Rahul Dravid, polishing India's rough diamonds

Even as Virat Kohli’s men are floundering overseas, Dravid is busy training the India junior cricketers in the conviction that in time to come, they will sparkle on the world stage.

Rahul Dravid, as the India-A coach, gives some tips to the seasoned Suresh Raina.   -  K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

Had prudence prevailed and egos not got in the way, there is every chance that India could have spared itself the embarrassing overseas Test batting displays that have been an unedifying feature this year.

When the Cricket Advisory Committee convened last year to button down the national head coach in the aftermath of Anil Kumble’s resignation, it recommended Ravi Shastri to that position. It also nominated Rahul Dravid as batting consultant for overseas Test matches, in addition to his twin responsibilities of coaching the India-A and the India Under-19 sides.

Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and V. V. S. Laxman were not working the Old Boys’ Club. They didn’t pull Dravid’s name out of a hat, or because they had shared a dressing room with him for nearly a decade and a half. In their collective wisdom — stemming from a combined 56 years of international cricket, 447 Test matches and nearly 32,000 Test runs — they recognised the value Dravid brings. The decision-makers chose to overlook the CAC’s mandate; red faces aren’t out of order now.

We find Dravid, the India Under-19 coach, proudly holding the World Cup with captain Prithvi Shaw. Dravid has been handling both the ‘A’ and Under-19 teams with aplomb.   -  PTI

 

There is no guarantee that had Dravid worked with the senior team ahead of and during its tours of South Africa in January and England now, it would have lit up the cricketing landscape. Dravid doesn’t have a magic wand, and he certainly can’t go out and bat for a Cheteshwar Pujara or an Ajinkya Rahane. But his experience, expertise and communication skills would have made a difference. They could have helped better a dismal record of only two team totals in excess of 250 in 10 Test innings in South Africa and England. They could have contributed to tighter techniques against the moving ball, they could have uncluttered anxious minds. After all, when Dravid worked in the capacity of a batting consultant in the lead-up to the Test series in England in 2014 at the insistence of then coach Duncan Fletcher, the batting unit responded with totals of 457, 391, 295, 342 and 330 in the first five innings before tapering off.

Even as Virat Kohli’s men are floundering overseas, Dravid is busy polishing rough, uncut diamonds in the conviction that in time to come, they will sparkle on the world stage. When he came on board in June 2015 as the India-A and India Under-19 coach, it was obvious that he wasn’t in it for a lark. He recognised the significance of addressing issues at the grassroots level. It must have been tempting for him to take charge of a fully grown tree; instead, Dravid chose to nurture saplings.

Until the Board of Control for Cricket in India pulled off a coup and acquired Dravid’s services, ‘A’ tours were little more than an afterthought. Sporadic, and often transpiring by accident, they did little to double up as a feeder system that the concept is designed to offer. That there wasn’t a structured system in place is hard to believe, given how frequently and thoughtfully India host and travel for ‘A’ series these days. Players breaking into the national set-up found the bridge between domestic and international cricket daunting. The profusion of ‘A’ matches against high-quality opposition has helped narrow the gulf, providing a stepping stone that better prepares newcomers to the Indian team across formats.

Sachin Tendulkar, V. V. S. Laxman, Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly when they were in their pomp. As members of the Cricket Advisory Committee, Ganguly, Laxman and Tendulkar, named Dravid the batting consultant for the Indian team, but, strangely, the man from Bengaluru was never called upon to don that hat.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

 

Dravid’s stated desire is to ready the rung of players just below the national side for the rigours of the next level. “I don’t really see the ‘A’ series as winning or losing. You will win some and you will lose some. Nobody will remember in a year’s time whether you won an ‘A’ series or you lost an ‘A’ series,” he had said in his early days as coach. “Nobody cares, really. But what is important is the opportunities you have been able to give players. It gives some more clarity for the selectors. It gives players an opportunity to perform at a higher level, to learn, grow, to develop themselves as cricketers. Even if they don’t have a good ‘A’ series, if they can take something away from it and come back better cricketers, I think it has been a fruitful exercise and we have gained from it. I don’t think you can view ‘A’ series purely as gaining something from just results. You have got to see it a little more broadly.”

