As the India Under-19 boys were rewriting history in distant New Zealand, Venkatesh Prasad was in Nagpur watching the final of the Cooch Behar Trophy all-India Under-19 tournament, a smile on his lips. Just as Prithvi Shaw’s boys were gearing up for the mega press conference in Mumbai on February 5, with the World Cup in tow, the chairman of the junior selection panel was wending his way to Kanpur to watch the knockouts of the Under-23 tournament, suffused with a sense of satisfaction.
“I haven’t attached too much emotion to winning and losing, to the final outcome,” the former swing exponent with leg-cutters and slower ones to die for tells Wisden India. “I didn’t do that when I was a player, and I am not going to start doing that as a selector. But yes, there is a sense of satisfaction that the processes we have followed have borne fruit. There is happiness for the boys that all the hard work they have put in has resulted in World Cup success. And delight that the support staff under Rahul (Dravid) has brought the best out of a highly talented and motivated bunch.”
The responsibility on and the demands of any junior selection panel are a lot more compared to the senior committee. The latter has a huge base of data to fall back on; those that are in the reckoning have already come through the ranks, have showcased their skills and potential, their temperament and character. The junior selectors don’t have that same luxury, as Prasad agrees.
“Very true,” Prasad offers. “I might have seen someone bat really well or bowl really well in one game, and then suddenly, after a couple of matches, he might be dropped from the state side because of lack of runs or wickets. So what do I do? Do I believe what I saw was a one-off, or that the subsequent couple of failures is just a part of cricket? We can’t obviously ask the state selectors to pick players because we want to see them. It’s a tricky process.
“There are very few instances in senior cricket when you have to make a call between X and Y. If you take a 15-man squad, for instance, 12-13 will pick themselves automatically. It’s different at the junior level; you might have two or three players vying for most slots, and you can always debate why A, why not B.”
So, why A indeed, since you have brought it up? What is it that the selectors look for among the young guns?
“Obviously skills to start with, that’s a given,” says Prasad. “And then fielding, more than anything else. Fielding is not a single skill. It is not only about stopping or catching the ball. It involves judgement, it involves attitude, it involves athleticism. It is this attitude that stands out in some guys. You know that no matter what, he will put his best foot forward and make things happen. When you come across such players, you will monitor their progress closely, you will walk that extra mile in backing them.”Downsized from five to three following the Lodha Committee recommendations, selection panels have their work cut out. “It works both ways,” Prasad notes. “On the one hand, there aren’t too many voices and too much clutter. But on the other, given the size of our country and the number of games, there is so much pressure when it comes to travel, more than anything else. If three selectors is the way forward, then the board must revive talent scouting, bring back the Talent Resource Development Officers. These individuals can then scout for talent, and inform us of who to look out for, whose fortunes to track closely. Their job will end there, they won’t sit on selection meetings, they will be on board in an advisory capacity so that the load can be shared and promising talent doesn’t slip through the tiny cracks.”
Prasad was a late bloomer of sorts, not taking the conventional route to the national team. He didn’t play age-group cricket for India, therefore he says he is not in a position to compare his mindset at 18 and 19 to, say, a Shaw or a Kamlesh Nagarkoti. “But there is no doubt that these lads know the significance of doing well at Under-19 cricket. They are extremely knowledgeable and aware, they know where Under-19 cricket can take them. They were very smart, and the exposure they have had in terms of technology is massive. All of this combined has ensured that they are extremely quick learners.
“The other big plus for them is the massive support structure behind them. When I was the India Under-19 coach (he took charge in 2005, almost immediately after retiring from first-class cricket), we had a support staff of three, myself included,” Prasad points out. “I would double up as the batting, bowling and fielding coach. In addition, we had a physio who was also a physical trainer and a masseur rolled into one, and a video analyst. In fact, I had to fight really hard to get the analyst on board because I felt that at the Under-19 level, you need to be exposed to these tools not just for personal improvement but also for preparedness so that when you do go on to the next higher level, you are not found wanting or caught unawares.
“Today, there are specialised support personnel travelling with the boys, which means that Rahul, for instance, can focus on what he needs to, not worry about other things. The fielding coach can concentrate on his discipline alone, the bowling coach likewise. That is a wonderful plus for the boys, to have the benefit of the expertise of these coaches who are not burdened with too many things. It is also a little easier for the coaches because they can concentrate on specific areas.”
Prasad speaks passionately of ‘exposure’ and ‘empathy’ being key ingredients to this World Cup triumph. “While it is great that we won the title, what is equally satisfying is the route we took to the top, the processes we put in place over the last two years,” Prasad emphasises. “It is as important now that the players keep playing as many tournaments/matches against other international Under-19 sides as possible. Over the last 18 months or so, we have played a lot of international Under-19 cricket, both at home and overseas. Including the Challenger Trophy, that has allowed us to see between 30 and 50 players; you get to witness not just their skills but also their behaviour, their adaptability, their game-awareness.
