"I will only be surprised if they don't end up winning the World Cup."
The authority in WV Raman's statement and the assurance in his tone provides an indication of the strength of the current India U-19 cricket team.
With just five months to go for the U-19 World Cup in New Zealand, the India colts' impressive performance on the England tour further crystallised the fact that exciting times lie ahead for Team India's younger cohorts.
The Himanshu Rana-led 'Test' side overpowered England 2-0 while Prithvi Shaw's ODI side thumped the hosts 5-0. Raman, who coached the team in the absence of Rahul Dravid, who was away with the India A side on the South Africa tour, was impressed with the group and the brand of cricket they played.
"It's a well balanced side," Raman told Firstpost. "They played very well as a unit. They played exciting cricket and did tremendously well. They all play their natural game as these boys are all brought up playing positive cricket," he added.
While India's performance has everyone excited with the World Cup round the corner, the England tour wasn't just about preparing for the mega event. It was about looking at the larger picture. Apart from Shaw, no player in the group had played in England before. So it was all about gaining valuable experience.
"This goes well beyond the World Cup. This was more or less a development programme for these cricketers on a long term basis," the former India opener said. "So it was more about embracing and enjoying the challenge. And making most of the platform wherein they get to display their talent and also learn in the process. The more they play, the more they learn quickly," he added.
One of the crucial aspects that acted as a catalyst for the group's success was a clear mind. Throughout our conversation, Raman stressed on the importance of having an uncluttered mind. Something which the support staff tried to implement. Working on the mental aspect was the primary objective. The past didn't matter. The conditions and the pitches weren’t paramount. It was all about taking things as they came.
"They were told to go out for themselves, find and then work it out instead of going by what they have seen earlier," Raman said. "Earlier they would have seen a lot of cricket in England. They would have heard a lot of things as to what is likely to happen and what not. But the best thing for them was to go out in the middle, see what is happening and then respond accordingly. That is one thing they would have learnt.
And this is something that will be of immense help for the youngsters during the World Cup.
"When they get to New Zealand, they won't be unduly worried about what may happen and what might not. This will be their biggest takeaway from the England tour," Raman said.
The other thing that helped was that the group's positive response to the coaching staff's inputs which brought to light their ability to adapt quickly.
"Leading up to the first 'Test', there was a warm-up game and that didn't go down well. But these boys, in the next two training sessions, worked towards an objective and they immediately sorted it out in two days," Raman said.
The objective was to have a free mind, which Raman stressed continually. The Indian colts piled up 519 in the first innings of the first 'Test' and that set the tone for the rest of the series.
"Then they put up big runs in the 'Tests' which is encouraging because this was a batch of young boys who were going to a foreign country for the first time. If they can switch their mindset so quickly and get the job done, it's a big encouraging factor," the 52-year-old added.
Post the 2016 U-19 World Cup heartbreak where the Indian colts lost to West Indies in the final, the new batch has got into the groove early, winning the Asia Cup last year, the ODI series against England 3-1 at home and winning the reverse fixture 5-0. According to Raman, the biggest strength of the current group is its all-rounders as the bowlers can also bat a bit. Kamlesh Nagarkoti, Shivam Mavi, Rahul Chahar and Ashok Sandhu, all chipped in with crucial contributions down the order.
This was Raman's second stint as a U-19 coach. He was in charge of the 2008 batch, which had the likes of Virat Kohli, Ravindra Jadeja, Manish Pandey, Abhinav Mukund, Saurabh Tiwary, and won the tri-series in South Africa also involving Bangladesh along with a 1-0 win in the two-'Test' series. Asked to compare the two sides, the former India opener revealed what makes the current team a well-balanced one.
"This side has a much better fast bowling attack. And the future results proved, the guys who went on to play, except Jadeja, from that (2008 team) have all been batsmen. So they were batting heavy," Raman said. "But again this is a phase. In one phase you will get a batting heavy side. In one phase you will get a well balanced side and in one phase you will get a team in which there is more bowling than depth in batting. It's all a question of timing. So in this age group, this fluctuation is quite possible," he added.
Raman was of the opinion that they colts did "fairly well" as a fielding unit but this was just the start of their journey and they can only improve from here on.
