In my playing days, the ice was kept for the beers.” Michael Holding is not an advocate of cricket’s modern fitness routines. Back in his day, ‘warm-downs’ at the end of a tiring game consisted of sharing a pack of fags and a few cold ones with team-mates, usually in the opposition’s dressing room. It was a time when the term six-pack meant nursing a hangover the next morning. A time when the term ice-bath indicated just one thing; a tall glass of whiskey had been allowed to sit a little too long in the slanting rays of the evening sun.
Few, however, realise that the man sincerely defending the charming old ways of his sport played an irrevocable role in the physical radicalisation of the game. It was Holding, of all people, who inadvertently helped install the current-day training regime that he so despises; one that all cricketers, both wannabes and professional, adhere to like a well organised religion. On a particularly scorching dawn in Australia back in 1982, Holding — still known as Whispering Death at this point and not Bottled Thunder, as he would be called for his baritone commenatry voice — found himself scowling at the foothills of a hillock in Adelaide. Besides Holding, and wearing similar facial expressions of surprise and anguish, stood Andy Roberts, Joel Garner and Colin Croft. These four, members of the most hallowed pace battery in cricket’s history, felt a simultaneous pang of nerves — a feeling they had almost never experienced on a cricket field — as a little white fellow commanded them to run up the hill. And down. And up again, for an hour.
The little white man’s name was Dennis Waight, and in this particular setting, he was an aberration in every possible way. Waight was Caucasian, the West Indies pacers were of course black. Waight was dimunitive, the pacers were tall, like oaks. And, Waight was a physical trainer, a designation unheard of in cricketing circles in those days. So unique was his presence in the West Indies dressing room that captain Clive Lloyd, still terribly unsure of what a trainer’s role was at this point, had
asked Waight if he could “make these blokes fire by making them angry”.
“The team needed six quick wickets on the fourth day of that Adelaide Test and Lloydy, the captain, asked me to fire them up,” Waight, cricket’s first physiotherapist who stayed with the West Indies side for 23 years, said in an interview recently. “For an hour before the start of play, I made the players run up and down the hill. They weren’t happy; Croft, Holding, Roberts and Garner were hopping mad and they went out and bowled like fire. Soon after, we won rather easily”
Waight had achieved a lot more than his short-term goal of stirring up his flock of fast bowlers. He had commissioned cricket’s first officially organised training session beyond the jurisdiction of a cricket field. Four pairs of giant feet had just taken baby steps towards a fitness overhaul of the game. Those feet carried the programme far, so much so that age-group cricketers today work on their Body Mass Index, core-strength and endurance as much as they would on their on-drives and wrong ‘uns. So much so that when England found themselves 4-0 down in the Ashes and staring at a whitewash before the Sydney Test in 2013, the think-tank’s solution was to put their players through the grind of an extra fitness session on the eve of the game.
Watching Alastair Cook’s side collectively chisel their abs and pecs instead of fine-tuning their techniques, Simon Briggs, The Telegraph’s cricket correspondent, observed the following in utter disbelief. “The thinking seems to go that if we could just lose another 0.5lb of fat, we’ll be lighter on our feet when it comes to facing Mitchell Johnson.” Had Warwick Armstrong, the first truly great Australian Test captain, been alive to witness his rivals participating in the act of sit-ups and crunches a day before a Test match, he would have helped himself to a full-belly laugh, jiggling all 140 kilograms of his mass with it.
If you haven’t heard of Armstrong, then this remarkable story will tell you a little more about him. Not long after he alighted from his ship on the docks of Southampton in England, Armstrong noticed that a boy had been following him close on his heels. When he turned around to oblige the young autograph-seeker, the boy said: “Please, sir, you are the only bit of decent shade in this place.”
Armstrong, known as Big Ship, played 50 Test matches for Australia in the early part of the 20th century, all while chewing on cigars during lunch and knocking back ales at tea. Yet, his fitness (or lack of it) didn’t stop him from batting days on end to strike six Test centuries, score nearly 3000 runs at an average of 40 or even claim 87 wickets while bowling legspin.
Talking of legspinners, the greatest of them all, Shane Warne, was known as much for his rock-and-roll lifestyle off the field as his brilliance on it. Yet, it wasn’t the beer, cigarettes or easy women (all of which he loved in equal measure) that stopped him from adding to his tally of 708 Test wickets. The regimental methods of the modern-day game did. “If I could just turn up the night before and play, then I’d probably still be playing,” he famously quipped. “But, there’s too much other rubbish they carry on with these days — jump tests, fitness things.”
So, the question begging to be asked is how did physical fitness gain such significance, becoming almost a cardinal rule, in a non-contact sport that stops play periodically for lunch, drinks, refreshments and tea? And, are the days of the portly cricketer truly over?
It’s hard to say, but the answer, perhaps, lies in the most likely conspiracy theory, which suggests those born without as much talent as a lucky few can always find an able substitute in hard work. That theory explains why the physically supreme specimen Rafael Nadal, armed with 19-inch arms and granite slabs for legs, eventually wore down the extremely gifted Roger Federer, whose physique told us that he treats the gymnasium like he would a day at the mother-in-law’s.
But, more poignantly, the theory tells us why the days of the portly cricket champion are well and truly over. Every time ViratKohli reiterates the fact that his perfectly formed biceps and a taut abdomen helped him pivot the ball away for the winning runs that led his country to yet another victory, it dawns upon you that never again will a captain built like the pot-bellied ArjunaRanatunga hoist a trophy over his shoulders again.
Gone are the days when the big-boned Inzamam-ul-Haq is forced to go on a diet and quickly reverts to binging on halal-meat again, for starving himself brought him just 19 runs from six matches during the 2003 World Cup in South Africa. And, vanished from our collective memory are the days when the rotund David Boon allegedly knocked back 52 cans of beer on a single flight from Sydney to London — the official Australian cricket drinking record.
That mark will never be broken ever again. Why? Because these days, ice is used to fill up a bath-tub in a dressing room, not a thermos basket full of cold ones.