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'Mental health is a big challenge. It is a tough game' - Rahul Dravid

The NCA director opens up on the upcoming Under-19 World Cup, new paths Indian cricket must walk, and much more

Rahul Dravid's role in Indian cricket's backroom has expanded from being the India A and India Under-19 head coach to becoming the head of cricket at the National Cricket Academy (NCA). But with the Under-19 World Cup set to be held in January-February next year, the former India captain has been in Lucknow to oversee the ongoing one-day series between India Under-19s and Afghanistan Under-19s. The series is likely to be last one before the junior selection panel, along with Dravid, pick the World Cup squad.
On the sidelines of the fourth one-day game, Dravid spoke at length on topical subjects such as mental health of cricketers, the likely impact of India's pace renaissance on junior players, and the discussions about the future of the NCA with his former team-mate Sourav Ganguly, the BCCI president.
India Under-19 and India A have been almost unbeatable since you took charge, winning against all teams everywhere. What do you think has gone right?
I think there's a lot of talent in this country, for starters. More than winning - which I've always said is not a marker by which I honestly judge the success of a programme at this level - for the success of any of these developmental programmes [what matters] is how many of the players can we move on to the next level. The heartening thing for me is that, if you go back over the last three or four years that I've been involved in this - it's not just me, obviously a lot of other coaches and people have been involved - is for us to see how many have gone on to become established players in their Ranji Trophy teams. Some of them have gone on to captain their teams at 21.
I'd like to believe that in this cycle, over the last 14-16 months, nearly 40-45 boys have played for India Under-19. I think that's the real credit. I'm really hoping that within the next two years, at least 30-35 of them go into first-class teams. If 10-15 of them establish themselves in their first-class teams, that will be a success for us.
But the increase in performance and results has been more marked since you've taken over. Is there something being done that wasn't done previously?
We've been able to convince the board and ensure the boys are playing more cricket at this level. I definitely feel there needs to be a step-up in level. For our Under-19 boys, there needs to be a step-up from Under-19 domestic tournaments if we want to develop these boys to be able to establish themselves quickly in first-class cricket. To do that we need to give them a slightly higher level of cricket. Same thing with India A. Our domestic cricket is good, but the India A programme is critical.
The good thing for us is that a lot of other countries play a lot of their international players in the 'A' teams, whereas we might focus more on younger players. Maybe because their numbers are smaller. I have played against teams like South Africa and Australia A, who had seven or eight of their international players in the team against you. That is really good competition and the standard is definitely higher than the first-class game, the pressure is more. Then that helps build confidence, if you succeed at that level against some of those guys.
The other thing is, whenever we've been in control of the pitches, one of the things I've tried to do is ensure we play on good, sporting pitches. Leave a lot of grass on it, with a view of long-term development of these players. Not necessarily wanting to win that series, but more like saying, 'Hey, what's beneficial to these guys in the longer run?' It's actually been quite a satisfying three or four years for me personally. I really hope we can keep this going, and keep building, growing and improving these programmes.
What Ishant, Shami, Umesh, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Bumrah are doing, is they are actually in a way becoming role models for a lot of younger generation of boys who believe now they can be fast bowlers.
Rahul Dravid
How do you rate India's prospects at the next Under-19 World Cup?
We are very confident with the process and preparation we've set up. At the start of the cycle, I tell a lot of these guys who are pushing for spots: 'We'll give you enough opportunities to put your hand up and select yourself.' And honestly, hand on heart, at least 40-45 boys can say, 'Hey, we got a chance. We got opportunities.'
What might happen at this level is that boys miss out in a particular year. They're all growing still. I see this a lot at this age, that people have bad years. You see them playing very well one year and then suddenly they struggle the next. So they don't get picked on form. But I always try and tell them, 'Don't worry, it's not about getting selected for the World Cup. In the long run, nobody's going to remember if you played in the Under-19 World Cup or not.'
It's about: Can I become a successful first-class cricketer and from there, go on to play for India? There will be very good players who are going to miss out on the final 15. But like I always them, 'Don't lose heart. It's just one World Cup. It doesn't define your career. You will go back and play Under-23, play for your first-class teams, and in one or two years you can easily catch up with some of these boys who have played in the World Cup.'
