Virtually cut off from public glare and in a bid to rejuvenate their mind, spirit and body, the 2011 World Cup stars virtually lived the life of Shaolin monk at a training camp in central France for six weeks. Both aim to play the 2015 World Cup.
At a time when Indian cricket is being headlined by a bunch of precocious youngsters like Virat Kohli, Shikhar Dhawan , Ravindra Jadeja and Bhuvneshwar Kumar, two senior players are returning from an intense training camp in France to salvage their Team India berths. Purely on a private endeavour, Yuvraj Singh and Zaheer Khan chose to undertake a rigorous six-week programme that very few sportspersons dare to venture. They finished last Friday.
Story first published on: Tuesday, 13 August 2013 12:34
Virtually cut off from public glare and in a bid to rejuvenate their mind, spirit and body, Yuvraj and Zaheer virtually lived the life of a Shaolin monk at a training camp in Brive La Gaillarde, a market town south of the centre of France. Their coach was Tim Exeter, a high performance physical trainer well known in Europe's rugby and soccer fields. For the 48-year-old Briton, Yuvraj and Zaheer were his first cricketing 'clients' and "a new fresh challenge."
Exeter has worked with international sportsmen like Welsh and Manchester United soccer star Ryan Giggs and British and former Jordan driver Ralph Firman. A speed and movement specialist, Exeter has been training professional sportsmen from the Nineties. He and his wife run the Metasport Athletic Performance Centre, a fitness centre that Exeter believes has made Yuvraj and Zaheer, fitter, stronger and faster. "You will be surprised when you will see them. Both Zak and Yuvi are in better shape to do the things they want to achieve," Exeter told sports.ndtv.com in an exclusive chat. (View images: Zak, Yuvi return fitter and stronger after French camp)
Members of the 2011 World Cup-winning Indian squad, Zaheer and Yuvraj have been overtaken by a bunch of fitter and younger players who are in the process of sealing their positions in Team India with their consistent performances in India and overseas. With national selectors indicating that the core of the 2015 World Cup squad revolved around the young team that won the ICC Champions Trophy in June this year, Yuvraj and Zaheer will have their task cut out in the next 18 months.
Exeter feels Yuvraj and Zaheer are mentally and physically stronger and should be able to take on the challenges that lay ahead. "I don't know about the current players in Team India and I am not a cricket coach, but I can only say that age is just a number. Giggs still plays for United at 39 and both Yuvi and Zak are much younger. If they can maintain the follow-up programme, they will compete with anybody in Indian cricket and don't forget that they have loads of talent and experience," Exeter said.
Pushing 32, Yuvraj's last international series was when England visited India in 2012-13. Till he was dropped by the national selectors due to a combination of form and fitness, Yuvraj scored just one half-century in his last 10 ODI innings. A 74 against England at Ahmedabad was his best in the last 10 Test innings he played. But what finally exposed his total lack of form, fitness and mental strength was the Indian Premier League. Yuvraj did not score a single 50 for Pune Warriors, a below-par show from a man who was India's hero in the 2011 World Cup campaign.
Zaheer, 35 in October, has been struggling for fitness and form for the last several months. Grappling with injury, he managed to play just two games for Royal Challengers Bangalore in the IPL and in his last three Test matches against England in November-December 2012, Zaheer bagged just four wickets and failed to justify the tag as India's bowling spearhead. Zaheer's ODI form has also been on the decline. His last ODI was in August 2012 against Sri Lanka in Pallekele. His four wickets in the five-match series against the Lankans highlighted that he was no more a threat to the opposition camp.
The IPL sent a clear message to two of India's best known cricketers. It was perform or perish and time was not on their side. For two fun-loving cricketers, known for their bohemian ways, Mission Comeback started just weeks after the Indian T20 extravaganza ended. Exeter was found through contacts and as even as a new-look Team India headed off to UK for the Champions Trophy, Yuvraj and Zaheer flew to a rather obscure French town to enter Exeter's 'temple of Shaolin'.
"Their fitness levels were quite down and they were not strong in the central part of the body," said Exeter, when asked on his first impression of the cricketers. The first few days went to "analyzing" aspects like training age, medical injury history and demands of the sport. "It was important to build objectives as both needed to be stronger, quicker and injury resilient. They have played 13 years of non-stop cricket and injuries are expected," explained Exeter.
Yuvraj's left knee and his history with cancer were a concern but Exeter felt he was mentally intense and focused. Zaheer's demanding bowling action - constant one-way rotation -- left him with weaker ligaments and Exeter felt both needed extensive work on their legs. "I saw their YouTube videos and once I knew their shortcomings, it was a challenge for me to make them stronger and agile," said Exeter.
So for six days a week, at least five hours a day over two sessions, Yuvraj and Zaheer huffed and puffed, strained every sinew and worked on their strength and endurance. Yuvraj regularly worked on playing a fast and rising ball while Zaheer improved his hip rotation, key to a fast bowler's action. On days, the group would travel to Lac De Causse, a rowing course with a beautiful beach.
Intense physical training would be coupled with sessions of Pilates supervised by Exeter's wife. Pilates is a type of physical fitness system developed in the early 20th century by Joseph Pilates, a physical culturist from Monchengladbach, Germany. It is a body conditioning routine that helps build flexibility, muscle strength, and endurance in the legs, abdominals, arms, hips, and back.
"Brive is not a party town and the two nightclubs we have are rubbish. So the players would be home after training. I knew they were big stars back in India, but here they were like normal guys and not big headed," explained Exeter, adding that a few media people, who sniffed them out, were kept off limits to let the players focus on their training.
For Yuvraj and Zaheer, the French experience will only be a prelude to a long Indian domestic season that begins with the Challenger Trophy in September third week. But the arduous path to redemption will perhaps start with the Ranji Trophy from October-end. With the country's top players busy touring South Africa, New Zealand and England over 2013-2014, Zaheer and Yuvraj will have to perform quietly and impress the national selectors.
Yuvraj is realistic in his goals. In a recent interview the all-rounder was sure that no magic wand will bring him back to the Indian team. "2015 (World Cup) is very much a goal and I am really determined to make it happen," said Yuvraj. "After recovering from cancer I started well. But then I had issues with my form and back during the IPL. I have seen many ups and downs to deal with this. Hopefully, the coming season will turn things around. I am giving my best. That is what I can do. Rest is destiny," Yuvraj added.
Exeter is sure that both Yuvraj and Zaheer will make an impression with their new found body language. A fitter body means a fitter mind and cricket is a mental game, he argues. "Both have dropped body fat and Zaheer, who is self-analytical, has lost five kilos," said Exeter. Describing him as a "powerful character," Exeter said Yuvraj is a solid 95 kgs, but stronger with a lot of leg muscle.
It's going to be a new beginning for Yuvraj and Zaheer. If they can ride their French experience and translate fitness into substantial and consistent form, there will always be light at the end of the tunnel. Even if the onus is on youth, Team India will be severely tested overseas over the next 12 months and both Yuvraj and Zaheer will always sniff an opportunity. For two World Cup heroes, there is nothing to lose and everything to gain.