Rahul Dravid on India's pace revolution, U-19 World Cup and mental health

Rahul Dravid, former India captain, speaks at length about the upcoming U-19 World Cup, his new role at the NCA, mental health of cricketers and more.

With the U-19 World Cup set to begin in South Africa from January 12, next year, Dravid wants to make sure India gets the team balance right.   -  GETTY IMAGES

It’s a warm November afternoon in the historic city of Lucknow and India U-19 team is playing its fourth One-dayer against Afghanistan at the Ekana Stadium’s B ground, on the outskirts of the city.

As the young cricketers battle it out on the field, former India captain, Rahul Dravid, closely observes them, sitting in one corner of the players’ arena. He walks up to coaches Paras Mhambrey and Abhay Sharma now and then to discuss a thing or two.

With the U-19 World Cup set to begin in South Africa from January 12, next year, Dravid wants to make sure the defending champion gets its balance right.

“I think we are very confident with the process and preparation we have set up,” he says.

As the new director of National Cricket Academy, Dravid’s work profile has changed, but the former captain -- who has worked as the head coach of U-19 and A teams for long -- wants to make sure that Indian cricket moves in the right direction.

Dravid speaks about the U-19 World Cup, his new role at the NCA and explains why it is important to utilise Indian coaches more in a chat with Sportstar...

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India Under-19 and India A have been almost unbeatable since you took charge, winning against all teams everywhere. What do you think has gone right?

I think there’s a lot of talent in this country, for starters. More than winning — which I’ve always said is not a marker by which I honestly judge the success of a program at this level — for the success of these developmental programmes [what matters] is how many of the players can we move on to the next level. Yes, it’s nice to win some of these tournaments, but more important is how many players are we able to reach and touch for say, a 14 to 16 months cycle that we work with these U-19 boys. How quickly we can get them hopefully into first-class cricket, and establish themselves there. Once they get to that level, then it’s up to them. The journey goes forward. If you go back over the last three or four years that I’ve been involved in this – it’s not just me, obviously a lot of other coaches and people have been involved – the heartening thing for me is how many have gone on to become established players in their Ranji Trophy teams. Some of them have gone on to captain their teams at 21.

After a fairly successful stint with the India U-19 team, many cricketers fail to make it to the next stage. Where do they go wrong? 

You can’t judge by how many players go on to play for India. Because playing for India has many factors. It depends on opportunities, spaces available… someone might be good enough but there might just not be an opportunity opening up in the national team. So it’s not that, but it’s how quickly you can get them in the first-class scene. How many players were you able to give access to good facilities at the NCA, access to good coaching. Get them to interact with a good physio, good trainers – that helps them in the long run. I’d like to believe that in this cycle, over the last 14-16 months, nearly 40-45 boys have played for India U-19. I think that’s the real credit. And credit to the junior selectors, who go around looking for these boys. They’ve also been brave enough to understand that winning is not everything. We’ve been willing to change and rotate our squads around a lot so that everyone gets fair opportunities, everyone gets to learn. The focus has been on learning and development rather than the pure result. It’s great that results have come, and I think that’s a reflection of the talent India possesses.

It’s even more impressive that the results have been the way they have, despite the focus not being on results…

That’s a nice thing. Sometimes if you focus on development, you get results also! And even with the India A programme, just the increase of the programme, ensuring we’ve rotated squads around, tried to give opportunities… it’s created a professional and relaxed environment around these teams. That’s been a credit to the coaches and the selectors, it’s been a good team effort.

But the increase in performance and results has been more marked since you’ve taken over. Is there something being done that wasn’t done previously?

We’ve been able to convince the board (BCCI) and ensure the boys are playing more cricket at this level. I feel there needs to be a step-up in level. For our U-19 boys, there needs to be a step-up from U-19 domestic tournaments if we want to these boys to establish themselves quickly in first-class cricket. To do that, we need to give them a slightly higher level of cricket. Same thing with India A. Our domestic cricket is good, but the India A programme is critical.

The good thing for us is that a lot of other countries play a lot of their international players in the 'A' teams, whereas we might focus more on younger players. Maybe because their numbers are smaller. I have played against teams like South Africa and Australia A, who had seven or eight of their international players in the team against you. That is really good competition and the standard is definitely higher than the first-class game, the pressure is more. Then that helps build confidence, if you succeed at that level against some of those guys.

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The focus has also been on producing better pitches at the junior level… 

Whenever we’ve been in control of the pitches, one of the things I’ve tried to do is ensure we play on good, sporting pitches. Leave a lot of grass on it, with a view of long-term development of these players, not necessarily wanting to win that series, but more saying, ‘Hey, what’s beneficial to these guys in the longer run?’ It’s been quite a satisfying three or four years, for me. I hope we can keep this going, and keep building, growing and improving these programmes.

