Toyota’s always a better way series will show how innovation is helping drive England to the top. In part one, go behind the scenes at England’s fitness testing day.
The relaxed man-hugs on arrival were suggestive of a first-day-back-at-school vibe but the sweat-drenched collapses on to all fours after the lung-busting yo-yo test told a different story.
This was the England cricket team as you don’t normally see them: in one sense off-duty, in that they are away from the public glare, and yet undertaking a series of vital tasks in the heat of peer-group competition. This was the England men’s fitness test day, one of two such events that bookend the international summer, and the first part of our Always a Better Way Series.
Under the dispassionate scrutiny of physios, medics and strength and conditioning coaches, the players come together to have various aspects of their physical health tested.
Benchmarks are set and at the end of the summer, the players reconvene at Loughborough for a health and wellbeing check when injuries and niggles can be assessed.
On a normal day, only a blue ECB crest distinguishes the exterior of the National Cricket Performance Centre (NCPC) from just another smart sports hall on a bustling sports-focused university campus. On this day, though, the parking spaces nearby are all chock-full, alerting a few nearby cricket-mad students that there might be superstars through them there doors.
Players convene at their leisure throughout the morning. Newbies like Haseeb Hameed and Keaton Jennings arrive, rather sweetly, wearing their county gear. In addition to the hard yards to be endured, there is the prize of a party bag of new kit to take away.
Some players have been together only days before for the early-season one-dayers against Ireland. Others, like Alastair Cook, have not been on England duty since the Test series in India before Christmas. Jos Buttler and Chris Woakes are full of the joys of the IPL, while new-ball buddies James Anderson and Stuart Broad arrive together, having played against each other for Lancashire and Nottinghamshire respectively the day before in the Royal London One-Day Cup.
The programme of the day includes tests of 40m sprints, body composition/skinfold, running between the wickets, agility – where players jump from a standing position – and the infamous yo-yo test, a variation of the beep test that measures players’ endurance.
Overseeing the programme is Raph Brandon, the ECB’s head of science, medicine and innovation, and previously the director of the English Institute of Sport.
He explains the rationale behind the testing day: “A football club has a training base that the players visit on a daily basis. The England cricket team play all over the country without that kind of settled base. Loughborough provides that and what we’re doing today are many of the things that a normal training base would offer.
“If it didn’t happen here, players would miss out. This day is part of a package of support with the aim of having the best-supported, best-prepared players, which leads to best performance.
“All players establish their own goals [with ECB back-room staff]. James Anderson’s programme will be different to Jason Roy’s. It’s important that we have athletes for cricket, not just athletes.”
Raph Brandon, head of sport, science and medicine
Stuart Broad has been an England player for a decade, but still finds it “a nerve-wracking day because you know you have to achieve certain numbers”. The highlight – although not for those taking part – is the yo-yo test, which was sensibly scheduled just before, rather than after, lunch.
Players are split into groups and are required to do two 20m shuttle runs at increasing speed, to beat the automated beeps that sound at shorter and shorter intervals.
That the test is managed by an automated voiceover just adds to a palpable tension in the NCPC’s main hall.
Keaton Jennings, the Durham opener who scored a century on his Test debut last December, compared the experience to waiting outside the headmaster’s office.
“It’s like you’re waiting to get a hiding,” says the Johannesburg-born left-hander, who must be no stranger to being pushed hard. His father Ray is a famously hard taskmaster of a coach, his mother is an aerobics instructor and his brother recently completed an iron-man challenge.
“You feel like you’re in trouble and that it’s a time of consequences. It certainly gets the heart pumping when you hear that first beep.”
As the players line up, Jake Ball can be heard saying to Jennings alongside him: “How come this is the most nervous I ever get?”
The yo-yo begins ever so gently and lasts for only about 15 minutes, but the grimaces and the sweat tell you all you need to know about the intensity. All the players reach the minimum standard, but gradually they drop out, either through self-preservation or because they’ve been eliminated by the unforgiving beep.
And then there were two. Alastair Cook, the sweat-free, undefeated champion of yo-yo, and the fiery, young pretender, Jonny Bairstow. The Yorkshireman wanted this badly, you could tell, and briefly it looked like he might take the title.
But Cook, the man who batted for nigh on 14 hours in Abu Dhabi 20 months ago, wouldn’t let up. Even though his running style started to take on that rolling gait of his mentor, Graham Gooch, he was not to be denied. The team spirit was something to behold at this point. Players who had finished, lying prone on the floor with their reddened faces on the green 4G floor, were still shouting encouragement: “G’on Chef... c’mon lads.”
Jennings recalls: “Cooky just kept running, he never looked tired. He’s an absolute machine. The way he goes about training and keeping himself fit shows in the periods of time he can bat for and his levels of concentration.”
No one has scored more Test runs for England, and maybe no player has ever been fitter. The bar is set high.
Part two of the Always a Better Way Series – coming soon.