Indian cricketer Shikhar Dhawan with team's yoga instructor Manoj Kumar in this file photo (Image courtesy: Manoj Kumar)
It has been slightly over a decade since the cricketers rolled out their yoga mats in a bid to get stronger, more mobile and prevent injuries from occurring. Gone are the days when pot-bellied players made it to the national team - remember Arjuna Ranatunga or Bermuda's Dwayne Leverock? Now, with the arrival of the much-demanding T20 format and top leagues like the IPL, the players are screened for their strength and mobility as much for their cricketing skills and the ability to hit the ball out of the park. Gym sessions are important - just check the insta feed of new-age cricketers - but so is yoga, the new fitness mantra for the young.
Exceptions have always been there. Remember, India's 1983 World Cup-winning skipper Kapil Dev never missed a single match in his 131-Test career due to fitness issues. But, that was much before the game became so demanding and a player had to represent his country in all three formats of the game - Tests, ODIs and T20Is. That is besides the T20 leagues where pressure from the franchise can squeeze every bit out of you. This also essentially means that unlike the past, cricket goes on through the season and beyond without any breaks, testing mental as well as the trunk strength like never before.
This is where yoga chips in, helping the new-age cricketer immensely achieve greater mental and physical well-being - Indian skipper Virat Kohli, a stickler for fitness himself, being a perfect example.
Sachin Tendulkar with yoga instructor Manoj Kumar (File photo courtesy: Manoj Kumar)
"The aim is to make a player feel relaxed, make sure that he has good sleep overnight and is full of energy while stepping on the field for the game. The energy level should be high when it is needed the most. I used to have different sets of asanas for the batsmen and the bowlers who have a huge workload, especially during the Tests," Manoj Kumar, the yoga instructor with the Indian cricket team which won the 2011 World Cup, tells IndiaNarrative.com.
Kumar used to conduct sessions for the team post nets and also individually for the players in their hotel rooms.
"All players were quite enthusiastic about yoga. (Ashish) Nehra used to like the shoulder stand (Sarvangasana), Viru (Virender Sehwag) loved the Paschimottanasana (seated forward bend) and Sachin Paaji used to do almost everything, including the breathing exercises. Not just players but, in my view, everyone should practice yoga every day, especially in these terrible Covid times," advises Kumar who is currently the yoga trainer for Punjab Kings IPL team and also the Haryana Ranji Trophy team in domestic cricket.
The fitness transformation that the team has gone through under Kohli's leadership is now part of Indian cricket history. Out went the chicken tikkas, biryani and other mouth-watering dishes as teammates followed their fitness freak skipper's diet plan religiously. The chefs in hotels where the teams stay are generally left flabbergasted seeing the Indian players going for a fat free-food, preferring Italian while the foreign players are bowled over by the Indian cuisine.
The hotels these days are informed in advance to keep an extra stock of apricots, cashew nuts, almonds, pistachios, protein shakes, grilled chicken, grilled fish, lamb chops and juices as the players' dietary charts have undergone a sea change in recent years.
In times when mental toughness is also of prime importance, the Indian cricket board has time and again hired renowned sports psychologists like Sandy Gordon, Rudi Webster and motivational speakers like Mike Horn who is regarded as one of the world’s greatest modern day adventurer-explorers. The IPL teams too have followed suit.
But, while other aspects and experts have enjoyed a short stint, yoga has stayed on with the Indian cricketers.
"There is a massive interest among the players as far as yoga is concerned. I am myself doing online yoga sessions with several cricketers these days, including foreigners like Chris Jordan. It is here to stay," says Kumar who has been a personal yoga trainer to Sehwag, Shikhar Dhawan and has also done individual sessions with Kohli.
As Harbhajan Singh says, "yoga is life" - not just for him but the future generation of sportspersons as well.