Under your coaching, India U-19 team won the World Cup in 2018. From January 12, next year, another U-19 World Cup will be held in South Africa. What are your thoughts?

The India U-19 team, which won the World Cup in 2018. (representational image)   -  Vijay Bate

 

I think we are very confident with the process and preparation we’ve set up. At the start of the cycle, I tell a lot of these guys who are pushing for spots, ‘We’ll give you enough opportunities to put your hand up and select yourself.’ And honestly, hand on heart, at least 40-45 boys can say, ‘Hey, we got a chance. We got opportunities.’ This is the last tournament we’re playing -- One-dayers against Afghanistan U-19 -- before the World Cup team is announced, and even here we continue to rotate, continue to give other boys an opportunity. We have not given chances only to the boys whom we know are certainties in the final team. Even if players don’t make the World Cup squad, it’ll give them some experience playing against these teams. I’m really happy with the way we’ve now worked on a process where we bring it down from almost 150 kids to a final 15. If you’re really good, I think you would have put your name up for selection. I don’t think anyone can say that there weren’t enough opportunities.

What might happen at this level is that boys miss out in a particular year. They’re all growing still. I see this a lot at this age, that people have bad years. You see them playing very well one year and then suddenly they struggle the next. So they don’t get picked on form. But I always try and tell them, ‘Don’t worry. It’s not about getting selected for the World Cup. In the long run, nobody’s going to remember if you played in the Under-19 World Cup or not.’ It’s about ‘can I become a successful first-class cricketer and from there, go on to play for India’. There are so many examples in just the last four years that I’ve been involved in, where people have missed out on the World Cup, but two or three years later, they’ve overtaken the boys who had made the team. Nothing stops people from catching up. Look at Ruturaj Gaikwad and say Devdutt Padikkal – they didn’t make our World Cup squad. And they’ve started doing well for their first-class teams. Those are the kind of things you like to see.

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What are the areas you think the U-19 boys should be working on, keeping the World Cup in mind?

These are some of the most talented boys from our domestic competition that finally get selected. What has been heartening for me over the last few years is how many of the boys – not only in the 15 – have played for India Under-19 in this cycle. I’m hoping that within the next two years, at least 30-35 of them go into first-class teams. If 10-15 of them establish themselves in their first-class teams, that will be a success for us. Winning and losing is not how I necessarily judge things.

What are your observations of the U-19 level in the last two years?

There’s an amazing amount of talent. The standard is high at our level and it’s just a question of now giving them the exposure and opportunity to play against better opposition. What happens is, a lot of these boys dominate in their state teams because they are better than a lot of the other players. We want to challenge them and give them something slightly more tough. Make the best play against the best. This will then make it easier when they go into the first-class game. Otherwise the gap between U-19 and first-class becomes too much. It’s tournaments and matches like this, or Challenger Trophies.

You are no longer the head coach of the Under-19 teams or the A team, you are NCA director now. How has your role changed?

It’s changed a little bit in the sense that this time it’s not as much hands-on with a lot of these boys. I have been around with them, I was in England and I came here as well. But it’s also really about working with the coaches we’ve had. We’ve got some really good coaches for these guys at the moment – Paras (Mhambrey), Hrishi (Hrishikesh Kanitkar) and Abhay (Sharma). Top-class coaches, very experienced, who’ve been in the system. Paras and Abhay have been with me on both the other World Cups. So, this allows us to not only develop players, but also develop our coaches. This is a platform where we should also be developing and growing our coaches, so we’ve tried to do that at the Under-19 and India A level. That’s also part of my role now. It’s slightly broader in terms of helping us identify and develop the next generation of coaches coming through, giving them a lot more responsibility. Yes I’m involved, and around. I’m here and might probably go to the World Cup for some part, maybe the start or during the preparation phase. But really, I think it’s been about giving them a lot more freedom and allowing them to develop and grow.

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You have a fair idea about the possible squad for India U-19. What do you think is the side’s strength going into the World Cup?

We have got a good balance in the team. We probably had more all-rounders in last year's team. The guys like Kamlesh (Nagarkoti), Shivam (Mavi) could all bat. Last year's World Cup team could bat down to till No.10. But in terms of balance, the selectors have done a fine job in picking a good side. So, if the conditions in South Africa aid the fast bowlers, we will have a pretty good attack. We have got batting down to seven, eight, nine. We have got spinners. We had enough competition for places, so that was nice to see. Most of the guys who were selected here had to perform to earn their spots, it did not come easy. I honestly feel that some of the boys will be unlucky to miss out.

Does being a defending champion matter in a tournament like the U-19 World Cup?

