The gentleman’s game has changed like never before. The game of cricket has evolved from the languid days of test matches to the blink-and-you-miss-it Twenty20 format. Fitter, more athletic players are apparently ruling the roost. Whites to colours, the red cherry to the white ball, black sight screens looming large instead of the pristine white ones, the floodlights becoming the order of the day — these are changes that cricket has seen and survived. And one change that every international team has come to terms with is the number of people that has become part of the core team — the support staff. Gone are the days when the players travelled with a coach and a manager. The entourage has expanded and often it’s almost a second team that is travelling with the players.
A coach, bowling coach, fielding coach, physiotherapist, trainer, yoga and massage therapist, masseur, video analyst, logistics manager and media manager — this was the list of support staff that accompanied Team India in the recently concluded Champions Trophy and the tri-series in the West Indies. And given the lavish amount that the Board of Control for Cricket in India spends on these individuals, there really cannot be any debate on the necessity of such support staff. Their presence is appreciated in more ways than one and after Team India won the Champions Trophy in England — the last to be held — not only did the BCCI promise to reward the players (R1 crore each), but each of the support staff will soon be richer by R 30 lakh.
For Indian cricket, the notion of support staff to enhance fitness perhaps started with the inclusion of Dr Ali Irani, a physiotherapist, way back in 1987. He made the team warm up and exercise together and had famously said that it promoted team spirit. Dr Irani stayed with the Indian team for close to 10 years, and left only after the ominous clouds of betting and match-fixing darkened his name.
But the trend of including a top team of trained support staff remained and the importance of these experts grew by leaps and bounds as cricket became not just a 365 day affair but a rigorous mix of football-like 90- minute spectacle followed by large doses of parties and dancing. With cricket being flush with money and sponsors often calling the shots, it became imperative to keep players fit through punishing schedules that involved playing tests, one-dayers and Twenty20 matches with very little time to reorient and regroup.
Add to that the lure of playing for tournaments like the IPL where money speaks louder than the sweet sound of the willow on a leather hunt, and you do need a group that is dedicated to ensure that players are at their fittest form. Injuries do happen despite the physiotherapists and masseurs, but it is comforting to have them around.
Always at hand
In 2006, the Indian cricket team was not exactly having the greatest of times under Greg Chappell, when he introduced Dr Rudi Webster to the squad.
Chappell brought him in as he believed him to be a “very user-friendly sports psychologist because of his hands-on experience with leading athletes.”
Webster was also part of the Kolkata Knight Riders support team last season and a senior KKR official, on condition of anonymity, confirms that Webster made sure the players were mentally equipped to deal with the intense pressure that a Twenty20 game entailed. He, of course, adds that in IPL teams, it is often seen that the franchise owners include people in the support staff so that they can be close to the players. With the Sreesanth fiasco fresh in mind, a hint at something that’s just not cricket is obvious. But it also agreed that the increase in support staff has seen more positives than negative in Indian cricket.
Back in 2006, Chappell’s move was criticised by many people as the 2007 World Cup did not see Team India in the best of their elements. However, the idea of having a motivational psychologist with the team had taken firm footing.
The official support staff list for Team India taking part in the tri-series in the West Indies in June, went into double figures, with Duncan Fletcher (coach), Joseph Dawes (bowling coach), Trevor Penney (fielding coach), Nitin Patel (physiotherapist), R Srinivasan (trainer), Amit Shah (yoga and massage therapist), CKM Dhananjai (video analyst), Ramesh Mane (aasseur), MA Satheesh (logistics manager) and Dr RN Baba (media manager).
That is impressive by any standard. But does that really entail better, fitter players?
Fitter, faster, longer
Says former India and pacer and currently a Mumbai Indians support staff member, Paras Mhambrey, “Support staff is of enormous help to players. If you have an injury, you can spot it then and there. Chances of a niggle becoming a bigger injury later on are very less nowadays. That’s where a physio comes into the picture. “Talking about how players benefit from good support staff, he says, “A masseur helps you become fit for the next game. The trainers help you maintain fitness during the season. With the amount of cricket being played these days, support staff is a crucial component in the team.” Mhambrey, who virtually played with just no support staff except the services of physio Dr Ali Irani, when he turned out in India colours, says : “During our time, I have played matches with the help of pain killers. You wouldn’t know when a shin injury turned into a stress fracture. With more support staff, you don’t worry of being out of the game for a long time due to injury. It is very beneficial.”
Agrees former veteran off-spinner Ramesh Powar, “ Each support staff has specific roles. They are specialised in sports training and undertand your body well. If I have weight issues, they know how to deal with it. Their support makes a lot of difference in your performance. They help you in achieving your goals as well as by keeping you fit and ready. They also take pressure off you after developing a good rapport. They become your family after sometime. For instance I am very close to Mane kaka, the Indian team masseur ,” he tells us.
Indeed many a times, stars have only the support staff to thank for not just saving their careers but for helping the team win matches! India medium pacer Ashish Nehra may not have played the 2003 World Cup clash against England in Durban had it not been for then India team physio Andrew Leipus. Nehra, who had a swollen ankle, recorded the third-best bowling analysis in World Cup history, finishing with 6-23, taking the wickets of Nasser Hussain and Michael Vaughan along the way. Nehra paid tribute to the Indian team physio for getting him in shape to play. “I have been working with my physio Andrew Leipus for the last two days and it was down to him that I made it,” he said after being named man of the match. There can be no better salute to these unsung heroes of Indian cricket.
Former India player Devang Gandhi is of the view that while it is good to have a team of specialists travelling with the team, it ultimately depends on the player himself as to how fit and agile he stays.
“It doesn’t really matter how good the psychologist is. The player has to perform and find the best way to fight stress and tension and rise above it. If there is help at hand, that’s good. But that can’t be the most vital aspect,” he argues.
He agrees it is important to have support staff at hand as the game has evolved a lot. “They can act as guides and help players. But frankly, when it comes to motivation and inspiration, I believe when a player puts on the India cap, that’s all the motivation that he needs.”
“Fitness is important, specially as the calendar is very hectic for players these days.
But longevity and skill cannot be developed by training in the gym. I think in modern-day cricket the importance of the gym is overrated. Kapil Dev, perhaps one of India’s fittest players, would spend hours bowling, but not in the gym. Would Sunil Gavaskar, Dilip Vengsarkar, Gundappa Viswanath been better players with the kind of support staff there is today? I really don’t think so. At the end of the day, it is up to the players.”
Former India selector and Bengal captain Sambaran Banerjee admits that there are positives of having a support group. “With a video analyst, it is easy for the players now to not only understand their own strengths and weaknesses, but also study the opponents in detail. It is good to have a physio at hand, or a motivator when the team is down,” he says.
He agrees with Devang however, that there is too much emphasis on physical training, “Things have changed. A player even of the stature of Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev didn’t go through fitness exercises as much as they spent time at nets. But maybe if they had all this around them, they could have played a bit longer.”