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Feature

Yash Dhull - controlling the controllables, following the Kohli plan, raising the bar

In bouncing back from Covid-19 and doing his job with aplomb, India's Under-19 captain has shown tremendous character at the World Cup

Sreshth Shah
Sreshth Shah
04-Feb-2022
Yash Dhull became the third India captain to score a century at an Under-19 World Cup, India vs Australia, Under-19 World Cup semi-finals, Coolidge, February 2, 2022

Yash Dhull became the third India captain to score a century at an Under-19 World Cup  •  ICC via Getty Images

If you're representing India at an Under-19 World Cup and have a bumper tournament, your career gets a major jumpstart. And if you are an U-19 World Cup-winning captain, your name is etched in history. Yash Dhull was aware of that entering the competition. After reaching the West Indies, every morning, he would call his coach of eight years, Rajesh Nagar, to discuss his game. To ensure he was doing everything right.
But on January 19, cricket was not the topic of discussion when the youngster called.
Covid-19 was.
Dhull had tested positive, along with many others, and the previous three years of hard work - with the goal of playing at the World Cup - looked like it was going up in smoke.
Dhull was alone. Devastated. It took a day for reality to sink in. But there's one magic phrase that Dhull has grown up hearing from Nagar: "control the controllables". On the phone, Nagar said it again.
From the third day of isolation, Dhull was at it again, and began his preps. Every day, he spent nearly two hours shadow batting in his room, recording it all on his camera, going back to watch it. He received a shot in the arm when VVS Laxman told him that he would return to the XI wearing the captain's armband as soon as he was ready.
When he returned, he scored an unbeaten 20 in a tricky quarter-final chase. That got him valuable playing time. The short innings left people wanting more, but the small target didn't offer the scope to see Dhull's full range.
However, his counter-attacking 110 in the semi-final was worth the wait. And it showed why those who follow schools cricket in north India have long considered him a prodigy.

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Dhull's journey to becoming the man entrusted with bringing home a fifth U-19 World Cup title started when he was ten. He had joined the Bal Bhavan school in Dwarka, an institute famous for its cricket structure; their academy is now run by Delhi Capitals.
By the sixth grade, he was playing over 15 games a month under Nagar's watchful eyes, and the coach says Dhull must have played nearly 2000 matches already. He has played all around north India, of course, but before hitting 16, he had also toured and played in Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Nepal. In Nepal, he was Player of the Series in an U-19 tournament at the age of 15.
All those runs against older bowlers cemented Dhull's place in Delhi's competitive age-group set-up, and by 16, he was playing for the state U-19 team. Batting at No. 3, he started analysing Virat Kohli - who grew up less than six kilometres from his house - on how to bat the whole 50 overs.
"He builds his innings just how Kohli starts off, with singles and doubles, before accelerating," Nagar told ESPNcricinfo. "Playing mostly at No. 3, you need to know how to bat if one opener falls, and also know how to play the middle overs or find boundaries at the death. He doesn't bat like Virat Kohli technically, but plays like him in terms of how an innings is built.
"When Yash bats, he seems to be in control of the game's scenario. He adjusts himself according to the situation. Even in the semi-final, despite India losing two early wickets, his runs weren't stopping because he can take runs well and can even make the non-striker run harder in his presence.
"At every stage, Dhull has upgraded himself. He brings out his class the more pressure there is. What he did in the semi-final, he has done that many times in local tournaments. It was easy for him to bring India out of trouble, all from practice."
Captaincy, however, was somewhat fortuitous. In schools cricket, the captain is merely a vessel for the coach's thoughts from outside the field. It was the same for teams that played under Nagar, but an inter-school tournament in Dehradun changed that.
"Yash was a stand-in captain since Dev Lakra, the Delhi Under-19 player, was not fit. That day, I was amazed... that whatever I was thinking, he was doing that on the field before I could tell him," Nagar said. "Even IPL players like Anuj Rawat and others all supported him, they said they'll play under his captaincy so that he becomes mature.
"He is Dwarka's star. Even before he played for India, every kid in Delhi's academies knew Yash Dhull. He has played five-six years of state cricket, and he has dominated. Too many players in state cricket keep their places without dominating, he is not one of them."
For a spot in the U-19 World Cup, though, Dhull needed a top show at the U-19 Vinoo Mankad Trophy in September-October 2021. Despite Delhi not going past the group stage, Dhull's 302 runs at an average of 75.50 and a strike rate of 103.42 was enough for the selectors to name him captain for the Asia Cup and the World Cup.

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Dhull had some nervous moments before his first press conference on the eve of India's opening World Cup match, but he overcame them in characteristic fashion.
"He told me before the first game, 'they will speak in English, and ask questions in English'," Nagar recalled. "He was getting worried, so I told him that should be the least of his concerns. That boosted his morale.
"He is different. The way other kids would bunk, stop practice and go sightseeing, he wouldn't. His grandfather was in the army, and his father used to play local cricket. So his home discipline was very good. I was his coach in the school and academy, so I would see him walk in at 7.30am and I'd see him wrap up training at 7.30pm.
"He has gone through situations where kids become weak. His grandfather was his closest family member, but he passed away in 2018. He would bring Yash to academy every day, and he would spend whole days in grounds around Delhi watching Yash. So Yash was extremely affected back then, both mentally and with his cricket."
However, since those first few public interactions, Dhull's public personality has blossomed. In the first game, he seemed to hold himself back during team celebrations and appeared - from the outside - as if he was hands-off when it came to bowlers setting their fields. After the Covid-19-enforced break, that seems to have changed.
In the quarter-final against Bangladesh, every time a wicket fell, he celebrated as much as his bowlers, appeared proactive while changing the field, and one could even hear some of his instructions on the stump mic. As wickets fell, he got more attacking with his field placements. He even set the standard on the field with diving efforts and a sharp run-out.
Looking back, Dhull has probably led India in their trickiest U-19 World Cup campaign in recent history. Never before has so much uncertainty surrounded an India squad. And with India reaching every final since 2016, the pressure on the incumbent captain only rises with every edition.
That's why Dhull's 110 against Australia was so special. At 37 for 2, he was one wrong move away from triggering a batting collapse in the semi-final. But he absorbed it all, took responsibility, and counter-attacked. The final may or may not go India's way, but as long as Dhull controls the controllables, this World Cup could be the stepping stone for bigger and better.

Sreshth Shah is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @sreshthx