Liam Livingstone, Fabian Allen, Kane Williamson, Faf du Plessis and others talk about the work that goes into the big hits
A few years ago, the up-and-coming West Indies allrounder Fabian Allen was chatting to the reigning supremo, Andre Russell. As Jamaicans with a penchant for belligerent hitting and dyeing their hair, the two are easily compared. Allen learned of a batting drill that had helped Russell produce devastating T20 hitting with reliability. He began practising with cones placed either side of his feet - one between his back foot and the stumps, another just ahead of his front foot.
"He taught me to keep my shape and keep my base - he explained how to do it," Allen says. So I went ahead and tried it. And it worked. I try to keep my position as long as possible. My balance is good. You can't move at all. You have a stable base."
The drill is an illustration of the training approaches embraced by contemporary players as they try to clear the ropes with ever-increasing regularity. T20 is often called a batter's game. The description is not inaccurate, but it can overlook the demands that the game makes on them. Modern batters have primed their bodies to cope with the format's demands: athleticism, explosive strength, stability, the ability to belt the ball from an array of body positions, and to hare back for twos, often in games played in extreme heat.
Allen was a sprinter at school. He says for running between the wickets "the most important thing is practising the sprint outdoors".
Meanwhile, his strength only serves a purpose if it helps him hit a 90mph ball out of the park. Weights, he believes, can be more about vanity than improving performance. "I don't want to get too big," he says. "I just want to be strong." This focus underpins a strenuous regime. He regularly does 20 sets of 20 push-ups in a gym session: 400 push-ups in total.
At the end of 2019, the golfer Bryson DeChambeau declared that he would "look like a different person" the following year. In the next nine months, DeChambeau gained 40 pounds.
The results were remarkable. He increased his average drive from 302.5 yards in 2019 to 322.1 yards in 2020: the all-time record in a full season. The improvement helped him win the US Open in September 2020, his first golf major. "I kept telling everybody it's an advantage to hit it farther," he said after his victory. "I don't think it's going to stop."
DeChambeau's radically different approach, which prioritised strength in a game previously associated with finesse, provoked great debate in golf. Was "bombing and gouging" - essentially, players hitting the ball as hard as possible - ruining the sport? Some ex-players suggested narrower courses, or a new type of ball that didn't travel as far.
As these debates swirled about, Julian Wood, a former first-class player for Hampshire, saw an athlete embracing similar methods to those he advocated. Around the time that the IPL launched, in 2008, Wood had visited the Texas Rangers Major League Baseball side. "I was amazed by the size of these guys," he says. "I said we need to train differently - these guys are a different breed. In baseball, they try and hit the ball as hard as they can. So they look to generate power up through their hands, up through the body and out through the hands."
The incredible bulk: Bryson DeChambeau's weight gain helped him win his first golf major last year
Sam Greenwood / © Getty Images
The incredible bulk: Bryson DeChambeau's weight gain helped him win his first golf major last year Sam Greenwood / © Getty Images
Wood began specialising in helping players hit boundaries - he describes himself as a "power-hitting coach" - and has worked several times with the England Lions, which included players like Sam Billings, as well as Carlos Brathwaite.
"I've looked at how Bryson DeChambeau trains," Wood says. "He doesn't care where the ball goes as long as his ball exit speed is 150 miles an hour and his clubhead speed is as fast as it can be. So I've adapted that to cricket."
Wood places great attention on a batter's "swing plane", a term long common in golf and baseball. "Proper swing plane, or bat path, through the hitting zone allows for various points of contact, which helps the batter impact the ball more consistently," Wood says. "The longer it's accelerating on that plane, the greater the bat speed - the longer you will hit the ball."
At the core of Wood's approach is getting players to focus on hitting the ball as far as possible. "I don't care about the outcome, I want to see them hit the ball as hard as he can."
During a typical training session, batters hit 20% of balls with heavier bats - and Wood has an array of them. The average weight of a bat is 2lb 8oz; he has three heavier versions - 20%, 40%, and over 60% heavier, with a peak of 4lb 3oz. Getting players to use such bats encourages them to "swing as fast as they can", while also developing their strength.
More power to your swing: coach Julian Wood has focused on simply getting his charges, like Sam Billings, to hit the ball as hard as they can
John Walton / © Getty Images
More power to your swing: coach Julian Wood has focused on simply getting his charges, like Sam Billings, to hit the ball as hard as they can John Walton / © Getty Images
This concept is known as overload training. Research into skill acquisition shows that people learn skills at a faster rate when they are stretched beyond their normal capabilities. In training, the best athletes tend to fall on their arses more - literally. A study of ice skaters showed that elite skaters actually fell down more in training than lesser skaters; their practice was more challenging relative to their capabilities, which helped them get better faster.
As well as using heavier bats, Wood also gets players to practise hitting heavier balls, and hitting with weights attached to their forearms and hands. Occasionally he inverts things, throwing lighter balls at players - which travel quicker off the bat, and are easier to hit hard; this technique is known as underload training. Either way, the mantra remains the same: "Get them to swing that thing as quick as they possibly can." Wood's training devices include hurling sticks, which are very thin; flicking balls with them builds players' hand speed through the ball and strengthens their wrists.
Many IPL teams use similar methods to build batters' power. At Mumbai Indians, players such as Hardik Pandya practise with heavier bats and weighted balls. The aim of such training is to "just get that transition and transference of their power into the actual act of ball striking," says Paul Chapman, strength and conditioning coach of Mumbai Indians since 2013. "Using a slightly lighter bat, you can move the bat at slightly greater speeds than normal. And then using a slightly heavier bat stresses the system. So it's overtraining and undertraining around the same sort of velocity at which that bat would normally be moving. And we know that that transfers relatively well."
"If the foundation is not in place, it's very difficult to build the speed on top of that without getting injured," says John Gloster, who has worked as physiotherapist for Rajasthan Royals since the first IPL season in 2008. "It's like standing up in a canoe. If your foundation is not stable and you try and then exert or produce power, it goes nowhere."
One giant leap: Ben Stokes jumps a hurdle during training
Stu Forster / © Getty Images
One giant leap: Ben Stokes jumps a hurdle during training Stu Forster / © Getty Images
Favoured exercises for batters at Royals include sprinting into resistance bands and plyometric drills - jumping or hopping on one leg. These methods develop balance and strength in uncomfortable positions - say, when they are overbalancing on one leg. "If you want to train for stability," says Gloster, "you've got to expose them to unstable environments."
The different demands on batters across Tests and T20 - and even shorter formats - are almost akin to the differences between marathon runners and sprinters. While the basic mechanics of hitting a cricket ball remain the same across formats, the physical requirements are disparate.
"Chalk and cheese" is how Gloster describes the physiques of IPL players now compared to 2008. "We're training smarter, we're training longer, we're training with higher intensities, and we build a game around strength and power." Modern IPL players need "speed endurance training" - explosive speed and power combined with the endurance to maintain these levels with the bat and in the field for a game lasting up to four hours.
According to Chapman, the physical pillars needed to bat in different formats are the same - strength, conditioning, endurance and explosiveness. "It's just those demands - the running between the wickets and explosiveness - might be considered to be at a higher level in T20 than Test match cricket. In Test or first-class cricket you've got the same sort of skill sets, but they're not necessarily performed with that level of intensity - and they come with their challenges as well, about batting for long periods of time."
T20 cricket has brought about a new awareness of the importance of fitness in the game. Cricketers, like Frankie Mackay here, kept up their gym work during the recent Covid lockdowns
Kai Schwoerer / © Getty Images
T20 cricket has brought about a new awareness of the importance of fitness in the game. Cricketers, like Frankie Mackay here, kept up their gym work during the recent Covid lockdowns Kai Schwoerer / © Getty Images
The IPL normally takes place in India from April to June, the height of summer, when the weather is generally hotter than for India's home Tests or one-day internationals, which are played over winter and spring. Mike Hussey, the former Australia batter, who played for Chennai Super Kings, says that when conditions were equal, he found a T20 match about "70%" as tiring as an ODI. "Playing T20 in Chennai during May was particularly challenging due to the heat and humidity."
In recent years international sides and leading T20 teams have started to use GPS data to track the physical demands on their players. A study from Cricket Australia compared the demands on players of Big Bash and Sheffield Shield cricket, analysing the 2015-16 season. It showed that high-intensity sprints - defined as running at speeds of at least 24kph - were over twice as frequent in T20 than first-class.
Another study, by Queensland Cricket, documented the difference in intensity between first-class, one-day and T20. For batters, the number of metres covered per minute rose from 29 in first-class cricket to 38 in one-day cricket to 62 in T20s. And the jump in number of metres covered between first-class and T20 cricket was greater for batters than any other type of player.
© ESPNcricinfo Ltd
© ESPNcricinfo Ltd
Even within T20, the demands on batters vary wildly, depending on the particular roles they play. An innings involving relatively few boundaries but lots of quick singles and sharp twos is likely to be particularly gruelling. In the 2018 IPL, Sanju Samson hit 52 from 39 balls to help Rajasthan Royals defeat Mumbai Indians. His innings contained only four fours - meaning he had to run 36 of his runs, in addition to running his partners'. GPS tracking revealed that Samson covered 10.15km in the course of his batting and fielding in the match. As comparison, in a game two days earlier, Samson was dismissed for 2; he covered 5.7km during that game.
GPS data now informs where fielders are placed, says Gloster. After playing a draining innings, batters tend to field in the 30-yard circle; when fielding first, batters expected to face a large number of balls tend to be positioned closer in, to stop them from over-exerting before their innings. And regardless of their position, says Gloster, "players have got to be extremely durable in the field, because that's where most injuries occur".
At the start of each IPL season, it is routine for batters to be timed on how long it takes them to run a two. A batter who can run two in under six seconds is considered "elite standard", according to Chapman. Non-strikers, who start running as the ball is bowled - or, in many cases, before it - would be expected to run a two in just 5.5 seconds. In that half-second lies the explanation for why fielding teams generally throw the ball back towards the end that the on-strike batter is running to. For twos, the vast majority of run-outs are effected when the ball returns to the stumps within 6.2 seconds of it leaving the bat.
Batters practise diving into the crease at full length, says Allen. For those without Allen's agility, technical components can help them get closer to a six-second two. Chapman works with players on the optimal time to begin to slide their bats in, maintaining a low body position as they are grounding their bats, and decelerating as late as possible when turning for another run.
The fast lane: agile running between the wickets is a major asset in T20s
Saikat Das / © BCCI/IPL
The fast lane: agile running between the wickets is a major asset in T20s Saikat Das / © BCCI/IPL
At Royals, Jos Buttler has been tracked running between the wickets at the equivalent of 33kph - the highest of anyone in the side, fractionally above Ben Stokes. To give a sense of how impressive this time is, it took Usain Bolt 9.58 seconds for his record 100-metre run. If Buttler could maintain his 33kph speed, he would run 100 metres in 10.91 seconds. The historic caricatures about batters' fitness are long overdue a re-evaluation.
Last year, before the 2020 IPL was played in the UAE, Mumbai Indians changed the layout of their team bus. They had never really thought about the layout of buses before. But with the side based in Abu Dhabi throughout the tournament, they faced hour-and-a-half-long rides to Dubai and Sharjah.
Chapman wondered whether that time could be better used to help the team to recover. He had every second row of seats in the bus removed to stop players from getting cramped. The players also put on NormaTec boots, which use compressed air to massage a player's legs, to accelerate recovery. They look like ski trousers and are battery-powered. Players keep the boots on for around 40 minutes each.
"If we can start that recovery process and help the nervous system to settle back down again by the time they get home, they then start moving into sleep mode," Chapman says. "What we know about recovery is whatever we can put into play to improve the capacity to sleep effectively is really important."
Indeed, a heightened focus on sleep is a rising trend in the IPL. Last year Mumbai's players started wearing Oura Rings on their finger while they slept. Popularised by their use in the NBA, an Oura Ring tracks a wearer's sleep patterns, heart rate and respiratory rate. Studies in other sports suggest that a proper night's sleep can substantially improve an athlete's performance. Sleeping for nine hours a night, rather than seven and a half, has been shown to make tennis players' serves more accurate. When they slept for at least ten hours a night, Stanford University basketball players were 9% more accurate with their free throws.
Royals players were to use Oura Rings in the current half-season of the IPL too, at the time of writing. "I don't mind when they get eight hours as long as they get their eight hours," Gloster says. "Sleep is the next big frontier for us."
The power of IPL teams over their players remains limited - the players are only with the sides for a couple of months a year - but increasingly franchises are paying closer attention to how they monitor players out of season. All year around, Mumbai Indians cricketers use an application on Microsoft Teams to upload information onto their phones. Players self-document ratings on their own sleep, fatigue, soreness, stress and wellness. GPS tracking devices monitor the distance they cover during their training and matches, allowing MI to keep an eye on workloads wherever in the world their players are. Such information is used to identify recovery strategies, recommend when players need to increase or decrease their training exposure, and flag when they might be in the "red zone" - at heightened injury risk.
The New Zealand captain Kane Williamson, who has played international cricket since 2010, observes that the biggest shift in training methods for T20 during his career has been the emphasis on strength. "There's been definite steps forward in that direction," he says, "whether that's trying to improve on power-hitting, perhaps creating new shots to access different areas. There's definitely a lot more exploration in T20 practice."
