Sometimes you wish Rahul Dravid wasn’t so self-effacing. So let’s say it for him: “Your contribution as coach and mentor to the Under-19 World Cup winning team was just fantastic.”
This is the fourth time India have won the title in the last two decades. Coaches in the past—Roger Binny and Dav Whatmore, among them—have left their mark too. So what makes Dravid’s tenure distinctive?
Some part of this can be gauged by the emphatic manner of the U-19 team triumph this year. In every match, India looked several notches above their rivals, and in every department of the game.
The semi-final and final, hypothetically the two toughest games, ended up becoming totally one-sided contests not because the opponents were weak, but because India’s players were able to raise their performance a couple of notches.
In the semi-final, Pakistan were dismissed for 69, leaving India victors by 203 runs. In the final, Australia were in a fairly strong position at 183-4 (40th over) but were bundled out for a modest 216, which India overhauled without ado.
The manner in which India played these two key matches was quite fascinating. It was almost as if a juggernaut was at work. Several players came to the fore with outstanding efforts, individually and collectively.
The adrenalin level was high, which was to be expected given the title was now within grasp. But this didn’t come at the expense of sound cricket logic. There was no sense of false bravado.
In the final, particularly, the run chase seemed all easy. But as is only too well known, modest targets can be deceptive, leading to a false sense of complacency and misplaced heroics that can cost dear.
India’s response was measured and immaculate. The emphasis was on processes—not sentiment—that would lead to triumph. There was no excitability or attempt to gallop to the target in, say, 25-30 overs. It was reached comfortably in 38.5.
The team’s approach reflected Dravid’s own to the game: about maintaining balance without sacrificing flair. But his larger impact has perhaps to do with more than just providing technical insights about how to bat, bowl and field.
It’s teaching players to cope with the life challenges of being a cricketer. In the Indian context, since the game is so massive, this is even more pronounced, and therefore of paramount importance.
Cricketers enjoy a stellar position in Indian life today. The mass appeal of the game can make them instant stars and provide fame and riches, often beyond their wildest imagination.
For example, seven members of the current U-19 team—Prithvi Shaw, Shubman Gill, Manjot Kalra, Abhishek Sharma, Shivam Mavi, Kamlesh Nagarkoti and Anukul Roy—got multi-crore-rupee contracts in the recent Indian Premier League auctions.
But such extraordinary privileges also make Indian cricketers, especially the young, vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the game and life. Not every player will make it big. Not every player who has made it big will be able to sustain this position for various reasons.
While almost 50% of the current Indian team—Tests and limited overs—has players who have graduated from the Under-19 ranks (which actually bespeaks of the robust grass-roots work done by the Board of Control for Cricket in India), there are no guarantees.
Consider the stories of three captains who have led India to the Under-19 World Cup title. Mohammad Kaif had middling success as an international player, Virat Kohli has zoomed skywards in double quick time, while Unmukt Chand’s career has yet to take off.
It is interesting that Dravid opted to be with India’s youngsters rather than the senior team at this point—essentially to maintain a work-life balance, but also because he believed this assignment was more demanding and would give him greater satisfaction.
How to cope with success and failure, keep focus on the game and not just its rewards, understand one’s own strength and weaknesses as well as those of others—teammates and rivals—are some things best learnt young in competitive sport.
Dravid’s sensibilities and vast experience would have been invaluable for the young guns as they grow into the bigger arena, of cricket and life. The first step in that direction has been splendid.
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.