What will also provide impetus is the domestic experience."The side which played in England, all batsmen, all of them have played in Vijay Hazare or Ranji. Which means their confidence is already higher when they come to the U-19 platform," Raman said.
Shaw, Rana, Chahar and Salman Khan have even played First Class cricket. And the experience they bring will be more than handy.
"It will definitely help the team because there will be more experience which means they will handle the situations better," Raman said. "It will rub off on the others as well and provide great level of confidence to the others who have not played at the First Class level," he added.
The likes of of Het Patel, Rana, Shaw, Abhishek Sharma, Shubman Gill, Harvik Desai, Chahar, Nagarkoti, Salman, Shiva Singh, Yash Thakur have been a part of all the three 'ODI' tournaments played up till now which indicates that they might form the core of the team.
Over the years, India's U-19 teams have been a dominant force in World Cups. They have won three editions – 2000, 2008 and 2012. This team seems to be no different. Raman complements the system for the success of the colts.
"That is because of our system. Because these boys, before they get to the U-19 stage or get to a situation where they are picked for the World Cup, would have played three-four years of domestic competitive cricket starting from the U-16 which means these boys are playing from 14-15 onwards and have three-four years of experience of playing in good, well-structured domestic tournaments. So in that respect our boys are definitely at an advantage over the others," says Raman.
The overseas success has injected positive vibes ahead of the World Cup. However, maintaining the momentum will be the key and also not allowing any gremlins an entry into the mind.
"The biggest challenge will obviously be them not getting complacent. Complacency is probably one thing that can set the cat among the pigeons," Raman said.
"As long as they don't allow second guessing or things getting into their head like pitch and conditions, I think they will end up doing very well," he added.
This is where Dravid will have a vital role. Raman has handed back the coaching baton to Dravid, who has played a crucial role in U-19 team's success in the past couple years. It was under his tutelage that India reached the final of the 2016 U-19 World Cup.
"The boys are tremendously lucky to have somebody like him guiding them and in every which way they are well-equipped in terms of the skill and the support they are going to get," Raman said.
This time too the talent at Dravid's disposal is plenty which is a good headache to have. However, there are some names that stood out on the England tour.
Shaw, who sprung into the limelight with a ton on Ranji debut, ended as the highest run-getter in the England 'Tests'. He also captained the 'ODI' squad. There will be a lot of expectations riding on his shoulders during the World Cup.
"The sort of positive mindset that he has and the fearless manner in which he takes the opposition attack by the scruff of the neck is a rare ability at that age," Raman says who was also impressed with the 17-year-old's captaincy.
Shaw's innate aggression seems to have rubbed off on his leadership as he made the right moves and rotated his bowlers well. He seemed to be well ahead of the game.
Opener Gill was the highest run-getter in the 'ODI's with 278 runs from four matches at 92.66. He continued from where he left off when England toured India when he was the highest run-getter in the 'ODI's (351 from four matches) at a staggering average of 117. Earlier this year, he hit a century on his List A debut. Gill's rapid rise has caught a lot of eyes. “Dabang player hain. Bahut positive rehta hain. India khel lega woh,” ace off-spinner Harbhajan Singh said after his match-winning century for Punjab against Delhi on List A debut.
"He can play a long innings and he paces his innings really well," said Raman who is also a batting coach at the National Cricket Academy. "He is a calm guy and a terrific striker of the ball. He can pack a lot of punch behind his shots. And once he is in full (flow), he can really collar the attack," Raman said.
Nagarkoti has been highly rated in the Indian cricketing circles. The athletic right-arm fast bowler, who has got a very good run-up along with acceleration and ability to generate a lot of pace and bounce, was the highest-wicket taker in the England 'Tests'. Mavi too has caught Raman's eye. "Shivam Mavi is also a really good prospect," the former India opener said. "He also was a very good performer on the tour. Both these boys (Nagarkotti and Mavi) did well all-round. That's another exciting thing about both of them; they are real good all-rounders. So that is what really excites me," Raman added.
The talent is there but now the important thing will be to play as many competitive matches as possible together as a unit, and Ranji and List A experience will also be the key. There is a slight unease among Indian cricket fans at present as they nervously start to contemplate the possible goodbyes of greats such as Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Yuvraj Singh. This group of youngsters offers hope that there is nothing to worry about in the future.