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The Development of Strength and Conditioning within Domestic Cricket in Pakistan—A Personal Perspective

by Matthew Towlson, CSCS and Richard Stonier
NSCA Coach June 2017
Vol 4, Issue 4

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This is my story of how a strength and conditioning coach influenced not only one of Pakistan’s up and coming cricket team’s approach to fitness and lifestyle, but also that of the wider community.

Introduction and Backstory

For the country of Pakistan, cricket is a passion and a way of life. My name is Richard Stonier and this is my story of how I influenced not only one of the country’s up and coming cricket team’s approach to fitness and lifestyle, but also that of the wider community. As an English strength and conditioning coach, I was first approached by a former international Pakistani cricketer and now Head Coach the first-class Pakistani cricket team Sui Southern Gas Company (SSGC). This occurred by coincidence when he witnessed my warm-up routine during a semiprofessional cricket match in Stoke-on-Trent, England. To the best of my knowledge and according to the club, officials, and national governing bodies, I became the first Western coach to be recruited into a domestic cricket team in Pakistan. This is mainly due to Pakistani coaches being traditionally selected and Pakistan’s international cricket team having to train and compete in Dubai, United Arab Emirates ever since the security measures put in place after the 2009 Lahore bombings. Although my recruitment could have been viewed as controversial, the country welcomed me with open arms and there was no obvious backlash from anyone.

SSGC is the largest gas provider in Pakistan and operates four professional sports teams. SSGC cricket team started at the bottom and has progressed through the ranks, developing each year, and recently attracted international superstars. In fact, four of the current squad are part of Pakistan’s national team. SSGC has an abundance of talent to work with. As the new Head of Fitness and Development within SSGC, my role was not only to provide the results in sports performance, but also have the players adjust to a different approach to strength and conditioning.

Needs Analysis

As part of a needs analysis, the lifestyle and culture of the players must be considered. These were players from a developing nation, with limited resources and infrastructure. They have a strong belief in their religion and know little about Western strength and conditioning and the balance of a healthy lifestyle. Whereas, it is expected to experience delayed onset muscle soreness following an intense training bout, many of these players choose to go to the physiotherapist or doctor, who were often unsure themselves and conservatively suggested that the players rest (2). Therefore, one of the aims of the program was to re-educate and change the players’ perceptions.

Despite being some of the most naturally gifted and talented cricket athletes in world, many players were lacking in their physical fitness and had not progressed along with the physical pre-requisites of the sport (10). As with most sports, having the cricket skillset in terms of hand-eye coordination is always key, however, the game has evolved in recent years in that elite cricketers are now stronger, faster, and better conditioned than before. Due to the short length of their training program being 12 weeks and also the limited availability of the some of the international players, strict fitness testing was not warranted. From visual and video analysis of their biomechanics, player feedback, and them not being able to complete a 5-km run during their first initial training sessions, I realized that many of these elite-level athletes were lacking in many different disciplines of physical capacity. I determined that many of them lacked core stability, endurance, and strength, which ultimately hindered their posture and movement patterns, increasing the risk of injury. Only a select few had a reasonable level of physical capacity expected of elite-level athletes.

A cricket match can be a long and tiresome sporting contest, sometimes lasting up to four days. Elite fast bowlers have been reported to cover up to 25 km per day in multiday cricket (5). To ultimately improve the players’ performance, they needed to become more well-rounded and durable athletes by being able to consistently field for several hours on any given day in over 100°F, and then be able to wake up the next day and repeat it all over again with the appropriate recovery modalities in between. The primary basis for their development was to get them to the point where they would be able to walk off the cricket field at the end of the day with minimal fatigue and to be ready to go again with a smile on their face the following day.

Training Program

Going back to basics was appropriate for these players, as basic as learning to breathe properly during exercise, to engage through their core musculature and to be aware of their posture. Most days started with 45 – 60 min of field-based strength and conditioning work in the morning followed by 1 – 2 hr of skills-based training, such as batting, bowling, and fielding, and ended in the evening with 30 – 40 min of gym-based work.

The limited training resources available would have potentially been a hindrance to the program had it not been for a bit of improvisation and creativity from myself. Sessions revolved mainly around bodyweight calisthenics with the addition of portable training equipment, such as resistance bands and suspension straps as there was no luxury of a world-class performance facility. Only the players staying at the hotel had access to an old gym with wrought and rusty cast iron lifting equipment, where the gym attendant would tell you off for running too fast on a treadmill during speed intervals. Nevertheless, it allowed the players to train in a gym environment and become more adept at lifting.

Typically, the morning session started with the 5-km run challenge, which was 18 laps of the field. This was not just a physical challenge for the players, but also a mental challenge. On the first day of training, most of the athletes were walking or stopping by the fourth lap. This is where experience in lifestyle coaching proves useful to get the most out of the athletes. The psychology of the players had to be challenged. It was stressed that they would not play for their country based on a performance like that. They were reminded that most people in Pakistan would give anything to be a professional cricketer signed on a 12-month contract in their position rather than having to suffer the hardships of trying to feed a family by other means. The players were left speechless. That was a pivotal moment in their development, and from that moment onwards, the effort level increased.

It is all very well having a structured periodized training program, but how can a strength and conditioning coach get the most out of the athletes for the program to be as effective as possible? Delivering the program by going the extra mile with character, personality, and originality is what makes a strength and conditioning coach stand out. My training philosophy to suit the players of SSGC was to take part in everything and act as a leader, role model, mentor, and friend—someone to look up to every single day. This was critical as many of the players could not speak English, so visual cues to learning were needed to communicate instructions to them successfully. Tiring as it was physically and mentally to participate in over three sessions per day with different groups of people, I believe the players would feed off of and relate well to my enthusiasm and energy.

Given the varying workloads in cricket, the program addressed the phosphagen, glycolytic, and aerobic energy systems (8). The theme of the sessions varied day by day and kept the players on their toes to increase their adherence to the program and minimize the onset of relapse (4). Some days focused on strength or power during cricket-related movements to minimize fatigue due to a decrease in the extent of muscle damage from repeated eccentric contractions, such as the deceleration phase of multiple sprints in cricket (11). Most days focused on specific core work to develop flexibility during dynamic movements used in cricket, such as the delivery stride of bowling (8). This involved pre-activation and pre-habilitation of the lower back, hamstring, hip flexor, and gluteal muscle groups. One player who bowled over 85 mph, showed up to pre-season and moaned of a “niggle” in his groin that had kept him out for seven months even after injection therapy (9). He began a specific core program that targeted the adductor and surrounding muscle groups with both low and high movements to account for his 6’4” frame. Four weeks into his program, he was playing his first competitive match without any pain. This was a key turning point because the other players noticed and became more responsive to the new regimen.

Many players initially opted to rest the day after a match and were not used to training once per day, let alone two or three times per day. One of the challenges was to change these training habits. Within a few weeks of the program, many of the players were actually training at lunch during a match and in the evening after a match. They were starting to buy into the new regimen, as they became mesmerized by their gains in physical capacity and energy levels. They came to realize what their own bodies were capable of doing and described themselves as “Superman.” Experiencing this made the players hungry to achieve even more.

In team sports, such as cricket, it is important to train as a collective unit in order to increase cohesion and performance (6). Once the players had been shown correct technique and postural alignment during exercise, one of the key training sessions implemented a few days into the program was a core session, covering multiple disciplines of fitness (Table 1). The team was placed in a circle and each player was chosen to select a core exercise off a board and perform 30 repetitions in the middle of the circle in front of everyone. Facilitating an athlete’s autonomous decision-making has been shown to increase performance (7). Until the player in the middle had finished their 30 repetitions, the rest of the team was performing the same exercise. The mutual encouragement from the players brought them closer together.

Table 1. Core Session for Cricket Players

Plyometric

Prone Core

Supine Core

Strength Endurance

Cardiovascular

Power lunges

 

1-min planks

Straight-legged v-sits

Triceps push-ups

Shuttle runs

Power push-ups

Plank hip drops

Unilateral leg extensions

Walking pushups from standing

Jumping jacks

Ice skaters

Squat thrusts

Reverse pikes

Squat hops

Touch floor jump backs

Tuck jumps

 

Leg extensions

 

Burpees

180 switch jumps

 

 

 

 

Long jump shuffle backs

 

 

 

 

 

Eight weeks into their training program, SSGC faced their toughest test yet against the league leaders, Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA). This was after having already beaten the odds and convincingly eliminated our seemingly stronger local rivals, Sui Northern Gas Company, who were champions for four years running. Surely, it seemed, the odds could not be overcome a second time. The night before the match, I gave the players a motivational speech during a team meeting, using real-life examples of when the underdog team had triumphed over the favorites. It does not always matter who you are or what your background is, but if you have the underlying passion to positively influence a group of people, you can do so. Another string to the bow of a coach is being a motivator. It was stressed to the players that the most talented team on paper does not always win, but rather the better conditioned team with the most heart. It seemed that a spark had ignited within the players that made them feel invincible.

