Two days ago, the internet went berserk as a group of teenagers smashed cake all over Rahul Dravid‘s face to ring in his 45th birthday. Dravid seemed at ease, soaking in what has become the norm in Indian cricket these days, before posing for several photographs. This was on the sidelines of their rained out warm-up game against Kenya.
Had the Cricket Advisory Committee’s recommendation of appointing Dravid as batting consultant for the senior team when they go on tours had gone through as planned, he might not have been in Christchurch as the head coach of the Under-19 team. But the BCCI changed its mind and a group of 15 starry-eyed cricketers playing a World Cup couldn’t be happier.
In June, Dravid was with the India A team in South Africa when the Under-19 team was in England, but was constantly in touch. The side led by Prithvi Shaw swept the ODI series 5-0. The four-day squad led by Himanshu Rana won the Tests 2-0. That they did so in cold and wet conditions was the first real sign of the squad being in the groove. Yet, Dravid’s focus when he was back with the Youth team was to not be influenced by short-term results.
“We ensured we didn’t pick people who had played last time, ensuring a fresh group keeps coming through. Those things are pleasing in the background”
Rahul Dravid, India Under-19 coach
“The under-19s is slightly different to the A team,” Dravid said of his coaching methods ahead of India’s tournament opener against Australia in Mount Maunganui on Sunday “The A team, I always feel, is a little bit more about the performances with guys almost pushing for spots into the Indian team, so you’re really focused on trying to get performances from them to start getting recognition. You want them to get that recognition from the selectors to get into the Indian side as we’ve seen some of the A team boys do.
“Here it’s a little bit more of a developmental role. You can have a little bit more of an impact even on technique, mindset and looking at them slightly from a long-term perspective. Sometimes with the A team, I feel we’re looking at them very much immediately to see how quickly they can (progress). But here, we know that the time frame is a little bit longer. So we’re not looking at them to get into the Indian team tomorrow – if they do, great – but we’re not really expecting that. We know they have three-four more years down the line, it’s a slightly different thing but both of them are really enjoyable and fun.”
Dravid has often spoken of the need to use the Under-19 platform to mould players to become first-class and India A ready, without worrying about short-term results. This perhaps explains why he wasn’t too perturbed by the loss to Nepal and India’s subsequent exit from the group stages of the Under-19 Asia Cup in November.
“We keep the bigger picture in mind,” Dravid said. “From the players’ perspective, they want to win every game. But if you see the lead up to it, what has been satisfying for me is that we’ve given 30-35 people an opportunity to represent India Under-19 at some level in some form over the last 14 months before finalising this squad. We ensured we didn’t pick people who had played last time, ensuring a fresh group keeps coming through. Those things are pleasing in the background, but when you get into a tournament like this you play every game to win, try and do your best to win this tournament.”
Meeting strict fitness standards, such as passing a yo-yo test, were done away with because Dravid felt bodies of those who are as young as 16 may not be fully matured. The onus was largely on skills. Then came a residential camp in Alur in December, with a focus on team bonding activities. The players were split into pairs randomly so that no two members were room-mates for prolonged periods. A number of pool, volleyball and football sessions got them together, followed by musicals and team dinners. Later, at the NCA in Bengaluru, there was a mix of one-on-one sessions, video analysis and player feedback. The camp was topped off by a series of three matches against the Under-19 batch of 2016.
That group was also invited to talk to the current batch about their experiences of playing in different conditions against different teams. “The conditions were the most exciting things for us, playing away from home,” Dravid said. “It’s really a good learning from our perspective, just exposing them to conditions is very important at the Under-19 level. It goes back to that earlier point about these results versus the experiences, and I think it’s the experiences that really matter more than sometimes the results.”
As he’s gone about ticking all boxes of preparation, Dravid has been ably assisted by Paras Mhambrey, the bowling coach, and Abhay Sharma, the fielding coach. “It works really well, we’ve worked together really well for the last couple of years so we understand each other,” Dravid said. “I kind of don’t believe so much in just demarcating and saying that you know, even though Paras may be the bowling coach and Abhay is the fielding coach, I believe both of them have enough knowledge and experience as they’ve coached Ranji Trophy teams, they’ve been around teams a lot and they’ve played a lot of cricket themselves.
“They know a lot about the other disciplines so the way we work here is not like Abhay won’t have a suggestion on bowling or on batting, or Paras might not have a point of view. What we’ve tried to do and encourage is a situation where we say we’re three coaches, let’s just pool our heads together and see how we can work in all the departments. Abhay sort of manages the fielding a little bit more and Paras has a little more responsibility with the bowling. But we work in sync and we’re not restricting them from actually sharing their knowledge.”
Both India’s players and their staff will both be put to test over the course of the next three weeks. They may not yet have their eyes on the crown that has eluded them since 2012, but a method such as this will rarely fail twice in a row. Ramiz Raja, the former Pakistan captain, believes they too should adopt a similar junior system headed by an international cricketer of repute. There can’t be a bigger endorsement than when you’re the neighbour’s envy.