Southampton, June 21: The brightest English sun of the last 10 days or so lit up the longest day of the year, providing welcome and much-needed relief from the recent spirit-sapping combination of rain, cold and gloom.
It was a beautiful Friday for cricket; at least at the Ageas Bowl, however, the wait must continue for a day longer before India kick off the second phase of their round-robin league campaign at the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019.
While it isn’t common for teams to skip practice a training session a day before the match, it isn’t entirely unusual either.
Having hit the nets for two days on the bounce since reassembling here after a two-day break following their victory against Pakistan on Sunday, India took the day off from practice, choosing to focus on non-cricketing skills on the eve of their fifth league game, against Afghanistan.
That they chose not to come to the ground a day before battle had nothing to do with either complacency or disrespect for the opposition. Especially during extended tournaments such as this, with plenty of travel thrown in, it becomes imperative to strike the right balance between skill-work and rest.
Over the last few years, India have effortlessly straddled that bridge, ensuring that they don’t go into matches physically fatigued and mentally drained by succumbing to the necessity of being seen to be doing the right thing.
Cant rain on my parade 🕶 pic.twitter.com/Xe7ZGaSkt7— K L Rahul (@klrahul11) June 21, 2019
Since the June 9 victory against Australia at The Oval, India have played just one game – the rain-interrupted, much-hyped clash against Pakistan which they won comfortably. In the interim, they watched on helplessly as spells of showers of varying intensity rendered their face-off against New Zealand in Nottingham a non-starter.
All-rounder @vijayshankar260 is just happy he got to bat a few balls in the nets 😁😁. There is something more coming soon from VJ.— BCCI (@BCCI) June 20, 2019
Watch this space for more 😉😉 #TeamIndia #CWC19 pic.twitter.com/bgKctQDCLS
For much of the last 12 days, they have been driven indoors because underfoot conditions haven’t encouraged full-fledged training stints. But when they have had the intermittent opportunity of getting out, they have made the most of it with meaningful rather than elongated sessions.
It was Anil Kumble who famously said in Melbourne in December 2007 that one extra practice session doesn’t necessarily make any team instantly better. India had just lost the first Test to Australia inside four days and, in a break from norm, skipper Kumble commanded that the almost mandatory nets on the scheduled fifth day of the game be scrapped. He urged his team-mates to take their minds off cricket for a couple of days, because it wasn’t their lack of skills that had proved decisive.
Matches at the top level are won not entirely on the back of skills; it’s the space between the ears that has a more important say, and it was precisely that space that the country’s greatest Test match-winner was seeking to address.
It was also during the Kumble-Gary Kirsten days that the concept of 'optional practice’ made its first appearance in an Indian context. From time to time, players would be given the choice of taking the day off, but they were also entrusted with the onus of making sure they were still adequately prepared for the challenges that lay ahead. Alongside great freedom, therefore, came great responsibility; it helped that a majority of the players of the time had all spent more than a decade at the highest level, and therefore didn’t need to be school-mastered, if you like.
What’s happening now is pretty much an extension of that philosophy. Virat Kohli and Ravi Shastri have found the happy fusion between rest and preparation, helped in no small measure by the understanding of the players within the squad that their future lies in what they do during play, which in turn is dependent on how match-ready they are. As it is, the entire squad is coming off a long IPL jamboree involving at least 14 high-pressure matches, late nights, crazy travel schedules and innumerable sponsor-commitments.
The World Cup might seem the least likely stage to embrace down-time, but India’s schedule has allowed them to ease into the tournament and dissipate whatever tiredness might have grabbed hold of their system.
Seven points from four games hasn’t hurt either, even taking into consideration this unit’s successful ability to largely cocoon against from the white noise outside. Games and tournaments of cricket aren’t won only through ability and skill; smartness is a necessary pre-requisite, and India haven’t been found wanting on that count.
(R Kaushik is a cricket writer who has followed the sport closely for nearly three decades, and is covering his seventh World Cup)