Training during testing times

Story – Gautam Viswanathan

How Oman’s cricket team is making sure they’re in top form for the Twenty20 Cricket World Cup

Shortly after the start of the COVID-19 outbreak in Oman, the country’s authorities made the decision to ban all sporting activities in the country, as one of the measures taken to curb the spread of infection.

Since then, all professional sporting leagues in the country, school-level sports, and training programmes organised by national-level bodies, as well as youth academies, have been halted, and will continue to remain suspended until given the green light to resume their activities.

Sportsmen, however, cannot just switch off their training programmes. They are required to be at all times in a state of peak physical fitness and mental alertness. An elite-level sportsperson knows that it doesn’t take long to lose his or her conditioning, but does require a tremendous amount of effort to get it back.

Athletes spend months getting into peak form ahead of tournaments, and with the Twenty20 Cricket World Cup scheduled to begin in Australia in a few months – assuming things go as planned – Oman’s national cricket team find themselves unable to train as a team and work on key aspects of their game that require improvement ahead of this event.

Speaking about the importance of sportspersons being able to maintain and consistently reproduce their capabilities, Duleep Mendis, the head coach of Oman’s national cricket team, said, “There will be a setback…we will need to find form, we need to play matches and train. When you lose your training, when you are unable to achieve match fitness, it is very difficult to get that back.

“But at the same time, we have to be careful with our players, because they are coming after a period in which they’ve not been doing much training,” he added. “When they come back outdoors, we need to look at how we can get them back on track. We will need to increase our training.

“The time it will take for the trainers and physios – in terms of fitness – to get the players back on track will be monitored by them,” said Mendis, who has made himself a reputation as one of the finest players to captain Sri Lanka. “But at the same time, we need to work on our technique. We need to improve our standards, our confidence, and only by playing matches can we get that. You can train day after day, but it is only by playing matches that you will get back your rhythm.”

Restricted from training outdoors, Oman’s cricket players are nevertheless practising a strict training regimen put together by their team physiotherapist, Evert Laubscher. These sessions contain exercises that they players can do by themselves, but to ensure that they are actually following through with their workouts, these sessions are monitored by the South African and his team.

With the original start date for the tournament just four months away, training is expected to continue during the Holy Month of Ramadan. Many of the players who represent Oman observe the traditional fast that is a way of life for millions of people in the Middle East and around the world. Eating or drinking is prohibited from dawn to dusk for those fasting.

Training while prohibited from taking food or drink can be quite tough for athletes, which is why they have been split into two groups: those fasting, and those who are not. Those who observe the fast – traditionally called the fitoor – begin their exercises at 9 pm, while their other squad mates do them at 8 o’ clock in the morning.

“We have sent detailed instructions about what they have to do in their residence, and we have formed two squads, one consists of the boys who are fasting: they follow these instructions in the night, and the boys who are not fasting do it at eight in the morning,” explained Mendis. “Both the squads are monitored very closely, they are given a specific time, and at that time, they all start their exercises. Some of our boys have even bought exercise bikes because they cannot go outside.

“We monitor their weights weekly,” he added. “All this is done by our trainer, who’s been with us for about one and a half years. We are monitoring them very closely, and I think we will be ready to play once again by the time we get to the field at the 2020 T20 World Cup. We have already given them the exercises they need to do, the running drills, some rubber exercise bands, and cycles with which to keep fit. In fact, our trainer, together with our physio has sent them the online links with which they can follow exercises. They know how important the World Cup is, and we hope that this will take place.”

Oman earned qualification to this year’s World Cup through the Men’s T20 World Cup qualifier, which was held in October 2019, and featured 14 associate-level teams competing for six berths at the tournament. Oman earned progress to the World Cup alongside the Netherlands, Papua New Guinea, Ireland, Namibia and Scotland.

Barring any postponement to the existing tournament schedule, the Sultanate has been placed in Group A, alongside Sri Lanka, and two of the other associate-level nations alongside which Oman competed for a place among the 16 teams who will play Down Under.

Eight teams – Afghanistan, England, India, South Africa, Pakistan, the West Indies, New Zealand and hosts Australia – will directly begin the tournament in its second stage, called the Super 12s, where they will be joined by four of the eight teams from Group A and Group B, which includes Bangladesh, Namibia, the Netherlands and Scotland.

Oman will be hoping to seal a place in the second round of the World Cup, but they know the odds are stacked against them. Coach Duleep knows getting there is going to take all his team can come up with.

“To compete with international cricketers is not at all easy,” he admitted. “You need to keep yourself fit right through the year. There is no such thing as an off-season – at best, it lasts for maybe a couple of weeks – but then you have to come back to your programme, because if you fall off once, you lose everything: you will not score runs, you will not bowl properly, your team does not do well, and everything falls apart.

“When they know that they are approaching a major tournament such as the T20 World Cup, all the other players know what they’re in for, so if you do not do whatever is required of you, then you fall apart, and the whole team will get affected by this,” added Mendis, who also described the main challenges facing his team

“The biggest challenge that we have is that we cannot get together,” he explained. “They are currently training indoors and very few of the players can come out of their homes. Another challenge we’re facing is the technique of the players. All of us need to play before the tournament, because you’ve got to play cricket and you’ve got to do that at a certain level, because if you don’t do that, then you will keep dropping.”

Oman had also been expected to increase their match sharpness and experiences of playing competitive cricket, ahead of the tournament, by travelling overseas to take part in a few warm-up games. The extremely hot weather the Arabian Gulf gets every summer rules out the prospect of playing cricket in this part of the world at present, but the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic has put paid to team Oman’s overseas preparation camp.

But Coach Duleep is not using the impediments his team have faced as a reason to downplay expectations of the team. Oman do have their work cut out for them, given that they are soon expected to face some of the strongest teams in world cricket.

“We did have a few tours lined up outside, but we could not play in these because of the current situation,” he revealed. “Still, we cannot afford to make excuses ahead of such a big tournament, so we will concentrate on our techniques, we will go indoors and start working on our batting techniques, bowling techniques and fielding techniques. But to start all of these, the current situation must end.

“I am sure the International Cricket Council will lay down a few safety measures. We will have to follow those, regarding keeping distance from each other and wearing masks. Once we travel to another place, we might have to first spend a few days staying separately…all of these things may come into force.”

“But when it comes to tournaments, we have no excuses…we have to perform. When you get to the international level, you have to perform. If it takes place, we will be ready.” – [email protected]