Just because you've played a World Cup doesn't mean you will play for India, and just because you haven't played a World Cup doesn't mean you won't. It's a nice achievement to have, but it's not the be-all and end-all of everything. Look at Ruturaj Gaikwad and Devdutt Padikkal - they didn't make our World Cup squad. And they have started doing really well for their first-class teams.
What would you say is India's strength?
We have got a good balance in the team. We probably had more good allrounders in last year's team. People like Kamlesh [Nagarkoti] and Shivam [Mavi] could all bat. So last year's World Cup team could bat all the way to No. 10. But this year too, the selectors have done a pretty good job in picking a good side. Depending on the conditions in South Africa, if they aid fast bowlers, we have got a pretty good attack. We have got batting all the way down to seven-eight-nine. We have got spinners, if conditions suit.
The issue of mental health is in the spotlight at the moment. What would you advise younger players on this so that they can deal with it best?
It is a big challenge. This is a tough game. There is so much competition, a lot of pressure, and kids are playing all year round now. It is a game in which you do sometimes spend a lot of time waiting around, having a lot of time to think.
So, you really need to look after yourself on and off the field, and look after stuff like mental health. That's again something that, as much as we talk to these boys about, it's really important to maintain a certain level of balance in everything you do. Be able to find that balance between not getting too excited when you succeed and not getting too disappointed when you fail. I just think being able to lead a slightly balanced life potentially helps.
We are also putting a few things in place at the NCA wherein we want to be able to give people an opportunity to talk about these things and address some of these things, and have people that they can speak to. So, yes, there has been some work on that as well, wherein eventually we'll get to a point where hopefully we should have professionals on board. I think sometimes some of these things need to be handled by professionals.
I don't think some of the coaches, or some of us, have the ability to deal with some of the issues. Some things we might be able to, but there may be some things where we might need to look at professional help. It's one of the things we are definitely keen on doing at the NCA: giving some of these boys access to some level of professional help if they do require it.
There's been a renaissance in Indian fast bowling at the international level. Do you see the same sort of enthusiasm among fast bowlers coming up?
Yes, definitely. Every year now in Under-19 cricket, we've had some very good fast bowlers. Last time, we had three of them in Kamlesh, Shivam and Ishan [Porel]. This year also you will see some good fast bowlers in the team.
When you have role models and you have heroes like the senior team… I think what Ishant [Sharma], [Mohammed] Shami, Umesh [Yadav], Bhuvneshwar Kumar and [Jasprit] Bumrah are doing, is they are actually in a way becoming role models for a lot of younger generation of boys who believe now they can be fast bowlers. They can bowl fast and be successful in India. It's great to see that. Obviously we had people like Kapil [Dev], Sri [Javagal Srinath], Zaheer [Khan] and all in the past. But as a group, this is probably one of the best fast-bowling attacks we have ever had. I think that's a great inspiration for a lot of these young boys.
Just because you've played a World Cup doesn't mean you will play for India, and just because you haven't played a World Cup doesn't mean you won't. It's a nice achievement to have, but it's not the be all and end all of everything.
Rahul Dravid
In the past, crowds in India would come to see batsmen. Do you think in the future they'll be going to watch fast bowlers intimidating batsmen with pace and bounce?
I hope so. Now that I have retired, I don't mind the others being intimidated (laughs).
A lot of young pace bowlers are coming up, but one of the major concerns are injuries they pick up early in their careers.
It is part and parcel of being a fast bowler. Unfortunately, it's a very unnatural activity. One of the things that has improved in India is the focus on fitness and physiotherapy, the care that we are able to give. Some of the facilities that our Under-19 boys have today are amazing; access to some of the best physios and trainers at the NCA. Indian teams of the past didn't have that kind of support. It is there, but you will still have injuries.
Fast bowling, especially for young bodies with people still growing up and developing, it's just going to happen. We have to get better at managing it. But unfortunately, in this sport, there's no such thing as: 'I will keep playing, and I will keep bowling fast and not get injured (chuckles).' Unfortunately, it doesn't work like that, so you have to accept it and work out ways to minimise that - that's all we can do. Will we ever get to a stage where we will have no injuries? Unfortunately, not.
