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
Tillakaratne Dilshan amazed everybody when he scooped the ball over the wicketkeepers' heads off the quicker bowlers earlier this year. That innovative shot was the toast of this year's World Twenty20. It is a tough shot that requires eyes and nerves, which Dilshan has in heaps.
It might have seemed that Dilshan was responding to the then-and-there demand of Twenty20, but the scoop is far from a spur-of-the-moment shot. It is a result of a lot of work in the nets. Dilshan had been practising the scoop since the first edition of the IPL, but he didn't use it in matches till he had mastered it and was sure he could execute it to perfection. Such mastery might look effortless and spontaneous, but it can only come out of a lot of practice.
Cricketers, and I suppose professionals in any field, put a lot of thought and effort into preparation. Like they say, "Failing to preparing is like preparing to fail." I am a firm believer in preparing thoroughly before embarking on any new journey, be it a season, a match or an innings.
When I talk about the importance of preparation, recent images of MS Dhoni and RP Singh playing badminton, or Ricky Ponting and Brendon McCullum playing golf might spring to mind. If preparation really is that important, what were these guys doing? Admittedly it was during the off season, but then why weren't they resting at home, recouping for the next season?
It's a myth that cricketers should rest during the off season. The off-season routine at the highest level of the sport involves physical activity, but preferably something other than cricket. Believe it or not, playing cricket constantly beyond a certain limit pushes you away from the game. You don't feel like holding the bat again or rolling your arm over to bowl yet another tiresome delivery. The limbs, and more importantly the mind, get so tired that the body craves time away from cricket. This is why after the initial phase of complete rest, which doesn't last more than a few days, we are advised to get involved in some kind of physical activity. It could be swimming, tennis, badminton or any other sport we choose. Anything but cricket. The idea is to keep the body in motion while resting the muscles involved in cricket.
After a few weeks of this we start adding gym workouts in our schedule. My dad once told me something he learnt in his days with the air force: "The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war." It holds true in cricket. Cricketers have to be regulars in the gym even during the off season.
Workouts for cricketers are focused on maintenance rather than on putting on muscle and getting stronger. During the off season we work on the parts of the body that were found wanting in the previous season or need to be worked on to improve in the next one. Even if no amount of hard work in the gym can guarantee an injury-free season, the chances of successfully enduring the rigours are higher with a stronger and fitter body.
Most people think cricketers have a merry time when there's no cricket, when in fact they are actually sweating it out in the gym. Some players also practise yoga during the off season to strengthen the mind.
Then comes the next phase, "pre-season", where the focus switches back to the skill aspect of the game. In this day and age, where there hardly ever are long breaks between seasons, pre-season starts almost immediately after the active recovery is finished. This is the time to go back to the drawing board and work on the areas we were found lacking in during the previous season. We look at old videos - of days when we were batting at our best - and compare them with the latest ones. The future plan of action is decided based on what the videos reveal. Such analysis also helps fix bad habits that players tend to pick up during the season - playing across the line, the head falling over, and so on. We need to be careful not to let these habits become part of our skill set. Watching videos and taking inputs from coaches and senior team-mates helps eradicate any such habits.
During the season the focus is on strengths, while being aware of shortcomings, but the off season is exactly the opposite. Since there's hardly any time to rectify mistakes during the season, we look for ways to succeed despite the faults; but those areas need to be addressed, and pre-season is the time to do that. I have no doubt that the Indian batsmen who were found wanting against short-pitched bowling recently are putting in hours in the nets to get that in order.
The next bit of preparation is based on what's coming next once the season starts. Are we going to play Test cricket or the shorter formats? In which part of the world? Against what opposition? Such questions determine our action plan.
Last year I attended a camp in Bangalore, just before India's Test tour to Sri Lanka. Muttiah Muralitharan was expected to be the biggest threat - we didn't know much about Ajantha Mendis back then - and we had sessions where we asked the offspinners to bowl into the footmarks from a shorter distance. This way even the local boys managed to add spin and pace to the ball. We practised stepping out to get to the pitch of the ball, and then playing along the ground. We also practised the forward-defensive shot, along with padding the ball away if it was too wide outside the off stump. When we were leaving for Australia, the practices feature negotiating short-pitched deliveries, either against a bowling machine or against bowlers bowling from 18 yards away.
Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana practised clearing the in-field against bowling machines for weeks before the 1996 World Cup. Matthew Hayden was told well in advance about his inclusion for the tour to India in 2001. For months leading up to the tour, he practised the sweep and using his feet against the spinners. To handle Shane Warne's legspin from round the stumps, Sachin Tendulkar got legspinners in Mumbai to bowl at him from round the stumps into the rough.
Such groundwork can only be done during the off season. Once the season starts you have to prepare on a day-to-day basis. In my next column I will focus on all that goes into preparing before a match, an innings or a tournament.