Mohammad Kaif has only heard stories about India’s iconic World Cup win in 1983. He was just three when Kapil Dev’s team defeated a mighty West Indies to bring the trophy home.
So, when Kaif guided India U-19 to its first-ever World Cup win in 2000, it took him a while to realise that he had actually clinched a ‘freaking World Cup title’.
“As youngsters, you have the josh (passion), but at the same time, you are also nervous. It’s not easy to represent the country. The moment you carry the flag, don the India blazer -- you are bound to feel the pressure. That’s exactly what happened to all of us,” Kaif tells Sportstar .
It’s been two decades since his team defeated Sri Lanka in the tournament final in Colombo, but Kaif still remembers each and every moment from the campaign. “Before the tournament started, there were get-togethers with the other teams. That’s where the pressure to perform comes in. As youngsters, you finally understand the difference between this tournament and the rest,” he says.
Back in those days, an U-19 World Cup was not so much of a publicised affair, and unlike now, there would only be camps, a few months prior to the tournament. “It was challenging, no doubt. We had our camps under our coach (Roger) Binny Sir, but one of the major things that helped was the fact that most of the boys were already part of the first-class set-up. They had already made their debut in Ranji Trophy, so that experience helped them,” Kaif, who later went on to play 13 Tests and 125 ODIs for India, says.
For the last few years, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) has decided not to allow a cricketer to feature in more than one U-19 World Cup -- a rule that was not in place in Kaif’s time.
“I had played the U-19 World Cup in 1998, so when I captained the side in 2000, I had a clear idea about the tournament and its format. Those experiences helped me immensely. I could stay calm and composed and ensure that I got the best out of the players,” he says.
Kaif also admits that the experience of sharing the dressing room with some of the top first-class cricketers during the Ranji Trophy helped most players to get a hang of things. “By the time, I played the U-19 World Cup in 2000, I had the experience of playing in a Ranji Trophy final for Uttar Pradesh. It was also a journey, where we had Rahul Dravid batting against us, so all the things actually made us tough,” he says. “Players knew their roles. My role was to bring the players into the Powerplay and figure out how to use the bowlers well -- these are the things I learned during the domestic cricket days…”
The team had top cricketers, namely, Yuvraj Singh, Y Venugopal Rao, Reetinder Singh Sodhi, and, Ajay Ratra, who later also went on to play for the country. “We had some talented cricketers in the side, who could have easily made it to the Indian team had there been more opportunities and an IPL. In those days, there were not many slots available in the national team, so many of them missed out,” he admits.
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While Kaif and Yuvraj played at the highest level for long, the others fizzled out. Promising talents like Ravneet Ricky, Niraj Patel, Shalabh Srivastava failed to take the giant leap. “Now, you have a throughout the year camp for the U-19 boys, with Rahul Dravid looking after them. It was not the same in our times. We did not have so many tours. It was completely different,” Kaif says.
“He has done an incredible job with the youngsters. They know exactly what’s to be done and that actually helps in a smoother transition. The real challenge is to graduate to the next level from the U-19 team. You need to spend a couple of years at the Ranji Trophy level. Sometimes, people rush but that’s not good for a player,” Kaif admits, making it clear that Dravid’s presence has changed the face of India’s youth cricket.
Under Dravid’s coaching itself, the Prithvi Shaw-led team had won the U-19 World Cup two years ago. And as another U-19 World Cup begins in South Africa on Friday, Kaif urges the Indian team to stick to the basics and play their natural game. “When we won the title, we had no baggage. But now that we have already won four World Cups, the pressure is on the kids. They have a legacy to maintain. My advice would be: play as per the conditions in South Africa, enjoy the atmosphere and make memories."
Being India’s first U-19 World Cup-winning captain, Kaif understands what the young minds go through in the tournament and that’s why he wants the current crop to soak in the moment. “Have fun, try to be a better player every time you hit the nets. In the end, that’s something which will take you far.”
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