Passengers on flight No. EK 501 from Mumbai to Dubai in the early hours of December 28 would have been in for a veritable feast. Especially those who have an interest in cricket, passing or otherwise.
The glorious past, the exciting present and the promising future of Indian cricket were among the fliers in a rare coincidence. Virat Kohli’s senior side was on its way to Cape Town for what ought to be one hell of a scrap in South Africa; Prithvi Shaw’s lads were headed to New Zealand for the World Cup, seeking a slice of history as India chase an unprecedented fourth title.
Close to 60 men/boys involved in international cricket, battle-hardened veterans and bubbly teenagers, coaches boisterous and composed, all in one closeted space, must have been quite a spectacle. It is possible that the seniors would have draped themselves in their cocoon of shades – yes, even at 4 am – and earphones; it is also possible that their understudies might have done the same had they not been awe of a team that has lorded home patch, and is now girding its loins for a succession of overseas examinations.
Kohli’s men take on South Africa in the first of three Tests on January 5. Shaw’s boys don’t begin their World Cup campaign until January 14, when they run into Australia in Mount Maunganui. So, how come they both flew out of India on the same day, at the same time? Had the big boys left it too late? Or were the not-so-big ones going too early?
There is, of course, no such thing as being too early. Not for a bunch of teens that hasn’t played overseas all that often, and that has only been exposed to New Zealand on television and over the internet. Landing up a fortnight ahead of a three-week tournament might appear overkill, but even accounting for the resilience and adaptability of youth, it is never inadvisable to do everything in one’s control to ensure that all bases are covered, that preparation is impeccable, that acclimatisation isn’t left to chance and hope.
This is pretty much a Rahul Dravid initiative, that’s no secret. The former India skipper might have taken the route less glamorous – the unavoidable, lurking snipers have called it the route less demanding – but he has immersed himself totally in the Under-19 and India ‘A’ set-ups. He isn’t coach only by nomenclature; the father of two young boys himself, Dravid has at once been coach and mentor, friend and father-figure, falling back on his vast reservoir of experience and his celebrated fountain of patience to try and mould the promise of today to stars of tomorrow.
As far back as October 2015, in his first stint as the Under-19 and ‘A’ coach, Dravid had told Wisden India that cricket at the age-group level necessarily wasn’t about results. “It is a World Cup and you want to try and win it,” he had said of the 2016 Under-19 World Cup campaign in Bangladesh. “But in the larger scheme of things, it is also not really the end in itself. You want to ensure that you bring players along who go on to represent India. I don’t think you can solely focus on the results even at an Under-19 level. There is a bit more coaching to be done at the Under-19 level, looking at the skill a little bit more and just bringing on the next generation of cricketers.”
Few others would have escaped scrutiny had they said the same things. Ravi Shastri, the head coach of the senior side, received reasonable flak for his tetchy “T20 cricket for us, we don’t care. You win or lose, it doesn’t matter” comments in the immediacy of the Twenty20 International series against Sri Lanka last week. Dravid’s remarks didn’t attract the same reaction not just because of who had said it, but in what context they were said. Dravid had chosen his words carefully, much like he had chosen his options while at the batting crease, and his reasoning appealed even to those who believe that the Indian cricket team, any Indian cricket team, simply cannot lose.
Dravid’s wards had a wonderful World Cup until they ran into a tartar in Shimron Heymyer’s West Indian boys in the final. It was a bitter end to a well-crafted campaign, a dream shattered because none of these boys would play another Under-19 World Cup – another of Dravid’s suggestions based on the conviction that if you hadn’t graduated to the next level in two years’ time, you probably weren’t going to make it.
Only Rishabh Pant and Washington Sundar from that Bangladesh event have gone on to represent India at the senior level. Some have shown flashes of brilliance, others such as Sarfaraz Khan haven’t progressed along expected lines. The transition from an Under-19 star to an apprentice at the senior grade is a difficult, demanding and often confusingly rebellious one. It’s precisely for this reason that Dravid has tried to insulate his pupils from the harsh glare of a spotlight that could turn from ally to foe in the blink of an eyelid.
Of this current lot, a fair few have already cut their teeth in first-class cricket, most notably the ebullient skipper who, in one season, has gone from a three-shots-to-a-ball batsman to a more mature, rounded individual who has learned and is practicing the virtues of shot-selection. Shaw is justifying the hype that invariably accompanies any Mumbai youngster; in entrusting him with the cares of captaincy, the think-tank has also conferred a responsibility that will stand him and Indian cricket in good stead in time to come.
The Under-19 lads will perforce have to perform in the shadow of their illustrious older counterparts, it goes without saying. But even in the middle of their own demanding schedules, the Kohlis and the Rahuls and the Rohits and the Jadejas will cast an interested eye on another part of the southern hemisphere. All of them have been part of Under-19 World Cups – Kohli led the team to the title in Kuala Lumpur in 2008 at about the same time Mahendra Singh Dhoni was masterminding an epochal win against the hosts in the final of the tri-series in Australia – and their interest will have been piqued by the interaction with the kids in Mumbai ahead of their respective departures.
The juniors themselves will dedicate the next two weeks to training and preparation, but knowing Dravid, it won’t be just all work and no play. The trick is in putting the 16-year-old son of a milkman from Ranki village in Jharkhand (Pankaj Yadav, the leggie) at ease, as much as it is geeing up the more experienced Shaw and Shubman Gill, Abhishek Sharma and Himanshu Rana, Kamlesh Nagarkoti and Shivam Mavi. They may not become household names in the next month, but they could take baby steps towards getting there sometime in the future. Therein lies the excitement of the journey.