Following India's superb World Cup victory, it will soon be time for the players and coaching staff to say goodbye to each other. But where next for this exciting crop of talented youngsters, asks Manoj Narayan.
Long after the 2018 Under 19 Cricket World Cup trophy had been raised and paraded around the Bay Oval came the moment that most accurately symbolised everything that is good about this Indian side. By this point, into the final hour of the day, the stadium was nearly deserted – only a few organisers remained, all kicking their shoes off and sipping a much-needed cold beverage after a tournament well done.
The Indian team strode out of their pavilion, led by head coach Rahul Dravid. A bunch of players followed him, along with the rest of the support staff. Prithvi Shaw, the captain, brought up the rear, carrying a bunch of water bottles, jesting about having to always pick up after the team. They all made their way towards the pitch, and right beside the strip, they formed a huddle. It was immediately evident to all who observed from afar that it was a deeply private moment.
For a while, the huddle was intact, and no movement was discernible from beyond the ropes. And then, suddenly, there was a loud roar: “Indiaaaaa!” The huddle disengaged, and there was pandemonium – they clapped, screamed, pushed, pulled, kicked a stray football – till they had to be coaxed into returning to the dressing room. Slowly, they made their way back, still in a state of delirium. “15 minutes boys,” bellowed Dravid. “No sir, 50 minutes!” came the reply.
Dravid just laughed and continued his walk back. His boys had earned the right, just for the night perhaps, to mischievous quips. As the players returned to the dressing room and presumably prepared to return, the management gathered separately in a small enclosure, right beside the change rooms. “Congratulations, everyone,” said Dravid, and there was a round of applause. They had tamed a hyperactive bunch of teenagers, instilled in them a sense of discipline and spirit, and won India a World Cup. It was contentment.
Throughout the tournament, India have been lauded for their skill on the field. Those who watched Shubman Gill and Shaw are already running out of superlatives to describe the pair. Kamlesh Nagarkoti and Shivam Mavi, the pacemen, have had their share of exalted praise, and all those in between have had their moments in the sun as well. This really was a supremely talented side, but what really fuelled their campaign was their spirit and togetherness.
It has been filtered through from up top. Take the case of Ishan Porel. The heel injury he sustained, having bowled just five overs in the tournament-opener against Australia, would usually have signalled the end of his tournament. The management would have simply replaced him with someone else. For Porel, those fears were real, and he believed all his hard work would amount to nothing.
Dravid and the rest of the management, however, took the call to nurse him back to health, and take it from there. By the end of the tournament, Porel had bowled a crucial spell of 5-2-8-0 in the Super League quarter-final against Bangladesh, returned 4/17 against in the semi-final against Pakistan, and snuffed out the Australian openers Max Bryant and Jack Edwards in the final. In all likelihood, the direction of his career has changed for the better.
“Huge credit to our physio and fitness trainer. There were a few injuries, some of which were 50-50, tricky ones,” said Dravid. “They worked hard with guys, and put in a lot of effort to ensure they [the players] were alright. Just for the fact that, for the boys, this was everything they had worked for. The easiest thing for us would have been to send some of them home. We chose to back them, support them. We took those risks, and it’s to the credit of Anand [Date, the strength and conditioning coach[ and Yogesh [the physio]. They really did a fantastic job.”
The spirit was also evident in the celebrations. In a copy of one of the new goal celebrations in FIFA 18, the Indian players choreographed the ‘Hypnosis’ move after victory was secured – Gill and Shaw raising their hands, seemingly causing the rest of the team to collapse in a heap. “We had decided when we were close to the target that Gill and I would do that thing, and everyone else would fall,” Shaw later said.
But while this lot seem mischievous and fun-loving, they know when to cut it out and get serious. During the innings break after Australia were bundled out for 216 in 47.2 overs, the Indian boys, rather than rushing back to the pavilion, formed a huddle in the middle. Only later would we know what that was about. “We felt the target wasn’t that big a score,” Prithvi revealed. “[Chasing] 217 was decent on this wicket. But I didn’t want the boys to be casual. It is a big match, it is a World Cup final. I just wanted to see if everything was right over there. I just said, 'Just be calm, just be patient, just build partnerships'. Just do the little things that really helped [get] us here.”
The quandary facing this side now is the fact that, having bonded so well, the goodbyes are imminent. The BCCI policy dictates that a player as much as possible doesn’t contest in more than a single ICC U19 CWC. “We took a conscious decision of not picking certain boys who played in the last World Cup and were eligible for this World Cup,” said Dravid. “That would have made the team definitely stronger and would have given us a better chance to win the World Cup. But, in my opinion, that wouldn't have been good for the boys themselves.
“I don't believe they should be hanging around playing Under-19 cricket for too long. They had already matured and I think they're too good for this level. Some of these boys might not have got the opportunity to take up that responsibility – Prithvi [Shaw] might not have captained, Shubman [Gill] might not have had a chance to bat at No. 3 – things like that.”
It is certainly sound logic, as you would expect from Dravid. But the players aren’t looking forward to the goodbyes. “It’s great that we finished by being champions, it helps the team bond very well,” said Manjot Kalra, the Player of the Match for his unbeaten 101. “That’s the best thing about this team. We’ve bonded very well and we’ll all miss each other quite a lot. Hopefully, we will all meet in the senior team, but it’ll be difficult for all of us to meet together even if we’re at a camp or something like that.”
Shaw didn’t readily admit to emotions, but his words betrayed the inner feelings. “Not that emotional, not yet,” he said. “This has been a fun journey, lots of poking fun, and we’ve spent nearly two years together waiting for this World Cup, preparing for it. Obviously, there will be emotions when we say goodbye, but it’s a sort of memory that even if some of us won’t go on to lift the senior World Cup, we have this to remember.
“I’m very happy, all the boys have worked really well. They have backed me very well throughout this tournament. Even when I’ve felt under pressure, I felt the team was with me, and that’s a good feeling.”
Even someone as seasoned and restrained as Dravid admitted to dread at bidding adieu. “It is the end of the road in some ways, so yes, it is a bit emotional,” he said. “Same was the case in the last edition with those boys. With that last bunch, I was with them only for two or three months. But you do get attached in many ways. It is emotional, though they do stay in touch, it is not the same thing, which is why I tried to bring some of them in to play against these boys before they came here.
“For their own sake, we try and get them to connect with each other and get together as much as possible. I hope to see some of them on the ‘A’ tours. Some of them, who are a bit young, might stay back and play more Under-19 cricket and would benefit from it. But some of them who are eligible for the World Cup even the next time should move on and play Ranji Trophy instead. We build bonds and we build relationships and then they go. So it is emotional, of course.”
Before the waterworks, however, there are plenty of celebrations to come. And if they are anything like that midnight journey to the middle of the pitch, it should be a blast.
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