“This is an indication of things to come. I will only be surprised if they don’t go on to win the World Cup. Given that I expect the core of this team to stay together, we can expect our boys to regain the World Cup which is at the start of the next year.”
These are the words of Woorkeri Raman, the former India opener who was the head coach of the India Under-19 team on their ultra-successful tour of England which concluded earlier this week. Under Himanshu Rana, the four-day team won both Youth ‘Tests’ fairly comfortably, while Prithvi Shaw’s one-day team, a combination specifically arrived at with the World Cup in New Zealand in mind, swept the 50-over series 5-0.
There were several outstanding individual accomplishments, headlined by 14 wickets for Kamlesh Nagarkoti, the 17-year-old medium-fast bowler from Rajasthan in the two four-day games, and 278 runs from four hits in the one-day series by Shubman Gill, also 17 and a right-hand batsman from Punjab. But more than the individual performances, it was the cohesiveness of the unit in alien conditions that thrilled Raman the most.
“All but one of the boys (Shaw) has never left the subcontinent,” Raman told Wisden India. “From that point of view, it is definitely very satisfying for me as a coach but even more so, it is brilliant for the boys. They would have had a lot of anxiety, they might have been wondering as to what might happen, what may not happen. So to produce the results they have produced is fantastic.”
“The biggest challenge is that you go into a set-up as a temporary caretaker, and not disrupt the long-term plans of Rahul Dravid. The important thing was not to allow personal objectives to get in the way of Dravid’s objectives. By that, I mean that retaining the winning combination in the last two one-dayers was an idea, but giving opportunities to all the guys is vital to the bigger picture. I am glad that I will be handing back the baton to Dravid in a healthy condition.”
This was Raman’s first outing with the India Under-19 team since early 2008, when he took a team including the likes of Virat Kohli, Ravindra Jadeja, Abhinav Mukund and Saurabh Tiwary to South Africa. On that occasion too, the Indian lads came home triumphant – they won the tri-series by beating Bangladesh in the final, then defeated the hosts 1-0 in the two-match Youth ‘Test’ series. Between then and now, Raman has coached the senior Bengal and Tamil Nadu sides more than once each, been involved as the batting coach with Kings XI Punjab and Kolkata Knight Riders in the Indian Premier League, and is currently the head batting coach at the National Cricket Academy.
“Basically these guys are all familiar to me, having been part of various camps, age-group camps,” Raman said of his return to the Under-19 set-up. “That way, more or less, I knew a fair bit about them. On a tour, it is more about trying to encourage them to go and play the game they have been playing all along because when you embark on a tour, especially to England, they would have heard a lot of things — what is likely to happen, what are the likely conditions. It’s a case of telling them not to go by hearsay. Go out there and see in the middle and work out for themselves, because a lot of the things they might have heard might not happen. It’s just a question of going with an open mind and playing.”
Raman was standing in for Rahul Dravid, the India Under-19 and India A coach who is currently in South Africa with the ‘A’ team. “The biggest challenge (for me) is that you go into a set-up as a temporary caretaker, and not disrupt the long-term plans of Rahul Dravid,” Raman observed. “The important thing was not to allow personal objectives to get in the way of Dravid’s objectives. By that, I mean that retaining the winning combination in the last two one-dayers was an idea, but giving opportunities to all the guys is vital to the bigger picture. I am glad that I will be handing back the baton to Dravid in a healthy condition.”
While victory in all seven representative matches would signify a cakewalk, Raman pointed out that there had been enough tests for the Indian lads, both from the point of view of the conditions and the opposition. “They had their challenges conditions-wise because there were on and off rains, you had to come off the field and go back on,” he reasoned. “And then you will also come across different bowlers each game. More than adapting to the cricket, it was important for these boys to learn to first adapt off the field so that it doesn’t affect their performance on the field. They had to start adapting starting from the food onwards, which might not be the same they get in India. They needed to get rid of expecting what they were used to in terms of conditions, be it on or off the field. That was the important thing for the boys.
“England Under-19 had quite a few county second XI players in the couple of ‘Test’ matches. And obviously, when it came to the one-dayers, it is a case of all the boys playing the one-dayers having to be eligible for the World Cup. That meant obviously our boys were up against better opposition in the ‘Tests’ and on equal footing in the one-dayers. You must say they did perform against competitive sides.”
“Nagarkoti can be quick, he does extract a fair bit of bounce and he has got real good fitness levels,. And he is very athletic. All in all, he is a good package. He can also bat a little bit, he can go on to become an allrounder if he does pay a little bit of attention to his batting, and he is a fabulous fielder. Over the next 2-3 years, if his path is not hindered by things not in his control, I think he should be there in another three years’ time.”
One of the key areas of focus going forward, both the senior selection panel chairman MSK Prasad and senior head coach Ravi Shastri has asserted, will be player fitness. Raman was more than happy with the fitness levels of his Under-19 charges. “The overall fitness of the boys is good because as far as I am concerned, I didn’t see anybody not doing as well as they can due to lack of fitness, let me put it that way. Moreover, this is the age where they should focus more on skill acquisition as fitness is something that can be worked upon at any time. Anyway, they do have a certain set of parameters to maintain in terms of fitness.”
While wisely not singling out one or two standout performers, Raman said the success of these boys had been another shot for collective effort. “You can’t pick out one single individual,” he explained. “Obviously, on any tour or in a series, two or three are going to perform better than the rest. But if you look at the way they performed… For example, in the second ‘Test’, we were seven down for 106 and then the last three wickets took the score to 292, which meant all the bowlers applied themselves and batted and bailed the team out. Even in the one-dayers, the guys who flew in two-three days prior to the start, they put their hand up. We almost sort of slid in the first one-dayer chasing a target of 181 (India were reduced to 70 for 5), and there was a 100-plus partnership between Salman Khan and Anukul Roy.
“That way, each one of them responded well to the challenges and overcame the challenges. I think that was the highlight of the tour; somebody or the other came to the rescue of the team.”
At the same time, Raman was lavish in his praise of Nagarkoti, expecting big things of the exciting paceman who has already played six List A games, all this year, and picked up nine wickets at 20.77. He is also a handy batsman, and Raman saw an allrounder in the making. “Definitely we will see more of him in the future, as we will see the other fast bowler, Shivam Mavi,” said the one-time left-hand stylist, looping the Uttar Pradesh paceman in too. Mavi was an excellent foil to Nagarkoti in the ‘Tests’, with 10 wickets in two matches to go with a batting average of 136, and five sticks in four one-dayers at an economy of 4.03.
“Going back to Nagarkoti, he can be quick, he does extract a fair bit of bounce and he has got real good fitness levels,” Raman elaborated. “And he is very athletic. All in all, he is a good package. He can also bat a little bit, he can go on to become an allrounder if he does pay a little bit of attention to his batting, and he is a fabulous fielder. Over the next 2-3 years, if his path is not hindered by things not in his control, I think he should be there in another three years’ time.”