India Under-19 group has self-belief - Coach
Most of the players in the India Under-19 squad have been together for the better part of two years, in which time they've played and beaten most of their competition while winning two of the three tournaments they've been part of. It's in those tournaments, when challenged to recover from difficult situations, adjust to foreign conditions, and deal with the pressure of last-ball finishes, that, their coach Bharat Arun says, the group has picked up their confidence and self-belief - and especially the habit of "keeping a cool head to win a hot game".
The team's build-up to the tournament, extensive and exhaustive, sought to reinforce the bonds. The players gathered at the National Cricket Academy in Bangalore for a camp where, apart from honing their skills, they interacted with Yuvraj Singh, an Under-19 World Cup winner in 2000, and Rahul Dravid, who spoke to them on preparation and the mental challenges of playing on a bigger stage. They also were taken on field trips and went rappelling, most of them for the first time. "When you're coming down a cliff which is 50 feet, you're a bit scared. But all you need to do under stress is do the basics," Arun said. "The simple instruction was to keep your knees straight on the rock … and then they know, in a tight situation, the best thing to do is to do the basics right."
The players also went on a "trust walk", a team-building exercise that involved a leader, who wasn't allowed to speak, guiding a group of blindfolded people through a forest track in Nagarhole, a jungle reserve in Karnataka. "They were given some time to think how to do it and be innovative, they learnt to trust each other," Arun said. "They did a great job.
"We had a lot of sessions where they formulated strategies - the three most important things to do to win this World Cup. When they come out with such ideas, their ownership is a lot more than when you give it to them."
The competitive journey of this Indian Under-19 side started in Visakhapatnam in September 2011, at a quadrangular tournament involving teams from Australia, West Indies and Sri Lanka. India began by chasing down Australia's 163 in 12 overs and won every league game after that. They were stretched in the final: chasing 168, Sri Lanka were 102 for 5 before falling five runs short.
"Winning [the final] from that situation gave us a lot of belief," Arun said. "If we can set our minds on the process, the outcome automatically takes care of itself. You can tell them [the players] these things but for them to believe they have to enact it out in the middle."
India Under-19 captain Unmukt Chand's eyes lit up while talking about the thrashing to Australia, the tense victory in the final, and the crowd that came to watch. "It gave us belief, that was the first time we played together as a team and we didn't lose a single match," Unmukt said. "The way we played the finals was amazing. The belief of winning was so strong that we never felt that we'd lose that match."
Their next tournament, however, was in Townsville, where India will play their World Cup matches, and lose they did. Having never played in Australia before, they were beaten in all their league matches by England, New Zealand and the hosts.
"First match, we had no idea, no clue of the wickets and all. We just knew they would be bouncy. We had no experience of the conditions there," Unmukt said. "As a batsman, the balls I'm used to playing here [thigh height], they were bouncing so much that they were going here [chest height]. That's why we took time to adjust."
A long assessment of their performances followed ahead of the quadrangular semi-final against England. They watched videos of opponents, tried to understand the conditions better, and laid plans. "A lot of the inputs came from them [the players], that to me is not being afraid to accept what their shortcomings are," Arun said. "That was a great learning curve for us, it was a big test of character. To be able to come back after being down three games, when you do that then you have a lot of self-belief."
India beat England by 63 runs in the semi-final, and got past Australia by seven wickets and 44 balls to spare to win the trophy. Unmukt credited the culture created by the management for the turnaround. "We all thought … not thought … we all believed that we'll win this tournament," he said. "The atmosphere was really cool inside, there was no pressure from anyone."
One of the challenges of coaching teenagers as compared to older professionals is a lower maturity level, on average, and Arun said the management had worked hard to develop a working relationship based on trust. "It's important that we understand each other well, for them to open up and accept a lot of things you may bring in - areas they need to improve, to understand their strengths.
"When there is an atmosphere in which each one can express themselves, then trust develops. They can say whatever they want without being afraid of being shunned."
After the quadrangular in Australia, India Under-19's next assignment was the Asia Cup in Malaysia, where they played Pakistan Under-19 for the first time. They lost their league match to Pakistan by one run, chasing 287, and tied the final, having been well placed to chase down 282 at one stage. Arun said both the defeat and the tie had been instructive.
"Both were high-pressure games. We understood where we went wrong," he said. "Drawing from these experiences, we said the area we need to work on is the mind, because on the skill front we have really worked hard. There's little more we can do on the skill front. The mental side is going to be very important because it's about handling pressure at the World Cup."
This is the beginning of the end for this Under-19 team. After Townsville, the players will go their separate ways, to try and forge first-class careers. Unmukt spoke of the desire within the team.
"There's a very strong feeling that we want to win this World Cup," he said. "We've put in a lot of hard effort for two years … this is the final thing. It's an emotional thing. We are not thinking of ourselves as individual players."
India Under-19s begin their campaign against West Indies in Townsville on Sunday, August 12.
George Binoy is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo