Boot camp bonding? From the brutal through the psychobabble to the bonding

As Ricky Ponting prepares for three days of naughty-boy nets, Robin Scott-Elliot explores the bizarre (and sometimes brutal) methods teams will go to for that extra edge

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The Independent Online

For Shane Warne it meant a choice between clean pants and a supply of cigarettes. He chose cigarettes. Andy Flower believes it broadens minds, while the thoughts of South Africa's rugby players after being forced to lie naked in a foxhole as ice-cold water was thrown over them to the strains of "God Save the Queen" do not take much imagining.

From the brutal through the psychobabble to the bonding, the sporting boot camp has a broad and chequered history and for three days in Melbourne shortly before Christmas it will have another addition, this one to be filed in the deeply humbling section.

Between them, Ricky Ponting, Michael Hussey, Brad Haddin, Michael Clarke and Shane Watson have played 371 Tests, scored 27,441 runs and amassed 76 centuries, yet they have been instructed to turn up at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on 20 December for what has been widely labelled Down Under as a batting boot camp.

Australia's alarming slump to lose the second Test against New Zealand earlier this week was not the first time this year their batsmen have collapsed into a markedly un-Australian heap, and so Mickey Arthur – the team's new coach – has summoned the guilty parties to what used to be known as "naughty-boy nets". For England supporters, who grew wearily used to such admonishments being administered to their side through the 1980s and 1990s, it offers another opportunity for unashamed schadenfreude.

"It's just to put the microscope on everything and for fine-tuning," suggested Pat Howard, the former rugby player who is now Cricket Australia's general manager, and if it works as well as Australia's last use of such a process then it may be worth a punt on Ponting and Co earning a home win in their upcoming series against India, who remain horribly erratic travellers.

Ahead of the 2006 Ashes, John Buchanan ushered his squad into the bush for four days. The cricket that followed saw England soundly beaten. Ponting said the time they spent in Queensland was beneficial to their performance in the Ashes. During the camp he shared a tent with Mitchell Johnson and claims that the time they spent together enabled him, as captain, to get more out of a complicated individual.

Warne was less willing to buy into the process. "We were allowed three pairs of underpants, three pairs of socks, and they gave us an extra T-shirt," recalled Clarke. "They then said Warnie had to remove one thing from his backpack for one packet of cigarettes, so Warnie flicked his undies, flicked all his socks, and filled the backpack with cigarettes."

England did something similar, only in Germany rather than the outback, before last winter's successful Ashes campaign, even though Flower insisted yomping around woods and sleeping in tents was not a boot camp. "That's got quite a lot of negative connotations," he said of the branding. "We can live in a cosseted world, in the sporting world, and this is there to broaden minds. It's about our development as a group of blokes."

There was nothing cosseted about what Rudolph Straeuli laid on for his South Africa squad ahead of the 2003 World Cup. Straeuli was to later say that he wanted to rid the team of individuality and so they were subjected to a succession of humiliating experiences at Kamp Staaldraad – Camp Barbed Wire.

The players were dispatched into the bush – a setting that appears a pre-requisite for any boot camp worth the name – with an egg, a chicken and a match, and instructed to cook a meal but not eat it. The instructors, ex-service personnel – another boot camp staple – then broke the eggs over the players' heads to check whether they were cooked. And that was before they were asked to strip. With their clothes back on they went out to New Zealand in the quarter-finals and Straeuli was hurriedly moved on.

Wales and France both chose to inflict boot camps on their players ahead of this year's Rugby World Cup. The Welsh players endured a gruelling two-week trip to Poland, including spending time in a cryogenic chamber. The players happily endorsed the trip – there is the simple key to such schemes' success or failure – and it laid the foundations for their performance in New Zealand.

Ponting's productive years have been marked by an utter professionalism, and it would come as a surprise if he or any of the other senior players did not, in public at least, embrace the idea. But still, for a man who will celebrate his 37th birthday the day before the camp begins, it appears another ignominious moment as he stumbles through the twilight of an otherwise great career.

No pain, no gain... but not all camps succeed

Australia cricket, 2006

The Aussie cricketers were sent on a three-day, military-style camp in the Queensland outback, which included carrying 35kg jerry cans of water and pushing vans through mud. Sleep- and food-deprived, Shane Warne asked: "Why not lock us all up in a pub?"

Verdict The first Ashes whitewash for 86 years provided justification.

South Africa rugby, 2003

At Kamp Staaldraad ('Camp Barbed Wire'), naked players had to pump up rugby balls in a freezing lake. They were forced back at gunpoint if they tried to get out – and greeted by the sound of gunfire every 15 minutes in their sleep.

Verdict South Africa went on to have a miserable World Cup.

Chinese Olympic squad, 2000

In their preparations for the Sydney Games, the Chinese squad were sent to the Tibetan Plateau, which has an average altitude of 14,800 feet, to prepare for the Olympics. Less than welcome were the drugs inspectors...

Verdict After the drugs inspectors' visit, 27 Chinese athletes were banned from the Games.

Wales rugby, 2011

In the former Polish Olympic training village of Spala, Wales endured two weeks of pain. There were two three-minute sessions every day in a cryogenic chamber in temperatures of minus 60 degrees Celsius, with the players needing masks to breathe.

Verdict Improved stamina helped Wales reach World Cup semi-finals.

England cricket team, 2010

The pre-Ashes camp in Germany included hiking, abseiling and a trip to a concentration camp. It also included boxing – one fight ended with Chris Tremlett breaking James Anderson's rib. Graeme Swann said it was "the worst four days of my life".

Verdict Ashes glory followed

Tim Wigmore

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