India's U-19 team are a revelation and far cry from the past, writes Michael Jeh
India were a revelation in NZ, a far cry from another era when comments on wristy strokeplay and mystery spin were almost made condescendingly to mask the absence of substance
India players celebrate their U-19 World Cup win in New Zealand on Saturday when they beat Australia by eight wickets in the final. Pic/PTI
There will come a time in the not-too-distant future when we look back and remember the good old days when India didn't dominate all forms of cricket. I have been saying this since 2004 when I spent extensive time in India, closely involved in seeing the passion for the game being matched by infrastructure, coaching and a growing self-belief. At the time, I firmly believed that Indian cricket was in the ascendancy, perhaps a decade or two away from dominating the world, never to be surpassed again. Here we are in 2018 and I'm prepared to bet my house on it - from what I've just seen in the U19 World Cup and the ODI series in South Africa, that moment of truth draws nearer and dearer.
Why do I say this? Because we have a country that is mad about cricket, almost to the exclusion of any other team sport (in a genuine world competitive sense) but now with the political and demographic clout to marry performance with ambition. That is indeed a powerful marriage, built on a dynasty that now includes world class facilities, coaches and development systems that produce cricketers capable of succeeding away from home.
Watching the U19's was a revelation. A far cry indeed from teams of long ago when admiring comments about wristy strokeplay and mystery spinners were almost offered condescendingly to mask the absence of substance. To win consistently, home and away, you need fast bowlers. Not just one tearaway quick who is an outlier, an aberration, a novelty (a la Kapil Dev). India now have some of the fastest (and most skillful) bowlers in the world, even on pitches like the recent Johannesburg green mamba. In Mavi, Porel and Nagarkoti, India now had the pace and aggression to match it with anyone. It was noticeable that the Australians were upto 10k's slower in the Final. Pakistan had one quick bowler (Afridi) who occasionally cranked it up to 140 k's but he lacked support. The young Indians just kept coming.
Harking back two decades, it was always thought that the Asian teams simply lacked the sheer physical attributes to turn out fast bowlers. Pakistan produced some beauties but by and large it was thought that the Asian physiques simply couldn't churn out big, strong, burly fast bowlers. But those days have clearly passed us by. India's U19 cricketers have just given us a glimpse into the future. With improved nutrition and training programs, India now have a fast bowling factory that can match it with the rest of the world. Don't be fooled by the rest of India's population who may still err on the side of thin, slight, weaker physiques. You only need a stable of 10 high quality fast bowlers to be a world class cricket team. Countries like Australia may have more people in the general populace who look like fast bowlers but you can't pick 12 million people! You only need about three each game.
Let's talk about the fielding standards...India were by far the best fielding team at U19 level. These kids are athletes with rocket arms and unerring accuracy. Perhaps the quality of outfields in India in junior cricket have improved to the extent that young cricketers now have complete confidence in diving full length to field/catch balls. This was not the case twenty years ago where teams like Australia, NZ and South Africa dominated this important facet of the game. Even at the senior level, India's fielding has put the Proteas to shame. There is no good reason why India will go backwards in this discipline.
What strikes me about India's batting is the simplicity and purity of their techniques. This may explain why they are so successful at U19 and senior levels. I put it down to a coaching system that focuses on teaching the basics of batsmanship in an old fashioned way. Surely this must be a nationwide culture of excellent coaching because the conveyor belt keeps producing clones like Shubman Gill and Prithvi Shaw who look for all the world like young Kohlis, Laxmans or Dravids.
Unlike almost every other country at U19 level, India's batsmen had the most conventional techniques. They played late with fast hands and straight bats. They now take on the short ball without fear. Improved cricket bats give them the confidence to take on the boundaries. Even in the senior team, India's top order has arguably the most stylish batsmen with orthodox techniques. Unorthodoxy might suit some individuals but in the long run, year after year, I believe that a return to the basics will produce more consistency.
Shikhar Dhawan is probably the least conventional of the current crop but he uses that point of difference to stunning effect. He tends to stay legside of the ball when driving through the offside which opens up the point and cover regions more effectively. I first came across Dhawan in 2004 when he flayed me for a century in Delhi and I knew instantly that his was a rare talent. To watch Manjot Kalra batting in similar vein is a delicious sense of de ja vu, head not quite over the ball in the classical Dravid way, weight leaning back slightly with a bent back knee which allows the elevation to clear the infield.
As I said in my last article, written before India won the 3rd Test in Johannesburg, the new generation have no fear of fast pitches because they have the fast bowlers to exploit the conditions, the fielders to take those brilliant slips catches and the batsmen who are becoming increasingly skilled (and confident) about batting on these pitches. It might yet take another unsuccessful tour of Australia before the lessons are fully learned but I think the day is fast approaching when the Indian juggernaut will soon have a team capable of winning in all conditions. This must surely speak volumes for the thousands of coaches all around India, many of them unpaid volunteers, who are steeped deep in cricket knowledge and have the ability to translate that wisdom into effective training regimes.
I speak from experience; I coach talented cricketers in Australia. Both my son and my daughter have made recently made junior Queensland teams. I watch them play every weekend and I'm not seeing what I see when I strolled around the maidans of Mumbai or the muddy laneways in Bangalore. The coaches here work from a primitive template that cannot match the sheer numbers that are emerging from the academies throughout India. In Australia, we teach techniques and temperaments that are one-dimensional. Hit through the ball, on the up and back your instincts. It's too simplistic to expect that to translate to batting in difficult circumstances when there is sideways movement or when the ball doesn't quite come on to the bat. Hence, Australia's poor record when the ball swings or seam. Recent collapses in Cape Town, Trent Bridge and Hobart attest to that. This is a direct product of a coaching system that is one dimensional.
The fast bowlers here are on some ridiculous 'workload management' restrictions which means they can't bowl more than a set number of overs before the computer system tells them to stop. The injuries are no less so the system clearly doesn't work but young boys are not learning to bowl properly because....well, they're not allowed to bowl. One can only hope for India's sake that the scientists are not allowed to interfere too much with those who actually understand that cricket skills can only get better with practice. And more practice. Not some software program that stops a young cricketer from learning his/her craft at an age when their brain is so open to new skill development.
The one thing that might stand in the way of India's destiny as the number one cricketing nation is a bloated and avaricious bureaucracy. Politics, corruption and greed are universal traits not indigenous to India alone. But the sheer scale of it and the arrogance that can accompany absolute power in Asian cricket can undermine even the most dedicated coaches who are toiling away in anonymity, mining the precious jewels that glittered so brightly in New Zealand last week. It is the game of the people, the enduring love affair of a nation. Let it not be stolen by men in dark suits whose time passed a generation ago. In science, medicine, IT and now cricket, the future is young and bright. Let's hope it fears no one but respects history.
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