CHENNAI: On a day when the ICC announced the fixtures for next year’s U-19 World Cup that will be hosted by New Zealand, Indian boys were doing something special in Taunton.
A tour of England is challenging even for proven cricketers. It can make the best look silly at times. But for Prithvi Shaw and Co, their maiden visit to Old Blighty was more of a learning curve. Results, they were told, were not paramount. But they finished the tour involving two Tests and five one-dayers with a 100 per cent win record.
If one speaks to those involved in the colts set-up, it becomes clear that the thought behind the process is not restricted to U-19 cricket. While most teams prepare with an eye on the U-19 World Cup, this bunch of kids are being groomed with an eye beyond that.
With Rahul Dravid — the regular India U-19 coach — busy with the India A team, WV Raman took the boys to England. Before they left, Raman had told the boys that apart from cricket, they were to enjoy and embrace a new culture, which in future might become a part of their world more often.
“This was not just about cricket. These boys were touring a completely different environment, where the culture, food, climate and everything around them was in stark contrast to what they have seen while growing up.“This trip was an eye-opener for them, apart from the cricket side of things. We wanted them to understand all that and learn from it,” Raman explains.
Shaw is just 17. But he already has a century in a Ranji Trophy semifinal, and is being marked as the one who would take the Mumbai batting tradition forward. Apart from scoring fifties in the first three innings of the two Tests, he was captain in the one-dayers. Quite easily, he was one of the standout performers.
“A lot of people had said that the ball would swing and conditions would be tough. But cricket is the same everywhere. It’s about applying yourself and responding to challenges. Raman sir had instructed us after the warm-up fixture to not worry about results. He asked us to focus on learning. It was like our school teacher telling us to not bother about our score in exams. We sort of started feeling relaxed. It helped us give our best, without a world to worry about,” Shaw reminisces.
Taking results out of the equation has been a constant theme with the India U-19 and A sides, where learning is the most important factor. Raman explains the rationale. “Performance and results are not paramount at this level. The basic purpose is for these boys to build for the future. It’s not just about the U-19 World Cup. It’s much more than that.
“The results might make it seem like a one-sided contest, but it was far from that. England consistently put us under pressure, and the boys responded. That was pleasing. Of course, there are areas to improve, but this at least showed they have the resilience to adjust to conditions and tour dynamics.”
With the U-19 World Cup five months away, the junior set-up is excited with this result. But like with the senior side, the focus is very much on fitness and the right attitude. Junior selection committee chief Venkatesh Prasad — who was in England for the second Test and the first two one-dayers — reveals that planning doesn’t start or end here.
“These results are good. But it’s not what we are looking for. We want to create a system that keeps providing players. We don’t want to limit ourselves to the U-19 World Cup and build a team. It’s about propelling these players to the next level, because only then will the senior side benefit. It’s like a feeder system. If the grassroot doesn’t give you players, the senior structure will suffer because of that.
“This team has won, but we have not zeroed in on them as players for the World Cup. The upcoming season will throw up more players, and that’s what we selectors are trying to do. Identify talent and provide them with a structure to take them forward.”
With this lot being one of the first to grow up in the T20 era, there is temptation to ask how they look at longer formats. Most top-order batsmen made runs at a strike-rate that is common in terms of modern-day standards, but this has been the challenge for the support staff.
“The boys naturally like to play shots. At this age, you can’t impose restrictions on them,” Raman says. “What we told them was to try and bat at least two hours in the Tests, since batting time was the need of the hour, not runs. And they did try. With time, they will learn.”
Just like before
The last time Raman had helmed the India U-19 squad was in 2008, when he had taken the likes of Virat Kohli, Ravindra Jadeja, Abhinav Mukund and Saurabh Tiwary to South Africa. Like this tour, that contingent returned home victorious. They won the tri-series after beating Bangladesh in the final and then pipped the hosts 1-0 in their two-match Youth Test event.