'Don't let the mind wander' - staying in the moment key for India at Under-19 World Cup

Ishan Kishan slides his bat as Rishabh Pant collects the ball
January 14, 2022

Being India's Under-19 captain is a double-edged sword. The chosen one has the chance to become a household name quickly, but there's also the added scrutiny a teenager might never have experienced before. This time, the baton has been handed to Yash Dhull, the Delhi middle-order batter who very few people outside the capital would have heard of until India's squad was announced for the Under-19 Asia Cup late last year.

With Covid-19 ravaging domestic cricket in India, selectors have had to rely on a very limited set of data points to make their decisions. Something about Dhull must have made them get excited. What was it?

"The primary quality that you need is to have the respect of your players," Hrishikesh Kanitkar, the India Under-19 coach, said on the eve of the start of the 2022 Under-19 World Cup. "Without that, you can be a good player but you won't be able to do your job as a captain. That's what Yash has got - he's got the respect of the team. The other strength is that he is fluid in situations, he is able to take tough calls on the field when it's needed.

"Every time when fielding, when a captain goes in, he can't be told to do things like in school cricket. He needs to make those decisions and Yash is up for it. He backs himself and does what that situation needs from him. He is pretty instinctive, and his instincts are fine-tuned for this job."

It is an undeniable fact that India's legacy at the competition is the strongest with four championship wins, three runners-up finishes and two semi-final exits. But, unlike in senior cricket, legacy has very little value in age-group tournaments because squads are often very different in each event. History brings no upside; in fact, it can do the opposite, adding pressure in trying to emulate previous teams.

If that was not enough, recent history shows how impactful the Under-19 World Cup can be on a player's career. Ishan Kishan and Rishabh Pant, captain and vice-captain in the 2016 edition respectively, are among the most wanted players at the IPL and Pant is now a first-choice pick in most Indian senior sides; Prithvi Shaw and Shubman Gill, from the class of 2018, are up among the most sought-after players too. Three good weeks can change young player's life, a reality Kanitkar and other Under-19 coaches are well aware of.

"What we try to do is not look too far ahead. Yes, next thing that comes is the IPL auction, Ranji Trophy selections and first XI, but that comes later," Kanitkar said. "Our job is to take it one day at a time, don't let their mind wander too much and think of the future thinking 'what will happen [next]'. What we need them to focus on is what they can do in the present moment.

"That can be a challenge sometimes, because obviously the players are looking ahead considering their goals and aspirations, but that's where coaches come in to tell them what they need to do in the short term to help them in the longer term. The advice is simple: whatever happens, it is finally a game of cricket. It's the same game they are playing since they were young."

The preparations have not been ideal, even if the Indians have played some more cricket in the lead-up to the tournament than many other teams. The BCCI has previously sent Under-19 teams to tours all around the world as well as hosting sides at home. But Covid-19 hampered all those plans this time. This lot of players played five matches in the UAE last year at the Asia Cup, which they won, and, prior to that, a series in Kolkata between two Indian Under-19 teams - A and B - and Bangladesh Under-19, which the Bangladesh team won. In all, 45 days is all that the support staff has spent with the boys.

"The Asia Cup was important because this set of guys hadn't played together as a team ever before," Kanitkar said. "So, for us, it was very important in terms of team building and getting those many matches under our belt.

"It can be difficult, but it's how you look at it. You have to be realistic about setting goals in that one-and-a-half months, and as long as you get your head around the fact that you have 45 days with the team, you find solutions. It is a challenge but what we need to realise is, this is the norm now. So it is better to get used to it, get your head around the fact that this is the reality now, and then move on from there."

Despite India not having their ideal preparatory run, they, along with the other three Asian sides - Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka - are among the favourites. India are placed alongside Ireland, Uganda and South Africa in Group B. They have thumped West Indies by 108 runs and Australia by nine wickets in the World Cup warm-up matches already. They clearly have the skills and the talent. Now for those three-odd weeks of top-class cricket.

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