Under-19 World Cup is the greatest stage for a young player to showcase his talent. Every player is eager to do well and with the entire world watching, the teenagers try and make a name for themselves and get some recognition. But ahead of their departure for the World Cup in Bangladesh, India U-19 coach Rahul Dravid has urged his players to take this as an opportunity to learn and grow as cricketers.
"My message to them is to focus on actually improving, getting better, seeing this an opportunity to learn and grow as a cricketer, to see this World Cup as another exposure they are getting at a very young age," Dravid said at the pre-departure conference in Mumbai on Tuesday.
"They are lucky to get this at a young age. That’s all I tell them about. It is just one step in their journey as cricketers. I mean nobody wants to end up being just an Under-19 India cricketer. That is not the aspiration of anybody in that dressing room we are sitting."
"This is just one more sort of opportunity to learn, to grow, just to get a little bit more exposure - foreign exposure - play against teams or boys of your age overseas. Like I always keep reminding them there are enough examples of people who go on to play India Under-19 but don’t go on to represent India. Conversely there are very good examples of people who have played at this level and then actually gone on to represent India. The important thing you have to go on from here score runs in first-class cricket, score runs in List A games and then get the recognition from the selectors," Dravid added.
The U-19 boys hadn't played a lot of cricket in the last two years, it's only in the last couple of months that they came together and played some games. Dravid said that his biggest challenge ahead of the tournament was to select the best 15 out of the 'incredibly talented' pool of players and working on small things to get them working in unison.
"When I look at the 36 boys that assembled in Pune, everyone of them was talented, everyone one had scored runs for his state team. Bringing it down to 15 and ensuring that everyone was given an opportunity to stake a claim was my biggest challenge, so that's why we rotated the squad a lot, we kept rotating the teams and giving everyone opportunities," Dravid said.
"Because they hadn't played a lot of cricket together, we worked on balancing that out with simple things like batting together, forming partnerships, running between the wickets, these are things we were trying to work on constantly and trying to improve and get better. Sometimes small things like these need to be worked on," he added.
Dravid, who was focused and intense during the media briefing, also let his good humour shine through during the briefing. When asked about why wicket-keeper batsman from Jharkhand - Ishan Kishan was chosen as captain for the World Cup, he replied, "Seems like captains from Jharkhand seem to do well in World Cups." before quickly clarifying "That was a joke by the way," with an innocent smile.
When asked whether the boys were nervous while approaching him, he said "I hope not. I hope we've created a pretty relaxed atmosphere in the dressing room. Some of them have started imitating me as well now. Doesn't look like they are that much in awe of me," he said with a hearty laugh.
Dravid was a part of three World Cup teams - (1999, 2003, 2007), but he never managed to get his hands on the coveted trophy. He however emphasised that he is not using this opportunity to fill that trophy void.
"[That's the] beauty of being a coach - woh mere haat mein nahin hain (Winning the World Cup and results are not in my hand). I am not really going into this tournament thinking if we win it or if we lose it. I know the role of a coach," Dravid said.
"And I know how much a coach can influence and impact a result. I am realistic about that. I knew how much I could impact the result as a player and I am realistic about how much I can impact the result as a coach. So it is in their hands. It is their opportunity. Their team. Their World Cup. I am not trying to win the World Cup as a coach. I am trying to hopefully grow and develop these guys. Winning the Under 19 World Cups is honestly not the be-all and end-all of anything. In the end I will be more happy if some of these guys go on and play for India and represent India. That should be their aim and real aspiration."
While the Indian senior team has been struggling against spin of late, Dravid said spin isn't a problem for the junior side going into the World Cup and that they've worked on rotation of strike.
"Overall, one of the things we've stressed a lot upon at the U-19 level is the ability to rotate strike, it takes a lot of pressure off you. I talk about it a lot to the players. All of them can hit big shots, there's no doubt about it, they've grown up in an era where they are practicing big shots and try and hit sixes. Some of the distances that these boys are hitting it boggles your mind actually," Dravid said
"While I wouldn’t say it (spin) is a weakness it is an area I have stressed on because going into the World Cup in Bangladesh we might not get 300-plus wickets. It might be wickets where the games might be 240-, 250-plus. We got those kind of games in Kolkata. Luckily in Sri Lanka as well the wickets were a bit slower. We adapted well. We rotated the strike. But we can always better and keep improving," he added.
Dravid said that Ishan and Rishab Pant (both wicket-keepers) get into the playing eleven. Rishab will keep wickets while Ishant will play as batsman, he will focus on his batting and captaincy.
Dravid also explained how professionalism has changed current Under-19 cricket compared to his under-19 days.
"One thing that hasn't changed is ambition. The level of exposure these boys have today, the level of professionalism that is there, for an U-19 to have the quality of support staff that these guys have - physios, trainers, three coaches, manager. The board has done a great job," Dravid said.
"They've been at MCA camps all the time. They've literally been a part of the system for the last four-five years. They've been playing so many matches. So that's the big difference. In our time we would probably have one national camp, there wasn't even a World Cup in my days as u-19 cricketer," he added
"I remember playing this one series when New Zealand U-19 came here in my last year of U-19, we played a couple of matches and that was it. That was the level of U-19 cricket I played. So there just wasn't as much cricket in my time. But now they are much more aware, much more street smart, they've played a lot more cricket than we have. There's a level of professionalism the kind of things they are doing for the fitness, diet, I think we hadn't even heard of that when I was in the Indian team forget the U-19 team," said Dravid as the room bursts into laughter.
India are drawn in group D alongside Ireland, New Zealand and Nepal. Dravid is not worried about the other teams as long as they execute their skills to perfection. "One of the things about Under-19 is you don’t have enough knowledge about a lot of teams. So I am not really focussed on who we are going play against," Dravid said. "It is really about can we do what we do well. Now I believe there is a lot of talent in the group. We are covered in all departments. We have got good fast bowlers. We have got very good spinners. We have got allrounders. We bat deep. We bat upto eight. It is about the boys performing under pressure. If they play well and if they perform upto the potential that I have seen over the last two months then I don’t think we need to worry too much what the other teams are like," he added.
Players like Sarfraz Khan, Ricky Bhui and Avesh Khan have played in the previous World Cup and also at the first-class level. Dravid is of the opinion that this experience will come in handy in this edition of the World Cup.
"It is good (playing first-class cricket), obviously they've played against some senior players, they've played in high pressure situations. Everytime you play in a first-class game, especially as a youngster, it means that you have to take and handle a certain amount of pressure, because there is pressure of expectation to perform, there is a pressure of expectation to prove yourself as a youngster, so I am sure that's always helpful to have people with certain amount of first-class experience," Dravid added.
India begin their campaign against Ireland on 28 January at the Sher-e-Bangla national stadium in Mirpur.