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England’s strength: Conditioning – How the team with a very busy schedule is dealing with the pandemic-time challenge

The contest was on a knife’s edge and it was up to Sam Curran to do something special. His team depended on him, Five extra quiz points up for grabs if someone danced, announced the quizmaster, the difference between winning and losing. Curran stood up and delivered to be the star of England’s team-bonding session ahead of the tour of Sri Lanka.

“He did a hilarious trot; something from a Tik-Tok viral thing apparently. It was beyond me frankly but that was the most hilarious thing that sticks out in recent times, a moment from off the field with this England team.” Phil Scott laughs down the wireless. He is England’s strength and conditioning coach, who has been busy sculpting the players’ bodies for a gruelling cricketing year.

His team’s cup is full this year: 17 Tests, 19 T20s, 9 ODIs, in addition to IPL and a T20 World Cup. It is in this light that England has adopted a drastic rotational system. That’s the reason Johnny Bairstow isn’t available for the first two Tests in Chennai and Jos Buttler plays just one Test in the series. It’s also why Ben Stokes and Jofra Archer didn’t travel to Sri Lanka and the James Anderson–Stuart Broad duo weren’t paired in the last two Tests. It’s down to the likes of Scott to keep them fresh and ready. “I completely agree with it. Instead of reacting, we are trying to be proactive in preventing injuries and burnouts,” Scott tells this newspaper.

Not many teams prepare as well for an away series as England does, a fact attested by India’s R Ashwin as well in a recent interview. The fitness preparation started early in the lockdown phase. Training equipment was sent to the players’ homes. In conjunction with the nutritionist Emma Gardner, Scott prepared an online form that the players had to fill up every day from home.

“How long and hard they trained, and we asked them to rate their session. It gives us a number (to measure the load) to work with. A 7-day period ahead of a Test match we typically work 8000 units and if they have had 200 units load at home during the lockdown, it gives us an idea of how much to build up for a game.”

It had to take into account the month of Ramadan, as England had the likes of Moeen Ali, Adil Rashid, and Saqib Mahmood. “Emma the nutritionist comes in here. There’s no point topping fitness without the adequate fuel in the tank and so we pulled back the amount of workload and intensity of these players. If we had pushed them then, we would do more damage. They could fuel up on match days – that was allowed in their faith and we did that. It was all tailored to individual players, really.”

Unique bowlers drill

It came down to a routine Scot and Rob Ahmun, the overall fitness coach across teams for ECB, devised. “We called it ‘bowl-non-bowl’ sessions. “The bowlers double their run-up and slam some medicine balls at the end. It replicates bowling without putting extra stress on the front-foot loading. This isn’t fast bowling but when you break it down to the elements, it works the same neuromuscular components. Bowlers have to get the weight through the legs as though they were delivering the ball.”

During the lockdown, when he wasn’t there to help out, the players would run in parks and have their friends or wives to slam the medicine ball, Scott says. “They also did a lot of trunk work. It’s no coincidence that someone like James Anderson who is 38 but is seriously fit.”

Scott’s work with England runs right up to the match days, from general fitness to raising confidence levels. “We will be publishing results of a study soon but this is what we have observed during the priming sessions. When you do exercise at high intensity and a specific set of drills, we have noticed a spike in testosterone and body temperature six-eight hours after the workout. So we do this in the morning of a T20 game and get them primed up.

“It has an effect on cognitive behaviour and even confidence levels. We hope to publish the results soon. For a T20 game, we do two sets of lifting, with sprinting involved as well. For those who don’t want to lift, we do a customised biking session. We have five 40-metre sprints,” Scott says.

For Test matches, the workout is done the previous day. “Here too, there are observable spikes after 24 hours.”

Taking care of Mental health

The quarantine can have a detrimental effect on the psyche of players and here is where the psychologist comes through. “He has a chat with players almost every day. We encourage players to speak up when they have the slightest signs of any downtime. Rotation of players helps in this regard.”

The support staff is also encouraged to travel with families by the ECB. “For example, Paul Collingwood [former player who is an assistant coach] is off to England for a break and will join the team in two weeks,” Scott says. Scott has a kid and is expecting twins this March. During winter tours, his family travels with him.

And then there is the player support coach Mark Saxby. A long-serving team massage therapist was promoted in 2019 October under the new head coach Chris Silverwood to take care of the behaviour, wellbeing, and mental health of players. “Saxby is very popular with the players and he has been in charge of the team bonding sessions and more. He was the quiz master who came up with the five points for dancing!” Scott says. “He coordinates with the psychologists and other medical practitioners. We got lots of groups. We are lucky to have Saxby as he is very proactive in leading players’ socials and quiz nights.” When England won the World Cup in 2019, Saxby was carried on the shoulders by the likes of Buttler during the victory lap around Lord’s.

Customised training

India ran into fitness problems during the Australia tour and according to experts, a few developed muscle injuries from the soft outfields, load management, pre-season training, and the sudden shoot of intensity from lockdown to a competitive series. England has been more careful.

“Prior to going to Sri Lanka, we had players in our academy, where we had constructed an outdoor tent on grass. The players could sprint on the outfield and there wasn’t much of a shock going from UK grass to Sri Lanka’s outfields. We can’t exactly replicate those conditions but we did what we could,” Scott says. “It wasn’t the hardest of the surfaces where we trained and I think that worked out well.”

The World Cup 2019 is one of the highlights of Scott’s career. “I joined the team in 2014 and that World Cup stands out. No injuries, we were one of the fittest teams. Now, too, seeing how well the tour of Sri Lanka went. The bowlers remained fit. And someone like Joe Root hits a double ton and gets right back to the field. Not a single injury on the tour. Hope the Indian series too goes the same way. All the hard work before Christmas is paying off.”

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