don’t always get the right diet. So Kohli makes it a point to eat his dinner by 8.30 pm. “Dinner is always the lightest meal of my day. It is very difficult to find food that is good for the body when one is on tour, that’s why eating dinner early is very important,” he says.
Their fitness regimes may be a far cry from their predecessors’, but on the field these young guns have proved they are ready to take on the world. One such cricketer is Bangalore’s Manish Pandey. The first, and so far only Indian to score a 100 in the IPL, Pandey has taken the shortest cut to fame and recognition. That however, has not been the case with his workout sessions. The 19-year-old alternates between weight training and cardio exercises every day, spending an hour on each.
“I don’t try and push myself too much,” says Pandey. “If it is weights, then I only do that on that day, and save the cardio for the next day.”
Swimming is one activity that Pandey engages in to keep in shape. “Even if I can’t find the time to pump iron or do cardio, I try and make it a point to swim.”
The idea of staying fit and looking good has really struck a chord with these cricketers. Gone are the days when a cricketer had to look good only while in his batting stance or in his run up; today he has to look good even on a night-out with friends. And the hard hours at the gym help them do exactly that.