Indian cricket’s tryst with history in Australia didn’t happen overnight. The Indian Express on all that went into the making of this Winning XI — from talent-spotters turning up at nets to coaches and selectors exchanging notes, parents and mentors to self-motivated players, some dreams, and a lot of foresight

If need be, I will call Rahul. He will tell me what I need to know about these two.” Ravi Shastri was sitting on the long, wooden, beer-soaked bench of an 800-year-old pub carved into the rocks of Nottingham Castle, pondering over a selection dilemma. It was in the middle of the 2018 series in England, and Shastri wanted to know whether to pick Hanuma Vihari or Prithvi Shaw, two untested batsmen drafted into the Test squad. Dravid was then head coach of the India A and U-19 teams and had seen the two players up close and personal. Fresh out of the India A series in England, the two had been picked for the national team. A final call on their skill and temperament, based on Dravid’s word, was eventually taken and Vihari would go on to make a gritty debut in the fourth Test.

Two years later, it’s no coincidence that Vihari batted through a torn hamstring to help India save the Sydney Test and lay the foundation of what is being called India’s greatest comeback series win in Australia.

That aura-acquiring triumph didn’t happen overnight. Neither did its secret sauce — the jaw-dropping bench strength that kept replacing the broken bodies stretchered out. Every X-ray scan of broken bones and disappointment was seamlessly replaced by ambitious fresh faces, ready for their spine-tingling tryst with history.

The blueprint for this feeder system was drawn up over the years. Talent scouts in state associations, national and junior selectors, coaches of ‘A’ and U-19 teams, the national team’s think tank, domestic cricket, and the confidence-boosting IPL — together they made up Indian cricket’s new ecosystem.

The BCCI’s structure, which is democratised, professionalised, and even if occasionally compromised, came together to feed the national team with talented players who were mentally, physically, and skilfully ready to take on the world.

“Ha ha, unnecessary credit, the boys deserve all the praise,” was Dravid’s reply when The Sunday Express reached out to him. The message, with a smiley and a thumbs-up, wasn’t just a typically modest one but an honest one. To give credit to a few is a disservice to the rest, as the system is more than the sum of its parts. It needed the dreams and persuasion of parents and mentors, insane levels of self-motivation from players, some luck, and a lot of foresight — and it needed a system to fall in place.

“How many people told you they had first spotted Shubman Gill?” laughs W V Raman, a former India player who has coached the India A and U-19 teams, was the batting coach at the National Cricket Academy (NCA), and is currently with India Women’s team. “But they are not lying!”

What Raman means is that in a country as large as India, in a sport as coded in our DNA as cricket, it would need multiple pairs of talent-spotters to push a player through.

Jatin Paranjpe, whose four-year tenure as national selector ended last November, remembers a morning in Pune before a Test match against South Africa in end 2019. The opener Gill, who is now seen as the next big Indian batsman, was batting against the fastest Indian thrower in the nets, Raghu, a support-staff member who loves harassing batsmen with his pace from the slinger-tool.

“So, Raghu bowls a pacy one, and Gill, who is batting at centre square, pulls the ball, which takes off at a low trajectory from his bat and goes like an outswinger to hit the upper row seats at the Gahunje stadium. One of my evaluation points is who plays Raghu best, and until then, it had been Virat (Kohli). Guess what, it was Gill after that session,” says Paranjpe.

He recalls one of the many “jumbo” meetings with all the stakeholders involved ahead of a key series — Shastri and the team management, Dravid and his coaches at A and U-19, and the selectors — to “understand what kind of culture the Indian team management wants to build”.

“Virat Kohli is a logical thinker, he comes prepared with all numbers, so we need to be prepared. As selectors, we need to know what a certain player has done one year ago and against which team. If you can convince Virat, he agrees,” he adds.

The selectors listed players with potential — Priyank Panchal, Vihari and Avesh Khan, to name a few — and each one of them had to watch a player from the list over the next one year. “We had to go and see that player multiple times during the year. What this does is, we get to see them in different situations and different people are seeing them. All these opinions converge, and the best solution comes out of it,” says Paranjpe.

