'What counts is how we perform as a team' - Rajput
After a successful campaign in England recently, India's Under-19 squad are all set to embark on their next overseas assignment, in September, to Pakistan for a short tour. Lalchand Rajput, the former India opener and coach of the squad, was upbeat about their prospects.
Rajput announced that the squad will undergo a five-day training camp in New Delhi starting Thursday, before departing for Pakistan. The tour begins with a four-day match at Rawalpindi, starting September 7. Despite playing in quite familiar conditions, Rajput was quick to indicate that his side would be tested against a young Pakistan side also in the middle of a purple patch, especially after a victorious campaign in the U-19 World Cup in Sri Lanka earlier this year. He also noted that given the history between the arch rivals - both teams incidentally contested the finals in the World Cup - will add to the challenge and encourage the players to give their best.
India's success story in England - sweeping the one-dayers 3-0 and the Tests 1-0 - was largely attributed to some noteworthy individual contributions but Rajput stressed that it was the overall performance of the team which counted the most. He indicated that the team spirit in England was the key, and it could only improve further, with the influx of more talented players into the squad.
"I wouldn't single out any particular players," Rajput told Cricinfo in Mumbai. "What counts is how we perform as a team. Every player is expected to perform individually and if he sticks to his role well, we will gel together. There are a few new players added to the squad, and this will increase the competition. The team spirit in England was excellent and it played a big role in our series victories there. We need to continue with that."
When asked if any of the top performers have earned enough merit to be fast-tracked into the Indian squad, Rajput felt that it would be too early to judge. But giving credence to the Indian selectors' emphasis on youth is that legspinner Piyush Chawla, appointed captain of the squad after a good A tour of Australia, and the only player with international experience, made his Test debut against England earlier this year.
"The selectors felt he (Chawla) had the talent. Spinners generally take a longer time to mature, and the more he plays the better he will become. He has age on his side, and we can expect him to come back strongly. He has improved over time, and has more variations in his bowling."
The maturity shown by several youngsters, especially the batsmen, has impressed Rajput. He singled out Tanmay Srivastava, Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara for their ability to graft and build an innings, tempering their flamboyant instincts according to the match situation. He cited Srivastava's mammoth innings of 182 in the third Test against England U-19s at Shenley.
The bowling department was as impressive in England - with the performances of Vijaykumar Yo Mahesh, Abu Nachim, Ishat Sharma and Shabaz Nadeem - and Rajput admitted that it would be hard to leave people out in the face of such competiton. "We've got a lot of quality fast bowlers to choose from and that presents a huge challenge for someone like me to select the team" he said. "Nadeem [the left-arm spinner] too was impressive and it will be interesting to see how he performs against the Pakistan batsmen, traditionally good players of spin."
As a coach, Rajput has the privilege of identifying talent first-hand, especially those from far-flung areas, and he stated the reasons for the transition of the talent pool from the metros to small towns. "They have gained a lot of exposure through television, expert commentary and there is the National Cricket Academy", he said. "Coaches have been trained to identify players at the grassroot levels. It's a healthy sign that players are emerging from small towns and even rural areas."
Kanishkaa Balachandran is editorial assistant of Cricinfo