Cape Town - Virat Kohli … if India have finally caught up to, or even eclipsed once-supreme South Africa as an athletic force and fielding unit in one-day international cricket, credit their skipper Virat Kohli.
That is the view of Paddy Upton, the fitness and performance guru with wide-ranging experience in both camps and role as a key right-hand man to head coach and compatriot Gary Kirsten in the 2011 World Cup trophy-winning success by the Indians.
Now also a successful head coach of Twenty20 franchises on the global circuit, Upton has just released his book The Barefoot Coach: Life-Changing Insights from Coaching the World’s Best Cricketers.
Speaking to Sport24 this week, Upton was asked how India, who have already conquered the problem-plagued Proteas at the current World Cup in England, had managed to eliminate the gap – at very worst – in fielding prowess between the two traditional major powers in the game.
He and Kirsten were widely credited a few years ago with stimulating an awakening in Indian cricketers - many of whom had prospered far more on the basis of their pure talent – about the value of being as fit and healthy as possible to vitally supplement those skills.
Both had been part of a golden era (Upton in a fitness capacity, Kirsten as a central playing figure) in market-leading mobility and fielding prowess by the SA national side, when Hansie Cronje was skipper and the line-up included figures like Jonty Rhodes and Herschelle Gibbs.
But Upton doesn’t want to be credited too greatly with helping Kirsten creating a new athletic force within the Indian team’s midst.
“Look, I would say that certainly Gary and I sought (to install) a physical fitness mindset to the Indian side.
“When we came in they still had a lot of players who were from the older mindset, who really weren’t in best physical condition … the Tendulkars, Laxmans, Yuvraj and Harbhajan Singhs … they were really relying on talent and skill, which India historically did.
“But one of the big turning points, probably the biggest, has been Virat, and how fanatical he is about fitness. He didn’t arrive at the Indian team like that: it happened during his tenure.
“So when Gary and I were there, he wasn’t this fitness fanatic; he became that. I think there are a lot of players there who look up to him and take (a cue) from him.
“When Sachin (Tendulkar) liked watches, the whole team started buying fancy watches. Now people are looking at Virat, and what is he doing? Virat’s getting a six-pack and getting all fit. Everyone just naturally followed suit.
“There’s definitely a new breed of young Indian cricketers who have come in with fitness being a priority - it never had been previously.
“South Africa were probably at the peak of their athletic prowess under Hansie. Probably next to Virat, he was a fitness fanatic ... for him it was really, really important. For me as a fitness trainer (for South Africa), that made my job flipping easy!”
*Upton says he wrote his book, assembled over a period of four and a half years, with the primary message of emphasising how dramatically sports coaching is fundamentally changing, the world over.
“People who follow and understand the new way of doing things keep asking me where I get my stuff, where they can get their information. There really hasn’t been a resource.
“So one (intention) was really to be a resource for coaches - and also managers, teachers, parents.
“But another reason was that there have been so many invaluable lessons that sport can teach ... not only athletes but everyone, for all of life. I really wanted to share a number of those insights; things that transcend sport, and playing days in it, to later in life.”
The Barefoot Coach: Life-Changing Insights from Coaching the World’s Best Cricketers is published by Paddy Upton Coaching and available at leading booksellers (recommended retail price R295).