It cannot be easy for any of the eight IPL teams -- who find themselves in the unenviable position of finding their cricket strides in time for the September 19 start of the tournament -- after an unprecedentedly long break. Yet, for the Chennai Super Kings, the tough got a whole lot tougher after their quarantine was extended by a week, thanks to two of their players testing positive for coronavirus.
Making matters worse for CSK are the twin withdrawals of Suresh Raina and Harbhajan Singh. But the rest of the team will do well to take a leaf from Shane Watson's book, who has been documenting his journey of what it takes to go from raw to ripe on his Youtube channel.
CSK's Watson found his groove following the lengthy layoff the hard way, trying different combinations in experimental nets sessions to see what suits him best – technically and mentally. This is the level of dedication to his craft at the age of 39 no less, and well after having played his last international for Australia in 2016.
On the technical side, Watson has a checklist for every batting stroke. But checking them off the list has been relatively easier than finding the right frame of mind. "The last two net sessions, I found it (the mental side of the game) as challenging as the technical side of things," Watson said on his channel, T20 Stars. "We play eight balls before swapping with whoever I am batting with. But between the 6th, 7th and 8th balls in that round, I am very inconsistent with the intensity in the mind. I need really strong intent for me to trust my instincts."
Watson spells out the long-standing connection between mind and form. "If my intent is down, my ability to execute my skills will be down as well," he said, before stumbling upon a few answers for his problems. "Actually, (after) talking to Stephen Fleming, maybe I need to cut down to five or six balls. The brain is a muscle to build up again for concentration and right intensity. In the next few training sessions, I am going to cut down to five-six balls to maintain the right intensity."
Watson's CSK plays the opening game of the edition and he is doing all he can to be match-ready. And this primarily involves relearning to throw and run. "I am getting my body used to doing what I need to do in the game, so that's going be very important in the next couple of weeks in the lead up to the tournament."
Watson fears that his shoulder will be sore if he throws at maximum intensity on September 19 without the right build-up. So, he has been focussing on three release points– over-the-shoulder (from the deep), side-arm (on the run) and the under-arm throw (for direct hits from close-range). "I have to make sure my shoulder is comfortable using different slots so I don't hurt myself from being in a position of not practising."
And all his running can be summed up in one line. "Running one, running twos, running threes with full equipment on, that's been my running fitness," he added.
Not all players are as methodical as Watson. And many believe that there is no substitute for match-practice. Ask any of the players from four-time champions Mumbai Indians and they will tell you that their inter-MI tune-up matches has helped them in the past and will continue to do so this year as well.
The importance of match simulation is not lost on Kings XI Punjab's Sarfaraz Khan, who struck his first Ranji triple century in January for Mumbai, either. Stuck in Azamgarh, Uttar Pradesh, during the lockdowns, Sarfaraz got his father Naushad to drive him long distances to find practice games.
"The focus for us was on match simulation, always. Sarfaraz has played around 10 matches in the build-up to this IPL," said Naushad, who is also Sarfaraz's first coach. "I took him to various places, from Meerut to Mathura to Lucknow to get him match practice. If it was raining at one place, we would drive to another location."
Once they found a match to participate in, Naushad made it doubly productive for Sarfaraz. "We set targets—eight or 12 runs in one over with a powerplay field. Or, so many runs with the field spread out etc. We don't know what number he will get to bat (in the IPL), so his preparation was focused on various scenarios."
The men who are really under the pump to get the players match-fit within an impossibly short window of time are the strength and conditioning coaches. Inadequate preparation leads to injuries and the onus is wholly on them to get their wards going, all the while operating within the constraints of the bio-bubble.
"It is a different challenge for all of us. Periodisation is the key from this point on," said Shankar Basu, the strength and conditioning coach of Royal Challengers Bangalore. Right through the time of inactivity, the players did train at home but Basu believes that to be insufficient.
"Any amount of indoor work is not the same as when you hit the ground running. Now, it's about hitting the peak at the right time," Basu, who Virat Kohli often credits for his physical transformation, added. "So, the right balance between skill and fitness is the key. Ideal preparation may not be possible, but smart preparation is the order of the day."
Different conditioning coaches have different agendas in mind for their respective teams and for Rajasthan Royals' John Gloster, that focus is high-speed running. "That's where injuries occur mostly," said Gloster. "T20 cricket has a lot of speed-effort in it, that's the nature of the game and you have to prepare very differently for high-speed efforts compared to Test or 50 overs cricket."
To do just that, Gloster's staff are using GPS devices to monitor these efforts, an integral part of their program.
With plenty of cricket about to follow a long period of no cricket, recovery will become a fundamental focus for IPL teams. "When you do a lot of work in a short period of time then recovery becomes even more important. If you are not recovering then injury risk goes up," added Gloster, whose recovery mantra for 2020 is a simple one.
"In our hotel, we have access to a private beach. Seawater helps. As does time in a swimming pool," said Gloster. Those factors, coupled with good nutrition and lack of heavy travel, makes recovery easier than it was before. "We had that strategy always. But this year it is a lot more robust."