One player stood head and shoulders above the rest against WAPDA for his sheer grit and determination. On day four of a four-day game, a nearly 40 year-old player was up against fatigue and fever. Although his body was giving up, his mental strength to control his actions and his positive mindset resulted in a remarkable individual performance that inspired all of his teammates. He bowled for over four hours and never made an excuse. He just got on with it, which eventually lead to SSGC completing a memorable victory.

The pre- and post-match routines were also designed to be impactful for the players. From the moment the team showed up on the field, the warm-up was more structured than that of the opposition and incorporated elements of pre-activation, dynamic cricket-based movements, and skill-based drills. At the end of the first long and grueling match day against Sui Northern Gas Company, the players who had not been involved requested a training session. While the opposition did not even bother cooling down, the entire squad of SSGC performed a 20-min core workout. Everybody stood and watched in amazement as the players would have normally packed their bags and returned to the hotel. This statement was made to the opposition to make them realize that SSGC was there to compete. It appeared to have worked because SSGC took command of the match the following day.

Recovery

With the increased workload of the players, optimal recovery became paramount. The players had only been used to a few minutes of passive stretching at the end of the day and the occasional ice bath, where available. When there were no ice baths available, which occurred often due to the high price of obtaining ice in Pakistan, I improvised by using drum barrels. At the end of each training session, the players were taken through 10 – 15 min of Pilates and yoga-based exercises that not only facilitated their recovery, but also enhanced their range of motion (1). Some of the players used the pool in the evening for active recovery, which also proved convenient for mobility work during rehabilitation. On rest days, players had stopped lying around in bed all day and kept mobile through walking instead.

An important aspect of the recovery process that the players strongly believed in and, therefore, was respectfully included in their program was Hijama. Hijama is performed by Muslims for medicinal purposes and is a form of wet cupping, where blood is drawn by vacuum from small skin incisions.

Additionally, introducing the players to recovery salts and rehydration sachets as a means of maintaining adequate fluid and salt levels was a breakthrough (12). The players described it as the “magic potion,” as it reduced their aches and pains. It also provided the players with a rewarding incentive and a placebo-type effect, as I had the cups filled at each break interval, either with or without the salts. Over the course of the entire program, no injuries occurred albeit a few minor niggles, which are to be expected.

Table 2. Recovery Process for Cricket Players

Ice baths

Passive stretching

Yoga and Pilates

Recovery salts

Hijama (wet cupping)

Active recovery (pool and walk)

Adequate nutrition

 

Nutrition

Nutrition was one of the most important aspects of the players’ lifestyles that needed addressing. Whilst respectful of their cultural differences, one habit that needed changing was the habit of eating curry for breakfast when they were already having curry another 1 – 2 times daily. “Everything in moderation for a balanced lifestyle,” was my message to convey to them. In addition to the curry, the players would often have chapati and/ or naan bread to mop up the sauce, typically resulting in them feeling bloated. I had to ensure that they started fueling their body for optimal performance with foods that facilitated slow energy release and contain a protein component. The rule put in place was that anyone caught having curry for breakfast would receive a punishment. Although harsh, the punishment would usually be extra laps around the field. Eventually, all of the players were having boiled eggs, porridge, yoghurt, and fruit for breakfast. However, the only fruits easily available in Pakistan were apples, bananas, and pomegranate. It was difficult to provide other colorful fruits that provide antioxidants, such as berries.

