The COVID-19 lockdown could provide a new generation of cricketers the time and space required to hone the mental side of their game, according to John Gloster, the Rajasthan Royals’ physiotherapist. He believes that some lasting benefits could yet arise from cricket’s globally enforced break, in spite of the cramped conditions that some players will currently be experiencing as they attempt to train at home.
Gloster, who worked as India’s physiotherapist from 2005 to 2008 and has been based in Mumbai ever since, is currently waiting – along with everyone else involved with this season’s IPL – for the final decision on a tournament that is currently postponed until April 15, but is likely to be pushed back further still, with India currently implementing strict measures to combat the virus.
And until that moment comes, Gloster and his fellow back-room staffers are in the complicated situation of remotely monitoring their players’ physical, mental and nutritional levels, while helping them to channel their pent-up energies in productive ways.
“For any athlete, the thing they hate most is the fear of the unknown,” Gloster told ESPNcricinfo. “When a cricketer is injured, and is unsure about time-frames, it’s easy for them to become frustrated. And that’s when we need to start working on the mental and psychological side of the game. It’s a similar situation here, because we don’t yet know when they will be playing again, so there’s no definitive starting point to work back from.
“The physical side of their games is probably the easiest bit to manage, to be perfectly honest,” he added. “Because we know about that aspect, we know what constraints each player has in their home environments. But the mental side of this situation is taking us into some pretty uncharted waters.”
Speaking about the situation last week, Royals’ England star Ben Stokes admitted that he was obliged to carry on training as if the tournament will get underway next month, and both he and his team-mate Jos Buttler have been posting regular videos of their training on Instagram.
But Gloster admitted that his focus was more on the young Indian players in the Royals set-up, many of whom are in their first professional contracts and so are not yet tied into the sort of Athlete Management System (AMS) that co-ordinates the training programmes of the game’s elite players.
“The physical constraints that the Indian players are now having seems to be a lot greater than that of the guys in say, South Africa, Australia or the UK,” he said, “because space is an incredible constraint here. I’ve seen some fantastic footage coming out of the players in the UK where they’re in their own gyms and they’ve got lots of space, and I think the Indian boys are going to be perhaps at a physical disadvantage there.
“But one of the things that we’ve worked on very hard with our IPL players is knowing them 365 days of the year, and at an intimate level too – where they’re from, what their background is, what they eat, how big their house is, what village they’re from. All this stuff matters even more in an environment like this, because now we know what’s realistic or unrealistic when we ask them to do things.
“I’m the only physio who’s based here all year round so I’ve had the opportunity to build these relationships with the players. I’ve just had Varun Aaron sending me photos of him grilling fish at home on his barbecue, and then downstairs in his gym training. Sanju Samson sends me photos asking, ‘can I eat this? Can I eat that?’, and Shreyas Gopal asked me for cooking tips the other day. They are comfortable about asking questions which are now suddenly very, very relevant to them.”
Nevertheless, Gloster admitted that the unique circumstances of the lockdown would create some fascinating scenarios when play does finally resume, given that no amount of training can fully replicate a live match experience.
“Every single cricketer, probably for the first time since the second world war, will be starting from exactly the same place in terms of match fitness,” he said. “This is really interesting, because normally when we enter an environment like the IPL, we have to manage guys who are overloaded, and factor that into their training, as well as guys who are under-loaded and need to match the necessary levels.
“Whereas on this occasion, everyone will be entering the tournament without any match fitness, which will bring with it a large injury risk because the expectation for all professional sportsmen is that you’ve always got to go at 100 percent.”
Therefore the best preparation that all players can make in the downtime, in Gloster’s opinion, is to hone their mental games, and take the opportunity to broaden the horizons that sometimes get restricted by the non-stop nature of modern professional sport.
“I think we’re going to find just how mentally resilient all these players are,” he said. “Actually, I think it’ll be a really good test for these guys because they’re going to be tested by this environment more than they’ve ever been tested by any stressful situation on the cricket field.
“There are going to be some great learnings for these guys about themselves, about how you switch off and get away from cricket, and what strategies can you use now that will make you better when we go back to the game. Because the best players in the world are the ones that can actually switch off from cricket and mentally relax when they need to.
“The Rahul Dravids of the world were great readers. Shane Warne did whatever Shane Warne did outside of his game time. I don’t think modern cricketers are very good at that, it’s just cricket or nothing else. So this could be a great opportunity to find hobbies other relaxation techniques, and drill a little deeper into their own psyches.
“For some that might be simple things like reading and board games, but I also like to see the guys with families spending time with their kids. As we know, modern cricketers don’t spend much time with their families so this chance just to reconnect can be a really good thing as well.
“I think this is all part of a process that will be maturing our cricketers a lot more than they think. And ultimately that’s going to benefit them when they get back to playing.”