It is this message that he has successfully driven into his wards. His insistence on process rather than outcome hasn’t been lost on the players. When Rahul Dravid talks, you drop everything else and listen. The players realise how fortunate they are to be able to tap into the vast reservoirs of wisdom nestling in the Dravid brain. Cricketing wisdom, needless to say, but also life-lessons in equanimity and perseverance, in discipline and commitment, in conduct and carrying oneself.

The ‘A’ tours aren’t haphazardly planned, and players aren’t picked on a whim. The India-A team played in a triangular one-day competition against the England Lions and the Windies-A, an exercise that kept the reserves match-ready. That was followed by two four-day games against the Windies-A and one against the Lions just preceding the ongoing Test series to give the selectors greater options, and to allow some of the Test specialists to ease into the tour. Murali Vijay and Ajinkya Rahane used the ‘Test’ against the Lions for acclimatisation, while Rishabh Pant grabbed his chances to force his way into the senior squad as the reserve wicketkeeper-batsman.

With the team for the last two Tests still to be announced and question marks hanging over the future of several batsmen, the likes of Mayank Agarwal, Prithvi Shaw and Shreyas Iyer come into the equation. M. S. K. Prasad’s selection panel, which has an excellent working relationship with Dravid, will seek his inputs on whether any or all of this trio is ready for Test cricket. Anyone can pick a team based on scoreboards and stats; Dravid is ideally placed to look beyond the obvious, which is a huge bonus for the selectors.

While Dravid has forsaken a couple of India Under-19 assignments because they have clashed with India-A commitments, his presence in the junior ranks is even more crucial. A majority of the India-A players is reasonably experienced and mature, and they know their games as well as can be expected. Dravid isn’t a great believer in major technical overhauls at that level, encouraging players to express themselves with the caveat that they be judicious in shot selection and imbibe situational awareness. At the Under-19 grade, he is more seized of the need to eradicate bad cricketing habits. Again, the emphasis is not on results. Having seen several of his talented peers in the India Under-19 team fade into oblivion, Dravid is keen that the juniors are handled with care, especially when they graduate from their teens.

Dravid has a word with Stuart Binny at a India nets session in Trent Bridge in 2014. Specially invited by coach Duncan Fletcher to inter-act with the players, Dravid was a good influence and the team posted some competitive totals against England.   -  Getty Images

 

“Till they are Under-19, they are probably the best players in their teams, they are very well looked after, you have got a great system, you have a lot of games at the Under-19 level, they are always at the NCA, they are getting the best of facilities, they are getting the best of coaching. You become used to success and you become used to being certainties in teams,” he points out. “To suddenly go to a strong Ranji Trophy side and not even get a look-in for a couple of years is not easy. Suddenly, you start questioning yourself, you start questioning the future, so that’s the challenge.”

It’s a challenge Dravid has worked incessantly to prepare the young kids for. While there is a history of Under-19 stars going on to greater things at the highest level, the turnover rate isn’t impressive. For every Yuvraj Singh or Virat Kohli, there are numerous Tanmay Srivastavas and Unmukt Chands. As Dravid makes it a point to stress whenever possible, less than 300 Indians have played Test cricket since 1932, and the total number of international caps isn’t even 600. He does not mean it as a deterrent, but to instill a sense of reality in starry-eyed and ambitious teenagers.

Until recently, the India Under-19 team was in the news only during the biennial World Cup. Whatever little cricket they played against other countries tended to be 50-over games. Gradually, the scope has expanded to four-day matches so that the art of innings-building or working for wickets isn’t lost on the young aspirants. As Test cricket grapples with the genuine threat of the T20 format and its spinoffs, it is refreshing to see India, through Dravid’s urgings, continue to accord the longer version the respect it deserves.

“I am too insignificant to even talk about giving something back to the game,” Dravid had told this writer some time back. It is unlikely that his legions of fans will agree. And most certainly not when he is walking the extra mile to translate the promise of today into the potential star of tomorrow.