India Under-19 blossom under Dravid's focus and drive
Among the top six teams that played the Asian Cricket Council Youth Asia Cup 2016 in Sri Lanka, only India and Pakistan did not feature a player who had played in the Under-19 World Cup before.
Perhaps, as a result, Pakistan were ousted in the league phase, losing to Afghanistan and missing out on the semi-final spot by a narrow margin. India, on the other hand, had no such problems. They enjoyed an unbeaten run on their way to defending the crown. They have now been champions since 2012, when the tournament was opened to the full members' Under 19 teams (they were joint champions alongside Pakistan during the first edition).
The result outlines the neat structure India have in place now, with Rahul Dravid leading the boys as their head coach. The results are vindication to what India have in place, as it is to the talent that's coming through.
The Youth Asia Cup offers a neat glimpse at the future of cricket in Asia. Nepal showed they weren't mere pushovers. Afghanistan went one better and ousted two-time finalists Pakistan. Sri Lanka made it to the finals for the very first time and Bangladesh proved their mettle with a semi-final spot.
Amongst the players, too, there will always be new jewels uncovered. Hasitha Boyagoda and Kamindu Mendis, the ambidextrous Sri Lankan captain, did will for the hosts. Nepal saw Dipendra Singh Airee play a blinder in their opening game. India found stars in Prithvi Shaw, Himanshu Rana and Abhishek Sharma, among others.
But no one will have come out happier than the champions.
Rahul Dravid has always been a man with a plan, and he came well prepared for the Youth Asia Cup, too. Devraj Raut, India's video analyst, would record the whole game and send out edited snippets to each player to help them analyse their game. If the match got over early, like it did against Malaysia and Nepal, the team was put through the paces through match simulations.
When the team failed to finish off a match and let Afghanistan finish the game on their own terms, Dravid was apparently livid with the team. Despite the victory, the coach gave his team a dressing down for not going for the kill when the chance presented itself.
The onus was always on the team to learn as much as possible from the experience, and they would have gained a lot from the Sri Lanka experience. Far from what the results and the talent indicate, the going has not been easy for the side.
In February this year, the India U19 team lost the World Cup final to West Indies in Bangladesh. The India team was seen as one of the strongest, and had in it a number of promising youngsters - some of them - Sarfaraz Khan, Rishabh Pant, Ishan Kishan, Armaan Jaffer and Washington Sundar - are already regular faces in their state sides.
None from that team now plays for the U19 side, not because they're too old, but because Dravid and the BCCI have sights set on the future. The BCCI had, in June this year, ruled that no player can play two Under-19 World Cups, and the board saw the Youth Asia Cup as the opportunity to groom players for the next Under-19 World Cup, to be played in 2018.
A fifteen member squad was selected for the Asia Cup, but another issue arose. Due to a miscommunication, seven members of India's squad were found ineligible as per the age cut-off. With less than two weeks to go for the series, India had to make as many changes to the side. However, their preparation gave them the chance to ride over the problems and still come out on top.
Under-16 and Under-19 camps were set up in each zone to help pick out the players. Once the cream of the crop was picked, the nurturing began. There have been regular camps for cricketers at the under-age levels to hone their skills. Earlier this year, the candidates played with Dukes, SG and Kookaburra balls - red, white and pink to give them early exposure to the different challenges in cricket. The squad also played the Under 19 Challenger Trophy, in Bilaspur in October.
Despite all the setbacks, India's triumph in the Youth Asia Cup has been one that will please the management and board to no end. Dravid's work and focus on providing Indian cricket with the right future seem well on track, while the players, too, have shown that they have what it takes to go the next level.
Exciting next two years await. Sound success at the start of the campaign can be as damaging as it is encouraging. With Dravid at the helm, one can be sure of it being treated the right way. After India's loss in the Under-19 World Cup final, the former India captain had emphasised on the life lessons that comes out of failure.
"You don't realise the importance of achievement without failure. It's fine that you lost this time, but be ready and cautious in the next opportunity," Ishan Kishan had said about his chat with Dravid after the loss in the final.
India and Pakistan were the only sides without an Under-19 World Cup player in their sides. While the results in the tournament would leave Pakistan with question marks overs their young team, India can start dreaming of more success.