Not really. It’s going to be a great learning experience for our boys and we will try and create a good environment and play some good cricket. If we win great. Defending champion, for me, doesn’t (matter). All the boys are new. One of the things that we have done over the years is that we have ensured that no one plays more than one World Cup. So, everyone will be playing their first World Cup. It makes no difference.

Rahul Dravid: "Whether its Shubman Gill or Prithvi Shaw from the last (U-19) batch, if you look at their performances, they have got into the Indian team based on the runs scored in Ranji Trophy, or for India A."   -  VIJAY SONEJI

 

The heroes of the 2018 U-19 World Cup-winning squad Prithvi Shaw and Shubman Gill have been drafted into the national team. But there have been occasions when injuries have been an issue for the young guns and Prithvi recently faced a suspension for violating anti-doping code. What are the areas that an young cricketer should keep in mind before stepping into the big stage?

One of the challenges that happen from U-19 level to first-class level is that a lot of these boys are used to being sort of stars in their team at the U-19 level because they are good and are the main players of the team. They play responsible roles and are used to the team depending on them. Suddenly, you go to the first-class scene, where you start as a junior as there are other players. It’s a different kind of mindset and sometime you just need to adapt to that mindset. It’s not easy. Here we talk to these boys, some of the care and the attention that they get at this level, they suddenly find that at the Ranji Trophy stage or in the first-class level, they don’t get that. We constantly have conversations with them, we try and explain to them. You are used to batting first at the nets here, but suddenly you go the Ranji team, and you are one of the 10 batsmen. You have to learn to adjust to the whole environment. That’s what part of growing up is. That’s why I always say that success for us is how quickly we can integrate these boys into those teams.

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All U-19 and India A players always say the atmosphere is completely different when you are part of the team. Will you not being there as much make difference?

I don’t think so. I believe we’ve got some very good coaches, a lot of good people. I’m fully confident (in their ability). Just as we have a lot of talent in the cricket department, we have a lot of talent in the coaching department. We need to give them confidence and time to flourish. I’m sure they will do it.

It does sometimes disappoint me when a lot of our boys don’t get opportunities as assistant coaches in IPL. Honestly, there are so many Indian players in the IPL, there’s so much of local knowledge (among our coaches). I feel a lot of teams could benefit from using a lot of our Indian coaches in the IPL. They know the Indian players better, they understand them better.

Through the NCA we’re also going to try and help a lot of our coaches. We’ve hired Sujith now, who has come on as head of education. A part of our goal is to create a programme for coaches as well, so that we can give them certain skills they can develop – and hopefully then get the opportunities to work at a slightly higher level. I think a lot of IPL teams miss a trick by not using more domestic talent in the coaching and talent identification areas, even as assistants. That’s my personal opinion.

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Dravid’s NCA appointment has led to the elevation of Sitanshu Kotak and Paras Mhambrey as the head coaches of the India A and U-19 teams respectively.   -  Getty Images

 

In the recent past, overseas teams like South Africa and Australia have appointed specialist Indian support staff ahead of their tours to India or South Asia. While Australia hired S. Sriram as a spin consultant, South Africa roped in Amol Muzumdar as batting coach for the Test series against India. Do you think even the BCCI should bring more former cricketers on board for coaching assignments?

Well to be honest, Indian cricket’s coaching staff is completely Indian and they are doing a fantastic job. It’s not for me to decide for franchises and head coaches what they do, but I think they miss a trick by not involving more Indian coaches. Indian coaches understand and know the system, and they know a lot of Indian players. Every IPL team has at least 17-18 Indian players. It’s my personal view, but I would love to see a lot of our boys get the opportunity to be in and around that environment. Hopefully we can work with some teams to try and ensure that.

What are your immediate targets as the NCA director?

We have ideas around the building of a new NCA, around some of our coaching and education programmes, the camps we’re doing, the tournaments we’re holding… there are so many things. We’ve put it up to the board and office bearers.. I’m hoping now we’ll get a chance to move forward in some of these areas.

Ever since Sourav Ganguly took charge as the president of the BCCI, he has made it clear that his priority will be to improve the standard of first-class cricket. What are the areas, that you think, need to be changed?

We have got a pretty good system. I don’t think there is too much you can change. There are small things in the system that probably Sourav was mentioning -- providing security to first-class cricketers, the quality of the wickets, the quality of the facilities that first-class and U-19 cricketers get to train in, practise in.

Fitness, physiotherapy -- all of these things have improved, but it’s just a constant process that you keep getting better at. Some things are quite good. For many, many years, we have got a pretty successful system going. We play a lot of matches. But you just need to keep improving, and attention to detail is something we can focus on. There is nothing called a perfect thing, you always learn and improve. That’s true for the players, for the system and that’s true for everything.

