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15 June 2017

How an ex-sprinter inspired a cult of athleticism that helped make India the world’s best cricket team

It's about training smarter, not just harder.

By Ed Smith

Virat Kohli, the captain of the Indian cricket team, hands me his smartphone showing the results of a genetic profile. “It says I’m a 60 per cent power athlete, 40 per cent endurance.”

The report, from a DNA analysis company, generally confirms Kohli’s existing grasp of his genetic predisposition. It has nudged the odd change, however: already on a high-protein, low-carb diet, he is now giving up dairy, as his DNA suggests high lactose intolerance.

Seniority in the Indian cricket team used to mean avoiding running around. Now it’s the other way round: newcomers must sprint to keep up. Kohli, 28, is moulding this India squad in his own image: the in-crowd is not a sedentary slip cordon but a lifestyle movement. That energy is bound up with Kohli’s appeal. In the 1990s Shane Warne made spin bowling cool again; Kohli is adding electricity to the art of batsmanship.

A central figure in the new cult of athleticism inside Indian cricket is Shanker Basu, a former sprinter-turned-coach. Kohli credits Basu with transforming his physical performance. As a teenage prodigy, he was a touch player. Kohli is now a touch player with a brutal long game as well – the complete batsman. He is the only player to average over 50 in Tests, one-day internationals and Twenty20s.

“I could never really hit sixes,” Kohli says. “Now I hit 100-metre sixes. That is about training.” Crucially, it results from training smarter, not just harder. It is also about the trusting relationship with a coach.

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Basu’s insights into athleticism were earned the hard way, through personal disappointment. (Disclosure: Basu is also a trainer in the Indian Premier League for Kohli’s Royal Challengers Bangalore, where I have worked as a consultant – Basu and I have been discussing physical conditioning over a two-year period.) In 1990, Basu ran 100 metres in 10.6 and 200 metres in 21.9. Determined to improve his staying ability over 200, he intensified his regime, training at the longer distance of 400 metres. The harder he worked, the slower he got. Instead of adding staying power, he reduced his top speed. By 1992, he was running 11.2 for the 100 metres – a trajectory he never reversed.

“That taught me a fundamental lesson: addition by subtraction,” Basu explains. “You must stop doing the wrong things, as well as doing the right things.”

Maybe it was good fortune that Basu’s 100-metre times tailed off, because the experience set up his career as a coach. When he studied cricketers, he saw them training inappropriately – jogging and doing aimless weightlifting – with little understanding of the athletic demands of their job.

After a conversation with Kohli in 2014, Basu began working with him the following season. Taking ideas from the “mother sport” of track and field, they developed a precise and technically demanding weights programme aimed at speed and power. Not one minute, stride or lift wasted: addition by subtraction. The science is always tempered by an intuitive coach-player relationship. “You have to trust what you see with your eyes,” Basu says. “The first question I ask Virat every day is: ‘How do you feel?’” Instead of creating an inflexible system, they forged an inquisitive partnership.

During the 2016 Indian Premier League season, Kohli began lifting weights with Basu on the morning of each game, “priming” the muscles. He scored an unprecedented four IPL hundreds that year. “The difference is I can trust my legs – for power and for recovery,” Kohli says. “I can run a hard two and be ready again.” Power training became another strand of his confidence. “If I don’t lift, I can’t hit,” as he puts it.

While we are having coffee in the Indian team’s London hotel, several of Basu’s other students drop by. The opening bowler Bhuvneshwar Kumar explains how power training added 5kph to his stock ball, helping him to become the top bowler in consecutive IPL seasons.

These conversations are now at the centre of life in the Indian team. Athleticism absorbs them, and when highly competitive people become interested in something, they typically get better at it.

The captain of India probably carries the hopes of more devoted fans than any other sportsman in the world. Kohli takes a simple view of that role: he sets no limits about how good he or the team could be. Why risk underselling their potential? Instead, when convinced that something new can make a difference, he will commit to it wholeheartedly.

That makes his physical trainer an interesting study in how ideas spread. A thinker who persuades one highly influential pupil can reach millions of people. With Kohli as its figurehead, Indian cricket is suddenly about movement, causing a shift in how cricket is perceived.

India’s club of young athletes has transformed the team’s fielding. The day after our conversation, Kumar made a brilliant run-out off his own bowling; four days later, India’s vital win over South Africa hinged on a run-out by Hardik Pandya.

Basu believes that Test cricket offers the greatest opportunity. The shorter formats of cricket are more familiar with the value of athleticism, but Test cricket also requires strength and power – only over a longer ­period of time. And it is highly demanding to deliver explosive athletic performance intermittently over five days.

Now ranked as the world’s top Test team, India, until early this year, had a streak of 19 home Tests undefeated – a record for them and the fifth-longest by any team. A key factor has been the ability of their fast bowlers to keep up their pace over five days. It is often assumed that the obsession with power in T20, especially the IPL, would kill Test cricket. In fact, ideas derived from T20 can breathe new life into the grand old game.

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This article appears in the 14 Jun 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel