In an interview after India's Under-19 World Cup win, head coach Rahul Dravid delves into the challenges he and the support staff faced in preparing the team during the course of the last 18 months.
You have been part of two Under-19 World Cup campaigns now: in 2016 and 2018. As coach, how satisfying is it for you to see this bunch walk away with the winners' medal?
The whole process has been satisfying. In 2016, I was appointed just two-three months before the tournament. There wasn't any time to put a process in place. I saw probably about 15-16 boys before we played that tournament, where we went all the way and lost to West Indies in a close final. This time I was determined to put a process in place, not so much looking at the end result being trying to win the tournament - yes, it is nice we have won it, but that wasn't the idea.
It was about seeing if we could give more opportunities to a lot more players than just 15, 16 or 20 players, give more people an opportunity to come into the India Under-19 fold and give them a chance to experience what it is like to play for an India Under-19 team. Not all of them are here at the World Cup. Even those who missed this tournament have the potential to go on and play for India. Some of them might and some of the boys from this team might not. That happens a lot at the Under-19 level because the boys are at different stages of development in their careers and just in their growth as players and people.
We had 30-35 kids; there were a lot more matches and tournaments held last year. We took a conscious decision to not select boys from the last World Cup to this World Cup for their own sake. Some of them have gone on to play for India, like Washington Sundar. Some of them are regulars in their Ranji Trophy teams. That is the kind of level we want them to play rather than hang back at the Under-19 level. That has been the satisfying part for me.
How did you go about preparing individuals: was it about driving into them a specific set of protocols or was it player-specific?
One of the things I like to do is to work with them and to see what they need, rather than imposing my preparation on them. Sure, there are times where we insist on certain things they have to do, but there are other times where we give them a lot of freedom to make their own choices.
"At this age they latch onto a few things. They are not going to remember everything you say all the time. I'm not one for big team meetings or speeches, but you have to guide them and focus their attention"
A couple of the guys don't like batting too much in the lead-up to the game; they prefer knocking or hitting a few balls. Cricketers at this age are also figuring out what their right routines are, what makes them tick, and you have to give them that opportunity. If you just keep telling them what to do all the time, they are not going to learn what their own routines are and what makes them click.
We have tried to do that as far as possible with these boys, especially the day before the game. The way they prepared was in large parts driven by them, and not by us as a coaching team. If they wanted extra batting, we gave that. Some boys don't like to bat and they feel comfortable about it, and we were happy to allow them that request. This is also a learning for them as to figuring out what gets them going on match day.
How do you handle players off the field? Is it just about making them accountable for their own actions?
Cricket is a lot about decision-making, and I think you have to practise that. We give them that responsibility. We give them freedom in many ways, but there are certain boundaries they know they should not cross. They represent India, their families, the BCCI, when they come here. Within the boundaries, we have been flexible and we try and give the onus and responsibility to them. That is the only way you grow.
Can responsibility be taught? Shubman Gill told us after the final that you stressed not leaving the job unfinished.
You can remind people, but it is about giving them cues and markers that they can focus on. In a lot of ways, it just inspires them. I remember John Wright coming to me at Headingley [in 2002] at lunch time and telling me, "If you get a hundred here on this wicket, it's something you will remember, something that will be valuable for the team." That inspired me.
It's sometimes just to remind these kids. For a boy like Shubman Gill who is batting superbly, the key for him was to go on and finish the job and take that as the next level of learning and growth, to be able to be determined, professional and meticulous about your preparation. That is something we drive home and say, "Look these are options before you, these are options you could look to take." At this age they latch onto a few things. They are not going to remember everything you say all the time. I'm not one for big team meetings or speeches, but you have to guide them and focus their attention because they are teenagers at the end of the day.
What are the learnings from this experience you want the boys to inculcate as they step out of the Under-19s?
The real challenges for them start now. At this level, a lot of them are talented and very good. They are slightly better than [other] people of their age, so they are competing against people whom they have a slight edge over. Suddenly they leave this level and go into Under-23 or Ranji Trophy level and start competing with people with more experience, against guys who are better professionals, and sometimes it takes some adjustment. It can be a bit of a shock that you suddenly move from being a big fish in a small pond into the ocean, and suddenly they realise it is a completely different environment from the one they are used to. That adjustment sometimes takes a while, especially for them to overcome that shock.
We talk to them a lot about it, we constantly mention to them the habits they will need to inculcate when they go on from here. They are quite protected at the Under-19 level, but when that protection is taken away, you have to do a lot of things on your own, and as you should as young men. That is part of growing up, which they need to learn. The guys who adapt quicker are the ones who end up succeeding in first-class cricket.
"We said, "Look, let's be honest. We know your mind is going to be dragged towards the IPL auction and we are not saying don't go there, but also recognise what we are out here to accomplish. They took to that really well"
There was the shadow of the IPL auction looming over the team ahead of the semi-finals. How did you manage that?
It would have been easy to ignore the IPL auction and pretend it wasn't there, but I chose not to do that. We said as a coaching group that we would at least address the issue. It's there, let's be realistic. They are all human, they are young kids who have probably seen many auctions before. This was probably the first time some of them were [up for] auction, and they were keen to see which teams bid for them and which team they go on to represent. Even the fact that some of them are excited about bowling with Mitchell Starc at KKR or somebody is at Delhi and he is going to have a chance to bat alongside Shreyas Iyer or Rishabh Pant. They are excited about those things, so we spoke about it. We said, "Look, let's be honest. We know you guys are going to be interested. Your mind is going to be dragged towards the IPL auction and we accept that. We are not saying don't go there, but also recognise what we are out here to accomplish." They took to that really well. I have no doubt they were all watching it on their phones (laughs).
They were happy for each other, especially for the boys who got picked, but they were also very good on zoning back in when they returned to practice, once the IPL auction was over. I didn't feel it had any side effects on the games. But yes, it was a challenging week, and also because it was right in the middle of a semi-final, a tense stage of the tournament. I'm glad we handled it the way we did, by not just ignoring it and having a couple of conversations. The boys were honest about it and said, "Yes, it's a bit of a distraction, but we commit to focusing on switching on." As long as you hear them say that, it is good.
There were a number of setbacks in the form of injuries. Did those affect team dynamics, and how did you deal with that?
Their health and well-being came first, and we wanted them to be a part of the experience and play the World Cup. For them to have the confidence that we would genuinely go out of our way to make it possible made a difference. Full credit to Yogesh Parmar (physio), Anand Date (trainer), the guys at the National Cricket Academy, for the efforts that they have put in over the last year. We have had a few injuries right through the year, and the way they have been handled has been absolutely professional.
I have been around and have seen the way professional athletes are managed, and these Under-19 boys got the best professional help. [The NCA] is much-maligned unfortunately, but when you see Kamlesh Nagarkoti or Shivam Mavi bowl, when we congratulate ourselves, we must also raise a glass to the NCA. A lot of this is team effort and not just about what I do but also the contribution of the support staff and the NCA.
Riyan Parag broke his finger during the warm-up games. Ishan Porel broke down. Did it need effort to keep them positive because this was what they were preparing towards for the last 18 months?
Riyan was batting so well [in the tour games] but unfortunately broke his finger. We could have sent him home, but we took the gamble of keeping him here and managing the injury because we knew there was time, and the physio was confident that he could get him right.
The same thing with Ishan. He was bowling really well in the first game and got injured. Actually, we have not seen the best of Ishan. Unfortunately, he got injured in this tournament, but you are going to see a lot more of him. If not for that [left-heel] injury, I was confident he would have touched 140kph as well. It just hasn't worked out for him in this tournament, but he has a long road ahead. Again, the simplest thing would have been to send him home, but the physios wanted to give him a chance. He was distraught but just giving him the confidence of saying, "We are doing all we can to help you" was great. The BCCI for giving us the confidence of flying down Aditya Thakare. Knowing that we could still have a back-up option if Ishan couldn't play helped. Otherwise, we would have been a bowler light. Thakare spent two weeks with us here at the back end of this tournament. That was nice from BCCI's part to give us that belief and confidence by sending someone over.
A lot of the boys have already gone on to play first-class cricket. You are coach of India A too. What is the pathway for them to get there now?
One of the things I've enjoyed over the last two years is the conversations I have had with the national selection committee and the junior selection committee. They genuinely try and do what is best for Indian cricket in a lot of ways. The senior selectors keep asking me about some of the Under-19 kids, but one of the things they are trying to put in place is that Ranji Trophy has value. Ranji Trophy runs matter.
Yes, not every case will be the same, and you can't say, "You need these many runs or wickets in Ranji Trophy to get selected for India A", etc. There is a place for potential, there is a place for looking at someone exciting and saying, "Let's back him." But by and large, the message that has gone through from the selectors is: Ranji Trophy matters, first-class cricket matters. You have potential you have had the exposure at this [Under-19] level, now go out and make runs. If you can, like Rishabh Pant did getting 900-odd runs, or Ishan Kishan with 800-odd runs, you get into the India A teams, but you need to go from here, go out and play in the first-class system that we have, score runs, take wickets in it, and show that you are ready to graduate to the next level. If it takes you a couple of years, so be it, it's a learning experience and it doesn't matter. I'd rather they learn and face a few knocks and come to India A slightly better prepared for that challenge, which is obviously tougher than even this challenge, rather than being rushed into it and not being ready for it.