“While Under-19 cricket bursts into public consciousness largely during the World Cup, our focus is not only on this event. If we are looking to identify players that can go on to represent the country at the senior level, we have to look for all-format cricketers too. Within our set-up, we have a policy that no player will play more than one Under-19 World Cup. Not only does that mean that every two years, we come up with 15 new names that can aspire for bigger things, it also ensures that youngsters aren’t merely satisfied with playing Under-19 cricket. Of course, someone like Pankaj Yadav (the 16-year-old leggie who was a part of this World Cup squad but was the only player not to play a single game) will be considered for selection in two years’ time if all other things are equal.
“But for those teenagers who have already played one World Cup and who are still below 19, it is important that you make them feel wanted. You must ensure they don’t feel discarded. For instance, when we travelled to England last year, we fielded boys who might have played in the World Cup previously — or who might have been ineligible for this World Cup – in the ‘Test’ series. These kids are at a very delicate stage of their lives. You have to treat them with care and caution, you must send out the message that they also belong. It is very important to give them confidence and hope, otherwise you can so easily lose several talented players along the way.”
More than the results, Prasad takes pride in what he calls the transparency of the selection process. “We watch a lot of cricket – believe me, a lot of cricket – at the Under-16, the Under-19 and the Under-23 levels, even though the India A team is picked by the senior selectors,” he remarks. “I have told the players that they can come to me any time if they have any queries with regard to selection. Unsurprisingly, given our upbringing, not many do, but I seek out players who have been left out and explain our thinking, where we want them to get better, those kind of things. It is imperative that you communicate with the players, that you don’t force them to worry and speculate about things.
“There is plenty of healthy debate on selection, both amongst the three of us (the other two selectors are Gyanendra Pandey and Rakesh Parikh, who travelled to New Zealand with the team) and with Rahul. It is not as if we start off agreeing on everything. Rahul will agree that we have had several differences of opinion. But this robust debate is most welcome. You don’t have to be a contrarian for the sake of it, but if everyone agrees to everything, then I feel something is wrong.
“We all are passionate about and totally committed to what we do, so we are on the right page even if our thinking isn’t always the same. Once everyone is working towards the same goal, things become a lot easier. I am thankful to Gyanendra and Rakesh that we have all shared the same vision for Indian cricket. I am not here merely to select the Indian Under-19 team or make it a strong unit. I want to make a different, I want to contribute to developing the game as a whole, not just Indian cricket. So the constant endeavour is to find means of doing so.”
Which is why, Prasad insists, junior cricket must be played in conditions that expose the players to what they can expect when they travel outside the subcontinent. “It’s not enough if you have a week-long camp in Dharamsala before heading out for a Test series in South Africa,” he says. “Not sure how much that will help. Ideally, Under-19 is the level where we need to introduce seaming conditions – the batsmen will learn from an early age how to tackle the moving ball, the bowlers will not be overawed when they encounter such conditions away from home. The more they play in these conditions, the more it will become second nature, the stronger their muscle memory.
“Currently, a lot of matches are played either on rank turners or flat tracks. Results are misleading in the case of the former; in the latter instance, the game just doesn’t progress. What is the value of these runs, especially if they are scored in the third innings when you know that the game has already been decided on the first-innings lead? If we want to produce good cricketers over the next 4-5 years, players who can play successfully for India, we need to start simulating foreign conditions in Under-19 cricket, not in the Duleep Trophy. While I understand that state associations are eager to win titles, I also feel they must take greater responsibility in creating players for the future.”
Prasad’s ‘begin early’ motto doesn’t stop with pitches alone. After a protracted battle, he finally managed to convince the decision-makers in the BCCI this season that even inter-state one-day matches in the Under-19 bracket should be played in coloured clothing, with a white ball. “Until now, only the Challenger Trophy was played in coloured clothing. All the inter-state matches were with a red ball and in whites. You have close to 500 players who play the inter-state games, and maybe 45 in the Challengers. These 45 were the only ones that had exposure to a white ball. When we know that the World Cup is not a red-ball competition, we should customise our domestic cricket accordingly, and I am glad that happened this season.”
Some artificial drama is being sought to be created by questioning the BCCI’s decision to confer a cash award of Rs 50 lakh on Dravid, as compared to Rs 30 lakh for the players, following the World Cup triumph. Prasad is expectedly not getting drawn into that debate, nor about whether the selectors should have been rewarded either. “Hey, that’s not for me to say,” he retorts. “And in any case, I don’t think you can put a price tag against passion.”
That you can’t, for sure.