The individual experience of the selectors kicks in at this point. Like was the case with Vihari and Paranjpe.

“I have seen Vihari since his junior days. I had gone to see one Mumbai vs Andhra game in Ongol and he scored 160 runs. The way he controls the game and the way he leads, I called M S K Prasad and told him that this guy is ready. He should play international cricket,” Paranjpe says.

For each of the players, the journey from boy to manhood is hastened by having what is termed as shadow tours — before the national team goes overseas, the A team is sent to the same place.

Says Paranjpe, “Before such tours, the support staff of the Indian team, A team, U-19 team, selectors, and Dravid discuss which bucket of players we want to concentrate on. The performances in the Ranji Trophy matter in the selection of the A team. Mayank Agarwal and Vihari were picked from there. The A teams have a great guy like Dravid working with them, from where they go to someone as good as Shastri in the national team. It’s a seamless transition.”

Trained professional eyes watch not only the India nets but all domestic matches. The big pace find of this Australia tour, Mohammad Siraj, owes his place in the side to Indian bowling coach Bharat Arun, who noticed him at the IPL nets in Hyderabad a few years ago. Others too began noticing him. “During the last trip to Australia, in end 2018, I remember we discussed him a lot in our selection meetings,” Paranjpe says.

They couldn’t fit Siraj in then, but he grabbed his chance this tour, displaying the maturity to bowl to the team’s leg-trap plans, reverse the ball when necessary, and even call out racism — over and beyond what one would expect from a debutant.

Washington Sundar, who went from being a net bowler to a game changer in the final Test at Brisbane, might have surprised many, but he has been on the selectors’ radar, even for Tests, since 2019 — both for his bowling and batting.

“He wasn’t playing for Tamil Nadu state team but we knew he could be lethal down the order. I had seen him at local Tamil Nadu league games and knew he is highly rated. He has a batsman’s mind. He knew if he played 100 balls, the match would turn. Only a batsman can think like that,” Paranjpe says.

A former player, a coach and a commentator, who wishes to be anonymous, too had a hand in spotting Sundar the bowler. He ran into Sundar at a U-19 camp and asked him, “What do you do, Waashi?”. He said, “Sir, I bat, and occasionally bowl.” Already impressed with his batting, the coach got him to bowl for a short while and, at the end of it, told him, “From today, after you finish your batting and fielding, hit the bowling nets.”

***

Another Brisbane hero, Shardul Thakur, too didn’t just emerge out of Palghar one fine day to play for India. Along with various opportunities provided by his state association and IPL, he talks about the influence of India A on his growth.

“We play against those who are either in contention for their spot in the national team or even a few who have already made their names internationally. In our team, we share a dressing room with the likes of Virat Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, Shikhar Dhawan, so the learning is huge,” Thakur tells The Sunday Express.

It’s the same for Vihari. “India A tours play a huge part because the gap is reduced. Also IPL… Rahul sir was the coach in many A tours. He is someone who doesn’t say a lot and does not ask me to make too many changes in technique. Instead, he has instilled discipline and focused on the mental aspect of the game. So those tours have helped me,” says Vihari.

“Dravid gave us a free hand,” says Thakur. “He told us, ‘Make your own plan and play, but stick to your plans’. He would also strictly evaluate our performances after each game. He would also ask us to rate our own performances.”

Raman zooms in on a crucial element brought in by Dravid. “He took out winning and losing from these A and U-19 games. He made it clear that it’s about exposure, giving a chance to all kids over a tour. So everyone knew that they would be getting chances, and could improve their games,” he says.

The ways of training too changed, with facilities available to the national team being made accessible to the juniors.

Abhay Sharma, a U-19 and A coach, says, “When I give them throwdowns with the slinger, I do so at 140-145 kmph. We would push them to the limit to help narrow the gap.”

