BENGALURU: Suitably ‘masked’ in these extraordinary times, director of cricket operations of Kings XI Punjab, Anil Kumble, watched from afar as five of his players sweated it out under overcast skies at the Just Cricket ground here on Friday.
The pandemic has already ensured that the Indian Premier League (IPL) will be played overseas. It has necessitated other changes too, among them practising at a venue on the outskirts of the city. The eight franchises have had no choice but to adapt as they gear up for the blockbuster domestic T20 tournament which gets under way in the UAE on September 19.
Always the thinking man, the former India captain believes it will be critical to manage the mental space of players. Communication, he said, would be the key to teams’ campaign this time more than ever before.
Speaking on the sidelines of the training session involving the Karnataka boys in the Punjab set-up, Kumble spoke on the challenges of playing cricket in the prevailing circumstances and at three venues over 53 days in the UAE.
IPL in the Covid era: We haven’t ventured out over the last 4-5 months, it’s been a challenge. The good thing is that, as cricketers, you have an opportunity to play in a safe environment where we are trying to minimize risks. It’s new to all of us. As a sportsperson, you tend to adapt to whatever situations you are in. It’s a long period and we are going to Dubai almost three and a half weeks prior to the tournament. This is the first time that an IPL team has got together that early, although all the players won’t be there because of their international commitments.

Challenges ahead of players: For a player, it will be a challenge to get into the groove quickly and maintain that because it’s going to be a long tournament. IPL has its ups and downs and every team goes through that. So, you have to keep calm and not worry about what happens to the result because if it’s a good result, we tend to react to it and if it’s a bad one, sometimes we overreact. Keeping a balance will be the key. With the experience that I’ve had over the years, I think I’ll be able to manage that balance. Having said that, it’s important that the players also feel comfortable going through that process, because everybody who’s played in the IPL knows that it’s not going to be smooth sailing. They just need to focus on a particular game rather than the next month.
Challenge for coaches: Getting used to the SOP will be the biggest challenge. Health and safety of players and support team will be most important, so we’ll have to make sure that everyone follows the SOP. Managing the bubble, ensuring players’ safety will be a task. I’m sure there will be times when we’ll have to motivate them. It’s not easy living in a bubble and we’ll have to make sure they’re in a happy space. In such a scenario, it’s about managing life and the players’ mental space rather than cricket because that comes naturally to them once they get onto the field. So, communication will be the key.
On getting players match-ready: The most important aspect one needs to look at is the anxiety factor. Everybody is anxious. They want to go out and play. You have to sort of pull them back because it’s been four months of not doing enough and you cannot go out there and put in your hundred percent from day one. It’s going to be tough for the players to get match ready, we’ll build up to it. We play a few practice games and that should give them enough confidence. I think it’s all about trying to build their confidence and then saying, okay, you’re ready. That takes a bit of time. The advantage we have is that we have enough experience in the support team and someone like Andrew Leipus (physio) and Adrian le Roux (strength and conditioning coach) understand these kinds of situations.
On playing in three venues over two months: We’d like to take it one step at a time. We can’t look too far ahead. We have to play for what is there on the day. Also, we don’t want to make too many changes (in the squad) just because the surface is changing. One thing that is very important is that we align every player to his role and define those roles very early in the tournament.
On keeping the players engaged: We are trying to build certain activities which will keep them busy. There’ll be some fun and team bonding exercises as well. There is a six-day quarantine as we land, which means for that period we sit in a room, not see each other. We are planning some activities so we will find a way of engaging them and keeping them in a happy space. We’d like to see this as a family for the three months that we are together. We are leaving behind our families, so we must make sure the players feel like they’re a part of this family.
On the impact of ban on saliva: It hasn’t had an impact in Test matches so I don’t see why it should affect T20s. That said, even when I used to bowl, during run-up, my hand would go to my face automatically. That’s something that some of the players will have to undo. That’s the first thing that I, as a coach, will have to keep saying: “Listen guys you have to probably change the way you go about in practice so we have enough time to understand the SOP on the ground.” The challenge will be to keep repeating so they undo what they’ve been doing for a long time. It’s not easy.

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