The three wise men shepherding India's junior cricketers

From collecting different balls to improving slip catching to requesting the presence of the chief selector in the ‘A’ games for better understanding of requirements — Rahul Dravid, Abhay Sharma and Paras Mhambrey are a planned coaching outfit.

Rahul Dravid and Paras Mhambrey.   -  G. P. Sampath Kumar

Back in the day, Indian cricket largely revolved around the batsmen. The Sachin Tendulkar revolution in the 1990s had set such a high standard that the junior players thought there was no career if you were a bowler.

Cut to 2018, and there is a problem of plenty, but that’s also a blessing in disguise. If one bowler fails, there are five others in the pipeline. If a wicketkeeper is injured, there are three others in the queue.

In today’s cricket, no senior cricketer can confidently say that his place is secure. The theory is simple. You deliver, you stay, and it translates across departments.

In the batting classroom, the bench is flooded with top-order players like Mayank Agarwal, Shreyas Iyer, Prithvi Shaw and Hanuma Vihari. And then there are the middle-order specialists like Shubman Gill and Ankit Bawne. Fast bowlers like Navdeep Saini, Mohammed Siraj, Ankit Rajpoot, Kulwant Khejroliya and Rajneesh Gurbani are a good blend of control, pace and swing.

How it panned out

Three years ago, when Rahul Dravid joined the India ‘A’ set-up, his vision was to clear as many players for the senior level with an impressive report card. Being a man of elaborate planning and principles, he had even met then senior team coach Anil Kumble and captains Virat Kohli and Mahendra Singh Dhoni to sketch a roadmap.

He called for warm-up matches and extensive tours for the India ‘A’ and Under-19 teams. Never before there had been such planned itineraries for the juniors.

In the last 12 months, they have played against England, South Africa — both home and away — New Zealand and next month it will be Australia. Dravid ensured the flow was maintained.

Fielding coach Abhay Sharma.   -  G.P. Sampath Kumar

 

A core group

Along with Paras Mhambrey and Abhay Sharma, Dravid formed a core group. Standing at a crucial juncture of their coaching careers, they have earned the power to recommend players. The answer lies in results such as Hardik Pandya, Yuzvendra Chahal, Karun Nair, Kedar Jadhav and Manish Pandey — who passed the ‘A’ test in these years — and to the latest batch comprising Shaw and Gill that won the U-19 World Cup.

Mhambrey, the bowling coach, had a fair knowledge on how to run the show as his first association with India ‘A’ dates back to 2007 — when Dravid was still playing international cricket. He secured a Level-3 coaching certificate from the National Cricket Academy, and is also remembered for coaching Bengal to a Ranji Trophy final after a gap of 12 years in 2006. Mhambrey has also coached Baroda, Vidarbha and Maharashtra. The assistant coach stint with Mumbai Indians gave him a T20 induction. Abhay, the fielding coach, joined the think tank in 2013. Having played for three teams — Delhi, Railways and Rajasthan — he had a fair idea on how to harness domestic players. He earned his degrees in batting, wicketkeeping and fielding in England and went on to coach Railways for seven years. Karn Sharma, the leg-spinner, is his pick. Abhay also toured with the senior team to Zimbabwe in 2016 as fielding coach.

Axar Patel, Ambati Rayudu, Ankush Bains, Rishabh Pant, Naman Ojha — to name a few — have all blossomed under him. But he regards Dravid’s arrival as the turning point.

“The best thing that has happened to Indian cricket is Dravid taking care of U-19 and India ‘A’,” he told Sportstar on the eve of the second four-day game against South Africa ‘A’ at the Platinum Oval ground in Alur.

“We are ensuring that these boys are prepared mentally, as well as skill-wise, for the seniors cricket. It is an idea floated by Rahul and backed by the BCCI. This is a feeding line for the senior’s team,” he said.

Inviting the selector

Dravid likes to keep things simple. He is not somebody who would relax after a win. He wanted India chief selector M. S. K. Prasad to be present at the ‘A’ games against South Africa to understand the requirements of the senior side.

“We have been in touch with him. He was at the M. Chinnaswamy Stadium for the first game, and he will be there for the second one, too. Conversations keep happening with the selectors on what the national team is looking at, and how we can provide that. If players keep performing, it opens up options for the national selectors. That’s our goal,” Dravid said after the completion of the first game.

Dravid is a like a mechanic who will repair and harness the existing qualities of a player. For instance, the senior side was keen to test Chahal’s red-ball skills. Before jumping to conclusions, the first thing they did was to send the leggie to the ‘A’ camp. He turned out in a first-class game after two years. “They (Indian team management) were very keen to know how Chahal performs in red-ball cricket,” Dravid pointed out.

Of late, the colts have improved on their bowling and fielding immensely. Mhambrey is the brain behind the success of pacers such as Kamlesh Nagarkoti, Shivam Mavi and Ishan Porel.

On the tour of England and the home series against the Proteas, Siraj turned heads. In England, the Hyderabad pacer claimed 25 wickets in three games and on landing in India he picked a match haul of 10 wickets in the first Test against the Proteas. He followed it up with a handsome four-for in the second.

On the other hand, Abhay has been collecting different kinds of balls around the world to improve slip catching.

“The ball wobbles a lot at slips. I am using balls that wobble more than cricket balls. They are of different colours. This ball doesn’t hurt as much as leather balls but it wobbles a lot,” he said.

Abhay handpicked the balls from Australia, West Indies and the latest from Lucknow.

“I was in Lucknow and I saw a ball being used in street cricket. So I picked it. It is not a leather ball, but it gives you a feeling that it is. At times, you can get an idea from the streets also. It is a matter of making a complete package of a fielder at the international level,” he revealed his plans.

The way the second-tier cricketers are being trained, it won’t be surprising if all of them end up playing for India in the future.