Accommodating the IPL
Virat Kohli said once that he felt like eating bedsheets. "I was craving taste." Such was the strictiness of his dietary regimen when he was transforming into the fitness freak he is now.
It can't be easy being a cricketer today - travelling non-stop, living out of suitcases and in innumerable hotel rooms, and having to stay in peak physical shape in all that time. For overseas players in the IPL, it's even tougher - months of foreign food, foreign conditions, and being besieged as a celebrity. Your hotel room becomes your home away from home.
"During the IPL, the only message that is sent down to my team is to expect a lot of room-service requests," says Joy Bhattacharya, executive chef at the Trident, the hotel in Nariman Point, Mumbai, that has hosted the city's IPL side for close to nine years now. "Especially since players are hounded in restaurants by guests, not only in-house but non-resident guests also, they prefer to have their meals mostly in their rooms."
In the competitive hospitality industry, five-star hotels try their best to provide the personalised touch and warmth that will make their establishment stand apart. But how do they even begin to go about doing that when you're talking about a party of close to 200 IPL team members and support staff?
Preparations start about a month in advance, and the teams usually first arrive sometime in the second half of March.
"They come in with a lot of luggage, or they may send it in advance," says Devendra Bharma, executive vice-president, Oberoi Hotels & Resorts, Mumbai. "You have to move luggage in a particular manner because bags are tagged. They have to go to the right places, they have to go in time, because in the IPL it's pretty much back to back for them, so it's quite stressed.
"Just like we offer personalised service to every guest in the hotel, we do the same thing with them [the teams]. Except that, yes, there are more specific requirements in their cases."
Housekeeping is among the key departments of a hotel when a cricket team stays for such a long period. From coordinating the luggage-handling, to documenting how some players personalise their rooms and passing on that information at the end of the shift or day, staff need to be on their toes all the time. Since players and teams periodically return to the same hotel in their home city, some also prefer to return to the same room, or at least the same floor. That means more work for the hotel, arranging to accommodate such preferences while also keeping in mind those of other guests. "Dedicating floors is usually the norm because the players stay together, they have their team meetings," says Bharma.
In contrast, there isn't too much coordination involved in allocating use of the gym. When two teams are staying in a hotel at the same time, they rarely use the facilities at the same time because their schedules for practice and rest invariably differ.
What about food? Is it all salads, vegetable juices, oats and fresh fruits?
"You think light, healthy, nutritious, full of protein and fibre will be ordered," Bhattacharya says. "They definitely form a part of the meal, but not necessarily the entire meal. Through the ten seasons that have gone, I've seen that it's about how many calories you burn throughout the day.
"Their meals are pretty stout, I would say, because they need that protein intake through the day to build their muscles and body mass and to have energy in the form of carbohydrates, maybe two-three glasses of milkshakes for breakfast."
Breakfasts are spaced out, prolonged and heavy, says Bhattacharya. To avoid monotony, the kitchen changes the pre-match and breakfast menu every day. A favourite with players, he says, is Eggs Benedict.
Though all sorts of players have stayed at the hotel through the seasons, the chef hasn't really encountered any bizarre orders. Players usually stick to the menu, skip lunch or order light lunches in their room.
"It ranges from lamb chops to spit-roast chicken, or a grilled spatchcock with potatoes and wild mushrooms," Bhattacharya says. "Dim sums, chilli chicken with ginger. Maybe hardcore meats or maybe a few pastas here and there to pep up the carb content.
"One thing I need to say is they are not very fanatical about desserts.
"Before the matches, I have witnessed baingan ka bharta [grilled aubergine] going with rotis. It's nice and light vegetarian food.
Whenever the team is rejoicing after coming back to the hotel, we think it's party time, but the consumption of food is in moderation. If they are not playing for the next two-three days, they can afford a couple of drinks extra. But if you are travelling the next day, then it's very conservative ordering."
Shaun Tait, who played four IPL seasons in India for Rajasthan Royals, says room service and the comforts of luxury hotels kept him happy.
"You can order whatever food you want - international food, Indian food, it's usually all there," Tait says of the hotel experience in India during the IPL. "Room service is probably No. 1 [on the list of amenities], and obviously the swimming pool, gym facilities. You can make yourself feel at home with whatever food you usually eat.
"When you are trying to get your skinfolds down, it can be a bit of an issue sometimes. I like south Indian food. I used to eat a lot of dosas and, to be fair, even the parathas and the big curries [from the north]."
What about the attention from fans? The IPL makes superstars of all sorts of players and they have to get used to not being mostly anonymous anymore.
Tait says greeting fans was "not a bad thing" once a day or so but it would get "a little bit annoying" when there would be 40-50 people waiting every time he would go down to the hotel foyer.
Hotel managements are also aware of the need to manage fans. "Our security teams are very alert in these couple of months because of movements in and out, making sure that there is ease with which the players go in and out, because again there are guests who would like to come and meet them, take their autographs, take photographs with them," Bharma says. "Some teams and some players enjoy it, some are strict about it."
Brad Hogg, who represented Rajasthan Royals and Kolkata Knight Riders from 2012 to 2016, "never had a complaint" with hotels in India because of the "unbelievable" hospitality that would make him feel at home. The only thing he missed the chance to cook what he felt like eating at that moment.
"It's about making the most of what's there and adjusting to it," Hogg says. "For me, the hotel's got to have a good bed, good internet connection, good food and a gym.
"I try and eat like I eat at home. I like to try the different varieties of food the hotel offers because you've got different cuisines. So you try it, but you make sure that you have the healthier options of those dishes and pick the nights when you want the unhealthier options."
Security, reservations, housekeeping, food requirements, gym and swimming pool schedules are all small fry compared to the hotel's biggest challenge during any IPL season: laundry.
Apart from casual clothes, players also throw in their practice bibs, match uniforms, gym clothes, all of which have to be returned quickly.
"The laundry is under a lot of pressure during the time the teams are here because each player will have x number of attires, multiplied by 40, 50 or 70 people," Bharma explains. "The volumes are very big. We may need to run [laundry services] two or three hours more. A regular guest in the hotel will have maybe two or three garments to give for pressing or laundering, but a player will have many sets of their uniforms or playing attire to wash because of the way they are used."
Bharma says service is the difference between teams choosing to stay at one hotel regularly over seasons and moving over to a competitor.
"Why they will go to another hotel is usually because of lack of service, what was committed and was not delivered. If the team feels special, they'll always come back to you."
The Trident, Bharma says, gets a fair amount of thank you notes, mentions on Twitter from players, and "tons" of compliments for the staff. The familiarity with the hotel staff over the two months, he says, plays a crucial role in making players comfortable and feel at home.
Vishal Dikshit is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo