Rested India gear for tough season
Mentally fresh. Physically fit. Phrases you don't usually associate with Indian players these days, given the constant madness that passes for their schedule. But this time, it's different. For the first time after an IPL, India are beginning their season with a break of almost two months. There are no battered bodies crying out for rest, no weary minds cutting practice short. MS Dhoni says "everybody is looking fresh" and there is no major fitness concern going into the first of five ODIs against Sri Lanka in idyllic Hambantota. For the moment, Dhoni wants his players to get used to the large outfield and the "windy" conditions in the wilderness that surrounds the stadium for several kilometres.
"Before the start of the series, the good thing is that everybody is looking fresh and the guys are putting in a lot of effort," Dhoni told reporters at the team hotel, located right on the Indian Ocean shore. "You see a lot more guys going to the gym. Even after the practice session gets over, even if we have had some fitness session, the players are going for a round around the park. Which means they have more energy in them to consistently put in a bit more effort than they could have if the continuous season goes on. So that definitely is a big plus-point for us."
The energy showed today during practice. Even Zaheer Khan, who does not extend himself unless absolutely required to, sprinted in and bowled with decent pace. Dhoni and Virat Kohli took turns in walloping the spinners. The fielding drills were intense and enjoyed at the same time.
The break has revitalised this team. Dhoni welcomed it, and contrasted it with what has happened post-IPL during previous seasons. "It is the first break we have literally got in the last six-seven years for such a long period. Of course, in between, the players were missing series because of injuries or some of the senior players opted out of a few series, but that is not complete rest as to you cannot get yourself off cricket completely. You still think about cricket, you still think about the coming series. So it was good to have this break.
"In the coming year, the schedule is quite busy. Also we will be playing a lot of Test matches, it is quite tough. You play on for five days in a row. The amount of Tests we are playing, it is good we got such kind of rest, because mentally we are fresh and physically we got some time to work on our fitness level."
India's fitness will be tested tomorrow on the Hambantota outfield, which despite being pulled in by several metres, still looked big enough to make preventing twos a tough job. Dhoni acknowledged it.
"It was quite windy out here. It can be a factor. Even the fielders because it is a very big field and in the way you need to be positioned so that the batsmen don't push for the twos and the threes, which is quite common in the shorter formats nowadays. What will be a big concern is where you stand. How quick you adapt, as to, if you are fielding on midwicket from one end, and if you move to some other part of the field, then you have to reposition yourself as to whether you need to be seven yards inside or seven yards behind because it is a very strong wind."
India have done what they could in terms of preparation as they begin another long season. "Last few days, we have mixed up our training, not only with the skill sessions, we have involved a lot of fitness sessions also," Dhoni said. "We have incorporated drills that will enhance our performance on the field. I don't think fitness should be a real concern. It is just that after a long time, we will be playing a full 50-over game." We'll find out tomorrow how rusty India are.
Abhishek Purohit is an editorial assistant at ESPNcricinfo