“Usain Bolt took only 27 odd seconds to win three Olympic titles, but it’s the hundreds of hours of training that won them for him.”
Rajesh Verma, the Indian Under-19 team manager, summed up the behind-the-scenes work even as Prithvi Shaw and Co were busy in a victory lap around the Bay Oval, taking selfies and enjoying the biggest moment of their lives.
India had just won a record fourth Under-19 World Cup title, completing a process that began almost as soon as they ended the previous campaign in Bangladesh as runners-up.
Over the last 18 months, no team has taken the U-19 level as seriously as India has. While the likes of Australia and New Zealand did not have a single tour, India played a full-fledged series in England, tested their bench strength in the Asia Cup and then arrived early in New Zealand before the World Cup.
Once in, the sharpness in their training stood out. It’s no surprise, given the coach is one Mr. Rahul Dravid.
Here’s an example: Ahead of their first group game against Australia, India reached Tauranga after a two-hour flight from Christchurch at 6 pm. By 8.30 pm, they were at the ground, practising fielding under floodlights.
Reason: That was the only opportunity for them to get used to the lights – all of India’s group matches were day-night affairs at the same venue – as the ground would be occupied for the main tournament from the following day. The World Cup victory was nothing but a culmination of all these efforts.
“The victory is just a part of the process we went through over the last 14-16 months,” explained Dravid. “The number of matches we played, the number of opportunities we gave to people. At least 30 boys played for India in different tournaments.
“A lot of this is team effort, it’s not just what I do, it’s also my support staff here, the backing of the NCA, BCCI organising tournaments and games. The selectors did a terrific job and watched a lot of games. We took a conscious decision of not picking certain boys who played in the last World Cup and were eligible for this World Cup.
“But I don’t believe they should be hanging around playing Under-19 cricket for too long. Some of these boys might not have got the opportunity to take up that responsibility. That for me has been a lot more heartening. We prepared well and it sort of all came together.”
“Dravid sir helped me a lot” by the Under-19s is high in the list of most cliched lines in Indian cricket. In Dravid’s own words, all the attention ‘embarrasses’ him, but it’s not without reason.
Through the three-week period, India’s on-field graph has been at a consistent high level, but there were plenty of teenage emotions to handle off the field. The performers naturally became stars, but the easy victories meant not all could get a chance to showcase their skills on their biggest stage yet.
It’s here that the support staff, led by Dravid, took over, ensuring they wouldn’t feel left out. Example: On the eve of the semifinal against Pakistan, even as the entire team wound up their training session and left for the bus, Dravid stayed back at the nets, spending an extra 20 minutes giving throwdowns to Aryan Juyal and working on his batting technique. Juyal would not even play in the semifinal.
The trickiest situation of all was the injury to Ishan Porel. The pacer admitted to being ‘shattered’ and even crying for two hours after a bruised heel threatened to end his World Cup.
Given how severe the injury appeared – Porel said the pain level was 9 out of 10 when he tried bowling after a week – the easiest option for India would have been to send him back home. They had anyway called for a cover in Aditya Thakare.
Yet, they promised Porel that he would remain their strike bowler. Paras Mhambrey, the bowling coach, told Porel stories about freak injuries from his playing days. Day in and day out, Anand Date, the Strength and Conditioning trainer, and Yogesh, the physio, worked on Porel to get him back on the park. Dravid did not make a big fuss about the injury, giving Porel confidence that it was nothing major. “Just prepare for the quarterfinal,” he would say. The mission ended in a success, and Porel played crucial roles in each of the knockout matches.
Dravid’s advice for Porel, in the pacer’s own words, reveals a lot about how the support staff managed the situation: “Don’t think you didn’t get IPL. Don’t think you aren’t able to bowl as fast. At this very moment, you’re giving the most effort in the team. You have put yourself on the line. Coming back from an injury. You’re risking yourself.
“So don’t think you are doing nothing, you are doing a great job for the team. The Bangladesh spell (5-2-8-0), if you didn’t bowl that, match would have been different. I have seen you bowling in challenger (trophy), if you didn’t get injured, who knows, you are the one who will get all the limelight.”
The exact opposite of the Porel case was the Kamlesh Nagarkotis, Shubman Gills and Shaws, who went big in the IPL auction.
The distractions no doubt didn’t please Dravid – he even took a dig at the touring media saying it would help if people stopped asking the players for interviews – but the management ensured they did not kill the experience for the players. There were no gag orders, and the interviews were granted with a request for the journalists: ‘don’t hype it up and distract them too much’. The players were left free to go through the emotional highs, and trusted upon to focus once back on the field.
The players returned the favour on the field, and gave Dravid & Co what the batch of 2016 missed by inches – a World Cup title. And like a high-school teacher wishing his students well for higher education, Dravid hoped life would be better for his wards.
There was a bit of emotion too, given he had bonded with the boys so closely that they even did the unthinkable: smash a cake on his face for his birthday.
“It is the end of the road in some ways, so yes, it is a bit emotional,” conceded Dravid. “Same was the case in the last edition with those boys. With that last bunch, I was with them only for two or three months. But you do get attached in many ways. It is emotional, though they do stay in touch, but of course, it is not the same thing.
“We build bonds and we build relationships and then then they go, so it is emotional. One of the important things for us next is that we need to manage them and not let them disappear after the U-19 World Cup.
“Hopefully they would have enjoyed this, they would learn from it. They’ll reflect on these last not six weeks, but 14 months, and they will take those learnings into first-class cricket. Hopefully this will not be the highlight of their careers. The highlight should come when they lift a big trophy for India or the Ranji Trophy for their state teams. This should be a stepping stone and something that’s a great memory, great friendships and they will cherish them. But the tough part starts now.”
Fortunately for India, Dravid won’t be too far away to guide these boys through the tough parts. One of the constant scenes in Tauranga over the last few weeks is a relaxed Dravid strolling through the streets in the evenings, followed by the bunch of boys. They would do well to follow the footsteps on the cricket field too.