For a county cricketer, November used to be a month of contemplation. A period of downtime when you could unemotionally evaluate what had taken place during the hectic summer months. It was the period when a weary body was given time to recover from a bruising season.
If you ate and drank the wrong things and put a bit of weight on it didn't matter, after all no domestic trophies have ever been won in December. The New Year was the time to get serious. This was when preparation for the following season really began.
It is no longer the case. On 7 November, after a seven-week break, Middlesex's cricketers were back at the club's indoor cricket school in Finchley training for the 2012 season. The sofa, slippers and Sauvignon Blanc have been replaced by weight benches, trainers and protein shakes. I'm not sure how long Ian Botham would have lasted.
Middlesex are not alone. Most, if not all, counties will be following a similar routine. The idea is to get players fit and strong prior to the New Year so the focus in January, February and March can be on the cricket skills. In my current position as managing director of cricket at Middlesex I encourage our players to embrace the regime; when I was a player I would have moaned like hell.
It is all a bit different to spring 1985 and my first full season on the Middlesex staff. Then, we used to report back for pre-season training on 1 April, which, ironically, is a day later than Middlesex's opening fixture of the 2012 season. Back then we would meet in a dusty hall in Ealing and be run ragged by Graham Barlow, the former Middlesex and England batsman. Barlow was a fitness fanatic and used to teach PE. He was tough too. We were expected to report back fit and a week with him used to give Don Bennett, our fearsome coach, an idea of who had put the hours in.
Mornings were spent doing circuit training – press-ups, sit ups, star jumps – and sprinting loads of shuttles. We were pushed hard and a player would regularly make a hasty exit through the fire exit where their breakfast would reappear. The afternoon was spent playing five-a-side football or being sent on a four-mile run around Ealing.
Five-a-side football was extremely competitive and there was nearly a brawl on one occasion as the old 'uns – Mike Gatting, John Emburey, Clive Radley and Roland Butcher – started kicking lumps out of the mouthy young 'uns – Jamie Sykes, Keith Brown, Phil Tufnell and myself. If a young player started getting flash he was usually sorted out by Bennett, an extremely fit 50-year-old who, before coaching, had combined playing cricket for Middlesex with football for Arsenal.
The long-distance runs weren't too popular. I remember running past a garden hedge behind which Tufnell and Sykes were hiding. Having spent the previous 20 minutes having a fag and a laugh they were waiting for the right time to jump out to join the back of the group.
Very few, if any, weights were lifted. Emburey, the former England spinner, had a simple and amusing motto on training. He used to say: "If you ain't got muscles, you can't pull them."
Now there is no hiding place. This winter Middlesex's players are wearing heart monitors during aerobic sessions. Next to the training area is a screen which highlights each player's heart-rate so Luke Woodhouse, Middlesex's strength and conditioning coach, can see how hard they are working.
The dreaded bleep test, an exercise that gives a level of cardiovascular fitness, still exists. The test involves running continuously between two points 20 metres apart. The distance has to be covered in time to bleeps emitted by an audio system. With each minute the bleeps come faster, which means you have to run faster. It is knackering.
Mike Gatting, the former England captain, was a shocker at this. In an attempt to beat the system, Gatting used to run ahead of the bleeps, which is illegal, until about level eight. Then the bleeps used to catch him up and he had normally dropped out by level 10, which, to be honest was bloody awful – the minimum acceptable requirement for a Middlesex player now is 12 and a half.
Before one season Gatt had a private bleep test in mid-March to see how he would fare. It didn't go well and in an effort to make fast improvement he booked a week at a health farm in Hertfordshire. The theory didn't work. His results were worse second time around.
Modern training methods are not popular with all those in the game. Indeed, some former cricketers are very critical of the time current players spend improving their physical fitness. To some extent I understand where they are coming from. Their view is that it is the figures a player produces on the cricket field that count, not those in the gym. It is true, and there is a danger of some players placing greater emphasis on bleep tests and body fat than the numbers that appear in the scorebook.