Nicholas Pooran at training with Carlos Brathwaite. Core strength is vital for players like Pooran, who need to clear the boundary at will
Aijaz Rahi / © Associated Press
Nicholas Pooran at training with Carlos Brathwaite. Core strength is vital for players like Pooran, who need to clear the boundary at will Aijaz Rahi / © Associated Press
Teams who score more boundaries win nearly 75% of IPL games; hitting more boundaries is probably the best single predictor of who will win a T20 match. Increasingly, players are prioritising developing their six-hitting, following West Indies' pioneering method. In the 2011 IPL, there were an average of 25.85 fours but 8.63 sixes per match. In the 2020 IPL, the average number of fours per game had inched up to 26.4 - but the number of sixes had soared to 12.2.
"Increasingly, you'll see a lot of players focusing on their strength training and core strength, because after the sixth over, you need to have the ability to clear the boundary," says Srinath Bhashyam, the general manager of Sunrisers Hyderabad. Improvements in fielding may also have made hitting fours more difficult. If shots that would once have travelled over the boundary for four are now being intercepted and only earning two, it makes attempting sixes more attractive.
Faf du Plessis, who captained South Africa in all three formats and is now captain of St Lucia Kings in the CPL, believes that T20 has transformed batter's knowledge of how to generate power.
"When T20 started we didn't necessarily, from a batting perspective, have any idea about swing planes or power-hitting or getting more out of your own swing to get more distance," says du Plessis. "The language of batting was very similar to the other formats. [Now] every batter is trying to get more power through his swing. Coaches will talk more about swing mechanics. Almost like golf or baseball - how can you get an extra 10% or 20% with your swing plane? So the language has changed.
All change: Faf du Plessis has seen the language of batting transform since the beginning of T20s
Pankaj Nangia / © BCCI/IPL
All change: Faf du Plessis has seen the language of batting transform since the beginning of T20s Pankaj Nangia / © BCCI/IPL
"Some guys get power from their hips, almost like a golfer. Then you get guys who get power from their hands - their backlift, the position of the legs. Almost like a boxer, when he's in a low position and then firing through his legs. So the power does come from different parts of the body. But it is different for different people."
For England's Liam Livingstone, it was about the hip. Before England's T20 series against Pakistan in July, Paul Collingwood and Marcus Trescothick, England's batting coaches, noted his legs were too wide apart in his stance. They suggested he narrow it.
"I know my power comes from my back hip," Livingstone explains. "I was losing the momentum from my back hip with my base being too wide."
Across two games in three days against Pakistan, Livingstone launched 12 sixes in only 66 balls. One of those was a 122-metre straight six off Haris Rauf, which many acclaimed as one of the biggest hits they had ever seen; Livingstone reckoned it was merely the third biggest that he had ever hit. As he launched that six, Livingstone's right leg continued to push forward, following the direction of the ball, almost like a tennis server.
"Power hitting is all about trying to get the momentum and the snap through the ball, rather than losing it by collapsing your back leg. It was something I wasn't really aware of until Colly and Tres showed me," Livingstone says. "That turned my career around in eight weeks."
In 13 T20 innings starting with England's series against Pakistan in July, Liam Livingstone has scored 520 runs at a strike rate of 190.47
Harry Trump / © Getty Images
In 13 T20 innings starting with England's series against Pakistan in July, Liam Livingstone has scored 520 runs at a strike rate of 190.47 Harry Trump / © Getty Images
Even so, 18 years since T20's inception, batter training has not entirely escaped the norms of the longer formats. To get into an English county academy, Wood says, players are expected to excel across formats. In the future, he suggests that counties could have distinct red- and white-ball academies.
Such an approach would allow for the physical preparation of players to become hyper-specialised, Chapman says. "You might then start to look at some very specific details and sit around those two types of athletes - but at the moment we're still preparing players to play multiple formats." In training, this could mean that T20 specialists place "more emphasis on the contribution of mass contacting the ball and capacity to move a heavier bat at a higher velocity". You might see more powerful athletes, a greater emphasis on speed and power. Andre Russell may become the more common athlete type.
Chapman also envisages specialisation within specialisation. "Perhaps batting positions will become more specialised from a physical perspective. If you look at the requirements of six and seven in T20 batting, you need to be explosive and brutal.
"I don't know exactly where it is going. But I'm excited to be part of working it out."
Tim Wigmore is a sports writer for the Daily Telegraph and the co-author of Cricket 2.0: Inside the T20 Revolution, the Wisden Book of the Year for 2020
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