September 10, 2009

The eve of battle

What teams at the top level do in terms of preparation just before series and matches

The first time I met the entire Indian team as an India cricketer was for a team meeting in a hotel room in Ahmedabad in 2003. We were about to start a series against New Zealand and the team was assembling after a break.

Coach John Wright started proceedings with the objectives for the new venture, which he also put up on the whiteboard. Then Sourav Ganguly, the captain, took over from him and spoke about how the team was shaping up and the areas we needed to work on. I had attended several team meetings in the past, and this one was no different up until then. The similarity, though, ended there.

The team was then split into two groups, batsmen and bowlers. We were told to go into different corners and discuss the game plans for the two Test matches against New Zealand. While the batsmen spoke about the New Zealand bowling and marked out Daniel Vettori as the main threat, our bowlers analysed their batting.

Since I had played against the New Zealanders in the warm-up games, I became the chief contributor among the batsmen. Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid would add some details to my narrative about a particular bowler. Obviously they were well aware of what was coming and allowed me to talk to brush up their memory, and probably to make me feel comfortable.

It was just one of the many meetings I would attend over the next year with the team. On the eve of the match we got together once again, and this time Wright and Ganguly had specific plans for the opposition. We were again split into our two groups and asked to write down our plans and key points.

The idea of involving everyone in the decision-making process is to make them feel responsible. It's always easier to follow a plan that you've been a part of, as compared to one that is thrust upon you.

Batsmen were shown videos of every New Zealand bowler, and the senior players kept giving valuable inputs on their strengths and weaknesses and how to handle them. Bowlers had the more tedious job of going through every opposition batsman's strength (to avoid bowling in those areas) and the areas in which he was vulnerable (to try and get him out or contain him).

Batting is mostly about an individual against another, but bowlers need to complement each other at all times. If one bowler goes awry, the entire plan can collapse. For example, Steve Waugh was vulnerable on front foot at the start of his innings, and the plan would be to keep bowling full to him, but if one bowler bowled him a few short-pitched deliveries, he'd be up and running and then it would be difficult to stop him.

Before an ODI, batsmen bat in the nets to imaginary field positions, looking to score runs as they do. They get feedback from the bowlers to determine the number of runs a stroke would have fetched

We would also come up with a theme for the tour. The entire team would decide on a theme to reflect the goal for that particular tournament or series. "Now or never" was the theme in the 2003 World Cup, while for the series in Australia in 2003-04 the motto was "Change the trend".

That was just a glimpse of how team meetings are at the highest level. But things are quite different one level lower. Most team meetings in first-class cricket revolve around the senior players reminding everyone of the importance of the game, and some motivational stuff. Analysing the opposition in detail rarely happens: there's very little data available for analysis, and we are not intent on using whatever little we have. While most first-class teams have employed video analysts to cover their matches and practice sessions, the footage ends up becoming a tool only to analyse that team's own batting and bowling.

Most coaches at this level - barring a few - are from the old school. One such coach, an ex-India allrounder, once claimed that a player should remember the strengths and weaknesses of every opponent he had ever played against. This sounds ridiculous, but that's exactly what certain team meetings are all about.

Coming back to international level, the preparation is different for different forms of the game.

Tests
Test cricket is a lot about endurance and competing over five days, and hence the preparation is customised to suit that requirement. Batsmen bat for longer in the nets, and hit balls thrown down to them until they are absolutely satisfied.

You will see a lot of batsmen doing specific drills with heavy plastic balls on a concrete surface to handle short-pitched stuff. Similarly a lot of batsmen practise playing the defensive shot and also driving along the ground. Many also keep their leg guards on for hours after their batting is over, just to get used to wearing them for longer durations.

Bowlers, on the other hand, do most of their work at least a couple of days before the match. They bowl long spells in the nets, hitting specific areas. They then go into energy-conservation mode on the eve of the match, bowling only a few balls at full throttle, and focusing primarily on their rhythm and shape instead. A bowler's workload during a Test is a lot more than a batsman's, and hence the conservative approach.

Fielding drills are also designed to meet the demands of the game. There's a lot of emphasis on close-in catching while preparing for the longest version. Test cricket is all about specialists and that is true of fielding as well. People who are specialists in slip-catching practise that for a good 30-40 minutes, while bowlers practise fielding and catching in the deep. And people like me start with the slips, with everyone else, and finish with short sessions at short leg and silly point.

ODIs
This format is far more dynamic than Test cricket, and hence the demands are different as well.

Batsmen bat in the nets to imaginary field positions, looking to score runs as they do. They get feedback from the bowlers to determine the number of runs a stroke would have fetched. Though they tend to disagree on most occasions, it helps add a healthy sense of competition. After playing a few rounds of conventional cricket, batsmen try to innovate and go over the top consistently. At times they bat in pairs and rotate the strike every few deliveries.

Bowlers, on the other hand, bowl even shorter spells, but practise bowling yorkers and slower ones, both in the nets and outside, challenging the batsmen to score over six-seven runs an over.

Fielding is also more dynamic in this format. There's a lot of emphasis on stopping the singles inside the 30-yard circle, and almost everyone practises fielding in the deep as well.

Twenty20s
The preparation here involves everything that one does while preparing for the 50-over matches, with a few more innovations. The batting in the nets gets even shorter.

At Kolkata Knight Riders we had four nets operating simultaneously - one for the fast bowlers, one for the spinners, and two bowling machines set at different speeds and lengths for the batsmen. We would get only four minutes of batting in each net. The idea was to get into the habit of maximising the number of balls we played.

Then there's a lot of focus on key hitting areas. John Buchanan once asked me to hit everything across the line for the entire duration of my batting. The purpose of the exercise was to develop a new shot, and get the mind and body accustomed to playing a stroke that had been alien to it in the past.

Bowling in Twenty20 is along similar lines. No one is asked to bowl more than 24 balls in a session, especially not on the eve of a match. But special sessions for bowling yorkers, slower ones and bouncers are arranged almost everyday.

Fielding drills are more or less exactly like the ones used in 50-overs cricket.

In the next column I shall write about why Matthew Hayden sits on the pitch on the eve of a match, and how certain players like to be left alone before they go out to bat.

Former India opener Aakash Chopra is the author of Beyond the Blues, an account of the 2007-08 Ranji Trophy season. His website is here

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