The point they miss, however, is that the time spent in the gym is not at the expense of time spent practising in the nets. Modern cricketers spend far more time working on their all-round game than players of my generation.
Real attention to fitness is a recent phenomenon. Despite Gatting's reputation, Middlesex have always taken it seriously, and it was in 2007 that the England and Wales Cricket Board gave each county a grant to employ a strength and conditioning coach. Woodhouse has been Middlesex's from the start and he has seen things change.
"When I started it was completely different," said Woodhouse. "It was a little primitive. Awareness of what was required was limited. People picked and chose what they did and when they did it. If you weren't fat and had reasonable aerobic endurance you were considered fit. Players were in reasonable shape but it was questionable that what they were doing would improve performance or reduce the chance of injury. I've had greater access to players than my predecessors and it's helped improve fitness and reduce injury.
"A lot of county squads are of a not too dissimilar skill level and often it is the teams that keep the most players on the park who are most successful. It doesn't matter how good a player you are, if you are constantly crocked you are not much use to anyone."
During the past two winters Middlesex have used Giorgio Andrews, a mixed martial arts trainer and cage fighter, to help with their training. I have watched a couple of sessions and they are not pretty. Giorgio's warm-ups push the players to the limit. The great thing is nobody gives him any lip. I make sure I pay him on time too.
Woodhouse explains why Giorgio was introduced. "I wanted the players to do some sort of combat work because when doing it you need good footwork, balance and rotational control," he said. "Cricketers, especially batsmen, need to be agile, balanced and good on their feet. They need to push hard from a strong base. Fielders are the same. There was also the mental toughness. Giorgio takes them to levels they don't normally experience. He pushes them till they drop."
Other areas are monitored closely. Middlesex regularly use a nutritionist and in 2010 the players were given cookery lessons to enable them to cook simple, healthy food. Many cricketers live on their own or with mates and the idea was that it would be healthier if they could cook themselves spaghetti bolognese rather than go down the local kebab house.
Nowhere is it harder to get your players to eat the right food than Lord's. It has, without doubt, the most popular lunches in cricket. Home and visiting players love dining at the home of cricket because they get spoilt rotten and, basically, eat what they want. In my playing days, there were cans of beer on the dinner table at Lord's next to the usual bottles of pop.
Attempts have been made to make the food slightly more athlete friendly but each has failed. The main reason is that the MCC want players to enjoy their visit to Lord's and to talk positively about the whole experience. The cans of beer have been removed but lunch is a large part of that experience.
I tried with former chef Linda Le Ker. I was more nervous asking Linda if we could have a certain style of food than I was when sacking a young cricketer. Telling Linda how to cook was like telling Don Bradman how to bat.
At least I didn't get the response Michael Brearley received when he asked Nancy Doyle, a fiery little Irish lady who preceded Linda, whether she could put pastas and salads on the menu as well as roast beef, Yorkshire puddings and roast potatoes. As well as being Middlesex's captain, Brearley was an Ashes-winning captain of England at the time. In response to Brearley's question Nancy said: "Michael, you firkin worry about the cricket at Lord's and let me firkin worry about the food." That was the first and last time Brearley raised the subject.
Attempting to compare the quality of players of different generations is a dangerous and almost impossible pastime but the time players now spend working on themselves and their game should make them at least as good as, if not better than, their predecessors. In the modern game they can and should have no excuses for being the best cricketer they can possibly be.
Pakistan pair lose appeals
Former Pakistan captain Salman Butt and fast bowler Mohammad Amir have lost their appeals against their sentences for a spot-fixing scam. Butt, 27, was jailed for 30 months and Amir, 19, received a six-month term. They were sentenced over a plot to bowl deliberate no-balls in a Test at Lord's against England last year.
Former ECB chairman David Morgan, meanwhile has proposed a return to a 50-over county competition to help improve England's prospects in the World Cup. Morgan's interim report on his review of English domestic cricket also includes a proposal to reduce the number of Championship fixtures from 16 to 14 from 2014. PA