As science develops, as research improves… that's again an area we need to do a little bit more, in research - on our own bodies, our own bowlers, right from junior and camp level. We are doing a little bit of that now, starting it at the NCA and zonal camps. We are doing more research, collecting more data and information on our cricketers. We are using data and research that has been done on different bodies [than ours]: Caucasians, English and Australian players.
We need to do our own research, we need to do data collection on our own athletes and that will give us insights. A lot of that process has already started; it's been going on for about two years now and all that is helping us in a large way. We need to keep doing more of that and improve at that. That's really one of the things I want to drive forward at the NCA level as well.
What are your thoughts on the next generation of spinners?
Spin is a little bit more of a challenge. There are a number of good spinners in the country, don't get me wrong. But because of the amount of white-ball cricket, which has increased with Twenty20 cricket and there are so many domestic tournaments with the white-ball, it's a bit tougher for younger spinners to balance that. That's one of the challenges we face at the Under-19 level: for young spinners to find that balance between white-ball and red-ball cricket.
Going ahead, that's one of our goals. We want to try and work with our spinners, help them improve. How do they make those adjustments? It's not that easy for spinners to do it. There is a challenge from the ranks coming up. But we are still producing good spinners, don't get me wrong. Even at Under-19, we have got some good spinners. But this adjustment from Under-19 cricket to first-class cricket has probably been, from my experience, easier for batsmen and fast bowlers. It hasn't been that easy for spinners. So, we have to keep working on it.
You're no longer just the head coach of the Under-19 team or the 'A' team, you're NCA director now. How has your role changed?
It's changed a little bit in the sense that this time it's not as much hands-on with a lot of these boys. I have been around with them, I was in England and I came here as well. But it's also really about working with the coaches we've had. We've got some really good coaches for these guys at the moment - Paras [Mhambrey], Hrishi [Hrishikesh Kanitkar] and Abhay [Sharma]. Top-class coaches, very experienced, who've been in the system.
Paras and Abhay have been with me on both the other World Cups. So, this really gives us an opportunity to not only develop players, but also develop our coaches. This is a platform where we should also be developing and growing our coaches, so we've tried to do that at the Under-19 and India A level. That's also part of my role as well now. It's slightly broader in terms of also helping us identify and develop the next generation of coaches coming through, giving them a lot more responsibility. Yes, I'm involved, and around. I'm here and might probably go to the World Cup for some part, maybe the start or during the preparation phase. But really, I think it's been about giving them a lot more freedom and allowing them to develop and grow.
Through the NCA we're also going to try and help a lot of our coaches. We've hired Sujith [Somasundar] now, who has come on as head of education. A part of our goal is to create a programme for coaches as well, so that we can give them certain skills in which they can develop - and hopefully then get the opportunities to work at a slightly higher level. I think a lot of IPL teams miss a trick by not using more domestic talent in the coaching area and the talent identification area, even if it is as assistants. That's my personal opinion.
Ever since Sourav Ganguly took charge as the president of the BCCI, he has said his priority will be first-class cricket. What are the areas that require changes in first-class cricket?
It's the small things in the system that Sourav probably was mentioning - like ensuring security for first-class players, the quality of our pitches, the quality of the facilities that first-class and Under-19 cricketers get to train in, practice in. Fitness, physiotherapy… all of these things have improved, but it's just a constant process. You just have to keep getting better at it..
For many, many years now, we've got a pretty successful system going. We play a lot of matches, people get opportunities. You just need to keep improving them. Attention to small things, attention to detail, I would say is something we can maybe focus on and do a bit better. There's no such thing as a perfect system. You always learn, and you always improve. That's true of players, systems, competitions and everything really.
Does the IPL still remain a favourite route to gain attention quicker than other formats?
I wouldn't say that. In the Twenty20 format, yes, maybe. But I think the selectors have also been very good, in the sense that they are expecting people to do well in the Ranji Trophy as well. So, whether it is a Shubman Gill or a Prithvi Shaw from the last batch who came in, if you look at their performances, they have got into the Indian team not only based on their IPL runs, but really on their Ranji Trophy runs, their India A runs.
So, the selectors are not only looking at IPL performances. In the conversations and discussions I have with them, it becomes very clear to me that they have put a lot of value on domestic cricket, they have put a lot of value on domestic runs, India A runs. That is really good to see. If the selectors drive that, then people will understand that it's important.

Saurabh Somani is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo