Let me turn the clock back. It was one balmy evening of 2008 in Bangalore. Irfan Pathan, considered one of the fittest Indian cricketer at that time was sharing thoughts with Paul Chapman, the then head fitness coach of the National Cricket Academy. Being the India-A trainer I was privy to the conversation.
Acknowledging Dhoni as the fittest, Pathan wondered how long Dhoni can stretch without the regular grind of strength and conditioning.
Well, Pathan after having suffered myriads of injuries has simply disappeared from the circuit while in 2017, nine years from the time he sounded doubtful, Dhoni still runs his singles as sharply as a young Ravindra Jadeja does.
When I was the assistant trainer in the Greg Chappell camp back in 2005, Dhoni had just emerged in the scene. Since he could speak my language he would quietly ask during training in Bengali – “Dada ar kichu?” (anything more). An honest revealation that he was looking for the end when Rahul Dravid stretched beyond his schedule.
The question is, what is the definition of fitness in cricket or football? Is it sprinting 100 metres in 10 seconds like Bolt or playing 100 test matches on the trot like Brendon McCullum of New Zealand or mesmerising the defenders day- in and day- out like Lio Messi? In my book, fitness is performing the second task. Surviving a length of time at the highest level with average fitness and high skill far overweighs being fit as a fiddle and perishing early.
Dhoni was the fastest in running his run of 3, an agility test at the National Cricket Academy. Fastest by some distance. Yes, M.S. Dhoni never lifted much nor would bother the team India trainer asking for his training schedule. But if without those one can play 90 test matches, 300 plus ODIs and 78 T20Is, missing barely a few over a period of 13 years, any fitness coach will take that. The biggest challenge is the task of wicket keeping. It hammers your knee. Repeated squatting wears the cartileges in the hinge joint. The shoulders take a pounding when you go airborne and land heavily on it.
Cricket pundits are bamboozled by Dhoni’s durability sans the religious work on fitness. Let’s endeavour to uncoil it. MSD inherits a physique with predominance of type-2 muscle fibre. More precisely these are fast twitch glycolytic muscle fibres that make him run fast. Strong deep abdominal muscles ensure the helicopter shot lands in the stands. But Shikhar Dhawan too has the same physique. Then why does Dhawan train hard?
Can a person with gifted muscle fibre type shirk training and still excel? The answer is both no and yes. No because a Cristiano Ronaldo, despite being born with such muscle fibre type trains as hard as anybody. It reduces chance of injury, enhances his skill and makes him play ninety minutes with the same gusto. In a discussion Sir Alex Ferguson the legendary Man United coach said that had the former greats like Pele, Beckenbauer, Eusébio got the support of today’s sports science, they could have stretched their careers, their skill might have been little more dazzling. Moral of the story? You may be a born athlete but still you got to train.
Yes, it applies to exceptions like Dhoni, Sachin Tendulkar, Shane Warne, Sunil Gavaskar, Diego Maradona, George Best. These species are 5% of the total lot. So it’s a folly to follow their path. Exceptions are not the rule. Having said that, MSD developed his cardiovascular endurance by playing soccer.
Right from his childhood days he thrives on soccer. His down the line runs developed both sprint and cardio endurance. 20-30 minutes of football for him is a staple training. His goalkeeping manoeuvres inculcated a ‘devil-may-care’ attitude in flinging the body left or right. And take note of his mobility. Having great range of motion around the joints allowed him to stay free from injury and stiffness.
Dhoni perhaps played a master stroke by calling it quits from Test cricket in 2014. Like many international cricketers, he realised that five days grind will eventually eat up the playing days. He is nowadays often cooling off. As he returns the cool finisher in him must be saying, “Am not finished yet.”
(Chinmoy Roy is a veteran fitness expert & trainer and has been associated in different capacities with Indian and Bengal cricket for decades)