There are some things you can take for granted when your coach is Rahul Dravid. Meticulous preparation would rank high in the list.
The Indian Under-19 team landed in Tauranga at 6pm on Friday (January 12) after close to two hours of flying time. A little over two hours later, they were out at The Bay Oval, honing their fielding skills under the watchful eyes of Dravid, until close to 11pm.
The reason: India did not want to miss their only opportunity to practise fielding under lights, given the ground would be used for the New Zealand-Windies clash the next day. All of India’s group matches are day-night encounters, and the young boys needed to get used to the lights and the open nature of the ground, which are quite different to what they’re used to back home.
And in case that sounds tiring, the Indian team was back at the venue the very next morning, this time to have a net session followed by more fielding drills. All this, after arriving in New Zealand three weeks prior to the tournament – something even the senior side doesn’t do!
No wonder then, that the coach feels his wards are ready and raring to go ahead of their tournament opener against Australia on Sunday.
“We’re actually quite happy with the way the preparations have gone for us,” he said after overseeing another training session. “The week in Napier was good and we had a good build up as well – the Challenger Trophy, the Asia Cup… it’s been a good preparation and the guys are quite keen to start playing now.”
The preparation and planning for the tournament, in fact, started much earlier. Apart from the domestic competitions, the Indian U-19 side played two full series against England – home and away – in 2017. In comparison, Australia U-19 had one home series against Sri Lanka U-19, Windies U-19 had a tour of Zimbabwe U-19 and South Africa U-19 while the likes of New Zealand U-19 did not have a single series.
Through it all, one theme has been constant: Victories are important, but player-development is the ultimate goal.
“Wins are important, it’s not that they’re not. We play every game to win it, enter every tournament to win it,” he stressed. “We also keep the bigger picture in mind. From the players’ perspective, they want to win every game. But if you see the way we approach this tournament, in the lead up to it, what’s been satisfying for me is that we’ve given 30-35 people an opportunity to represent India Under-19 at some level in some form over the last 14 months before finalising this 15. And then just rotating the players, giving different people opportunities, also ensuring we didn’t pick people who had played last time, ensuring a fresh group keeps coming through. Those things are pleasing in the background, but when you get into a tournament like this you play every game to win, try and do your best to win this tournament.”
It’s this goal that makes Dravid ‘excited’ that the U-19 World Cup this year is in New Zealand, completely alien conditions for almost everyone in the squad.
“That was one of the exciting things, playing this tournament away from home,” he said. “Bangladesh (2016) was away as well, but this one is outside the subcontinent. It’s really a good learning from our perspective, playing a tour for us to England, just exposing them to conditions is very important at this Under-19 level. It goes back to that earlier point about these results versus the experiences, and I think it’s the experiences that really matter more than sometimes the results.”
Among the experiences and learnings, especially on tours, is the development of a team culture and bonding. With plenty of focus on individuals at this level, getting the players to play as a ‘team’ – however clichéd it sounds – could not be the easiest of tasks.
“We had various camps, had a couple of activities in the camp and did some things in our last camp in Bangalore and had a couple of days with them outside the field,” explained Dravid. “We will try to do things as and when possible, even in the day off as well. We had a couple of dinners and stuff. These boys have done camps together at the Under-16 and Under-19 level, so it’s not that they are that unfamiliar with each other, there is the odd guy who comes in out of the blue and needs assimilating. Otherwise they know each other pretty well.”
And they seem to know their coach pretty well too, as the cake-smash on his birthday suggests.
“I think there are quite a few of them who are 16 actually when I looked at the ages,” he laughs. “I don’t even look at the ages of these boys honestly, I don’t bother. It’s been good fun. I’ve kind of really enjoyed working with this group. It’s been a good experience over the last couple of years. The Under-19s are slightly different to the A team. The A team, I always feel, is a little bit more about the performances with guys almost pushing for spots into the Indian team, so you’re really focused on them trying to get performances to start getting recognition. I mean they already have got recognition, you want them to get that recognition from the selectors to get into the Indian side as we’ve seen some of the A team boys do.
“Here it’s a little bit more of a developmental role. You can have a little bit more of an impact even on technique, mindset and looking at them slightly from a long-term perspective rather than…sometimes with the A team, I feel we’re looking at them very much immediately to see how quickly they can (progress). But here, we know that the time frame is a little bit longer. So we’re not looking at them to get into the Indian team tomorrow – if they do, great – but we’re not really expecting that. We know they have three-four more years down the line, it’s a slightly different thing but both of them are really enjoyable and fun.”
It’s not all work and no play then, after all. How they balance the two over the next three weeks would be a learning curve in itself – for the World Cup, and beyond.