The lunch food was initially horrific. During the first lunch interval in Islamabad, I was appalled by the quality of the food: chicken fried in fatty oils and pasta in creamy sauce. Like everything else, it was not going to change overnight. However, the following day presented a few positive changes, such as grilled chicken and fresher pasta with less sauce. I spoke with the hotels we were staying at and the cricket grounds with onsite catering facilities to start providing freshly cooked food for lunch. Eventually, we were able to eat nutrient-dense foods such as chicken, vegetables, mashed potato, and rice to optimally recover from the morning’s training and be prepared for the afternoon’s training. With each passing day, this process was consistently adhered to more and more. Any leftovers were for grazing or were given to the ground staff living in poverty due to the strong cultural belief of not wasting anything.

Conclusion

Everyone, not just the players, were so keen to learn and understand what we (Westerners) do differently than them. The players listened attentively and one of the most crucial elements to their learning was having them realize not just how, but why they were doing what they were doing. Even the manager, who had barely touched on physical exercise, was starting to train in the gym at night because he wanted a better quality of life.

Additionally, the support staff, most notably a cancer patient clutching a colostomy bag was walking laps on the field during the break intervals. My role as Head of Fitness and Development covered more than just strength and conditioning, as I was undoubtedly positively impacting individuals’ lifestyle and way of thinking. My own philosophy of performance being 70% mental and 30% physical was reiterated to the players every single day. Using a scientific approach to training while taking chances to adapt it successfully to a real-life scenario is a complex skill (3). At the end of the program, a fitness and lifestyle handbook was left for the players to facilitate the retention of the knowledge and skills that they had learned, and to help them live a healthier lifestyle by themselves. With the foundations now in place, my next season of working with SSGC looks promising with the prospect of more fitness equipment and advanced training. Now a force to be reckoned with, the future looks bright for SSGC and Pakistani cricket.

This article originally appeared in NSCA Coach, a quarterly publication for NSCA Members that provides valuable takeaways for every level of strength and conditioning coach. You can find scientifically based articles specific to a wide variety of your athletes’ needs with Nutrition, Programming, and Youth columns. Read more articles from NSCA Coach »

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References 

1. Boyle, C, Sayers, S, Jensen, B, Headley, S, and Manos, T. The effects of yoga training and a single bout of yoga on delayed onset muscle soreness in the lower extremity. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 18(4): 723-729, 2004.

2. Cheung, K, Hume, P, and Maxwell, L. Delayed onset muscle soreness. Sports Medicine 33(2): 145-164, 2003.

3. Finch, C. A new framework for research leading to sports injury prevention. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport 9(1-2): 3-9, 2006.

4. Glaros, N, and Janelle, C. Varying the mode of cardiovascular exercise to increase adherence. Journal of Sport Behavior 24(1): 42-62, 2001.

5. Petersen, C, Pyne, D, Dawson, B, Portus, M, and Kellett, A. Movement patterns in cricket vary by both position and game format. Journal of Sports Sciences 28(1): 45-52, 2010.

6. Senécal, J, Loughead, T, and Bloom, G. A season-long teambuilding intervention: Examining the effect of team goal setting on cohesion. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology 30(2): 186-199, 2008.

7. Spray, C, Wang, J, Biddle, S, and Chatzisarantis, N. Understanding motivation in sport: An experimental test of achievement goal and self determination theories. European Journal of Sport Science 6(1): 43-51, 2006.

8. Stronach, BJ, Cronin, JB, and Portus, MR. Part 2: Mechanical and anthropometric factors of fast bowling for cricket, and implications for strength and conditioning. Strength and Conditioning Journal 36(5): 53-60, 2014.

9. TalentSpotter. Adnan Ghaus is one to keep eye on! Pakpassion.net. 2016. Retrieved July 2017 from http://www. pakpassion.net/ppforum/showthread.php?250024-Adnan-Ghausis-one-to-keep-eye-on.

10. Tanner, R, and Gore, C (Eds.), Physiological Tests for Elite Athletes (2nd ed.) Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics; 289, 2012.

11. Thompson, D, Nicholas, C, and Williams, C. Muscular soreness following prolonged intermittent high-intensity shuttle running. Journal of Sports Sciences 17(5): 387-395, 1999.

12. Valentine, V. The importance of salt in the athlete’s diet. Current Sports Medicine Reports 6(4): 237-240, 2007.

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Matthew Towlson is the overseas consultant within strength and conditioning for Sui Southern Gas Company (SSGC). He graduated from Manchester Metropol...

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