The reason this Australian triumph is being hailed as the greatest Test series win ever was because India pulled it off with a stand-in captain in charge and a bunch of fringe players. The hype around them notwithstanding, this young unit is still a work in progress. In the last couple of years, a full-strength India has lost Test series in South Africa, England and New Zealand. They haven’t won the big ICC tournaments either. With this tour throwing up several match-winners, the system, while dealing with the problem of plenty, will have to work towards making the team more consistent.

Before Shastri, there was Anil Kumble, who played a vital role in laying the blueprint for the present system. In July 2016, days after he took over as India’s coach, he called for a meeting with all the stakeholders — selectors, Dravid, NCA coaches, Test captain Kohli, and ODI skipper M S Dhoni. The intent was to streamline the feeder system by getting everyone on the same page with respect to long-term goals. Shastri and selectors have continued from where he left off.

Paranjpe lists out his three key factors behind the strength of the back-up players. “First, the India A framework, second is Virat Kohli setting an example in fitness. The third is IPL. It makes players realise what champion players around the world are doing.”

***

Those outside the official system too do their jobs. Like the personal coaches at the grassroots. When Hardik Pandya sought to hide under his sunglasses after a sleepless night, after being sent back from the 2019 ODI series against Australia and New Zealand over the Karan Johar show fiasco, it was his childhood coach Jitender Singh who pulled him out of his home to start playing cricket again.

As a teenager, when Rishabh Pant’s runs dried up, it was his coach Tarak Sinha who helped him reassemble his technique. “It took me nearly two years, I would get up at 2.30 am to shadow practise what he taught me. And just as he said, unknown to myself, it became part of my muscle memory. People don’t realise the importance of a coach. I call him my ustaad,” Pant once told this newspaper.

Once a youngster comes through state trials and gets into the system at the U-14 or U-16 level, the process takes over. Says Raman, “From there on, there is a ladder to climb and the kid can see it. How fast he or she climbs is still up to them to an extent, but at least a clarity of the path ahead is visible. That’s all that young players need at that stage. The feeling that yes, this can be done. That it’s not an impossible dream.”

THE BACKROOM

THE DECISION MAKERS

Rahul Dravid: As head coach, National Cricket Academy, the Under-19 and India A team coaches reported to Dravid. Till a few months ago, he also had 11 NCA coaches working under him. Dravid’s role is to mentor and monitor India’s talent pool. NCA also ensures that young players who get injured stay in the system.

National Selection Committee: The five-member team, all former Test players, pick the squad. At the start of the season, they compile a list of 50 potential players for the national team and travel around the country to follow their progress.

Ravi Shastri: Senior team coach, he is assisted by the bowling, batting and fielding coaches. Along with captain, he takes a final call on the playing XI.

THE SYSTEM

# For most young cricketers, the journey starts at a local academy under a coach, who is mostly a club or a first-class player. They next play at clubs/district tournaments, where state association selectors turn up to pick state teams.

# Every year, state associations conduct Under-14, Under-16, Under-19, Under-23 and Ranji Trophy selection trials before the annual Board tournament.

# Junior national selectors keep a watch on inter-state tournaments to pick players for zonal camps. At this stage, the NCA representatives enter the system. They train cricketers at these camps and share their assessments with the selection committees that pick Junior, India A and senior teams.

THE JUNIOR TEAMS

India A

This is a team of players on the threshold of the national team. Since 2015, out of the 99 players who have played for India A, 53 have been elevated to the senior team. In the last three years, India A has played six tours at home and seven abroad. Since ‘A’ teams of other countries are strong, Indian players have faced the very best before they go on to represent India. Shubman Gill hasn’t yet played a Test against South Africa, but he has already faced their pace trio of Kagiso Rabada, Lungi Ngidi and Anrich Nortje.

Under-19

Since 2016, six Under-19 players have gone on to play for the senior side. Besides, close to 100 players have played first-class. Devendra Pandey

Inputs from Devendra Pandey, Shamik Chakrabarty, Vishal Menon

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