Not long ago, the Indian team would dominate visiting sides with its spin bowling prowess. But with time and a changed mindset, the country’s fast bowlers have come to the fore across formats. Do you think that the younger generation of cricketers are being inspired by India’s senior pace bowlers?

Now at the Under-19 level, we have very good fast bowlers. Last time (in the 2018 U-19 World Cup), we had three of them – Kamlesh (Nagarkoti), Shivam (Mavi) and Ishan (Porel). This year, you will also see some good fast bowlers in the team. So I think that’s been fantastic. I think when you have role models and you have heroes like the senior team… What Ishant, Shami, Umesh, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Bumrah are doing is they are actually in a way becoming role models for a lot of younger generation of boys who believe now they can be fast bowlers, bowl fast and be successful as fast bowlers in India. I think it is great to see that. We had people like Kapil (Dev), Sri (Javagal) Srinath, Zaheer (Khan) and all that in the past. But now as a group probably this is you know one of the best fast bowling attacks we have ever had. I think that's a great inspiration for a lot of these young boys.

Indian pacers Ishant Sharma, Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami and Umesh Yadav (not in picture) have been integral to India's success in Tests.   -  AP

 

But then, spin remains a key in the Indian sub-continent. And even at the U-19 level, there is a pool of talented spinners. What are your thoughts on the road ahead for the tweakers across formats?

Spin is a little more challenging, I would say. There are good spinners in the country; don’t get me wrong, but I think because the amount of white-ball cricket has increased with T20s and even so many domestic tournaments are played in white ball, it has got a bit tougher for the younger spinners to balance that. But the challenge you face in U-19 level is the spinners finding it difficult to strike the balance between white ball and red ball cricket. Going ahead, that’s one of our goals -- we want to try and work with our spinners on how they make those adjustments. Even in U-19, we have got some good spinners, but the adjustment from U-19 to first-class cricket has probably been easier for batsmen and fast bowlers than say, for the spinners.

One of the major concerns for the pacers is injury. Despite promising starts, many fast bowlers had to halt their careers due to injury…

Unfortunately it’s a very unnatural activity. The things that have improved in India is the focus on fitness and the focus on physiotherapy. The care that we can give. Some of the facilities that our U-19 boys have today are amazing. It has given them the access to some of the best physios and trainers in NCA. Probably, the Indian teams of the past did not have that kind of support. It is there but you would still have injuries. You need to get better at managing it. Unfortunately, in sport, there is nothing like, “I will keep playing, I will bowl first and not get injured.” It doesn’t work like that. You have to accept that there will be certain amount of injuries, how we minimise that, how we can have it less is all we need to think. But will we ever get into a stage where there is no injury? Unfortunately, not!

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The workload management is now being taken very seriously…

As science develops, more and more research improves. That’s again one area where we need to research more on our bodies and bowlers, right from junior level, camp level. We are starting that at the NCA Zonal camps, we are doing a bit of research and collecting more and more data and information on our cricketers. A lot of times, we use data and rely on research, which have been done on different bodies and different occasions -- may be, on English players or Australian players. We need to do our research, our data collection on our athletes and that will give us the result. The process has started, it has been going on for two years. That’s something I want to drive forward at the NCA level.

In the recent past, a lot of young athletes in various parts of the world have taken break from sports due to mental health issues… Is there a ideal way to deal with the problem?

This is a big challenge. It’s a tough game, there’s so much competition, there is a lot of pressure. They play round the year now, and it’s a game in which you spend a lot of time -- sometime waiting around -- so you need to look after yourself, both on and off the field, and look after stuff like mental health. It’s important to maintain a certain level of balance in things you do. Living a slightly balanced life potentially helps you. We are also putting up a few things in place at the NCA, where we want to allow people to address some of these things and have people that they can speak to. Sometimes, some of these things need to be handled by professionals. So, yes, there has been some work on that as well, wherein eventually we'll get to a point where hopefully we should have professionals on board. I think sometimes some of these things need to be handled by professionals.

I don't think some of the coaches, or some of us, have the ability to deal with some of the issues. Some things we might be able to, but there may be some things where we might need to look at professional help. It's one of the things we are definitely keen on doing at the NCA: giving some of these boys access to some level of professional help if they do require it.

Do you think that young cricketers are more keen on IPL rather than focusing on domestic cricket?

I would not say that. But yes, T20 format may be (is of interest to then). But I think the selectors have been very good, they are expecting people to do well in Ranji Trophy as well. Whether its Shubman Gill or Prithvi Shaw from the last batch, if you look at their performances, they have got into the Indian team based on the runs scored in Ranji Trophy, or for India A. The selectors have been very clear that they are not only looking at IPL performances alone. In the discussions that I have with them, it becomes very clear that they have put a lot of value on domestic cricket and runs scored at the domestic and India A level. That’s good to see.