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With STAR Sports bringing us wonderful telecast of the Under-19 World Cup which is in its climactic stages in Bangladesh, I have watched the progress of the Indian team — like many others, with great interest and increasing admiration. The manner in which the young men have acquitted themselves on the global stage, even if the audiences at the ground have not been overwhelming, has been pretty impressive.

In the middle of my own commentary stint during the semi finals match between India U-19 and Sri Lanka U-19, I could not help but take a nostalgic trip down memory lane, triggered by watching these young men make a name for themselves. Some of them, like Sarfaraz Khan and Rishabh Pant, are already household names; others, I am convinced, will also go on to do bigger things provided they keep their head on their shoulders, without getting carried away by success, and continue to play cricket for the right reason — which is to represent the country at the highest level.

My own memories of Under-19 cricket essentially revolve around a six-month period in 1994, when we played a formidable Australian team at home and then travelled to England later in the summer. Australia Under-19 came with a plethora of talent in March that year, a team led by Rob Baker who went on to play for Victoria with great success, and Corey Richards, who represented New South Wales with distinction.

Also in that squad were Michael Hussey, Jason Gillespie, Brett Lee, Andrew Symonds and Matthew Nicholson, who all went on to play for the Australian national team with distinction. It was a particularly enjoyable three-‘Test’ series that ended in a 1-1 draw, while we won the one-day series. More than the results, though, it was the fiercely competitive on-field approach of the Australians and their wonderful camaraderie with us off it that still stands fresh in my memory.

Lee and I struck up a friendship that remains to this day, nearly 22 years on. I have always enjoyed my battles with him, and it was nice of him to be among the first to congratulate me when I reached my first Test hundred at SCG in early 2000 in a series where he also made his first Test appearance. When I faced him at the Under-19 level, he was the fastest bowler I had ever come across. To do well against him, and against the rest of the Australian boys, was personally a great achievement for me, and was a stepping stone to my international career.

At the Under-19 level, and especially in those days when we did not have great exposure, you are always a little apprehensive of how things will pan out. You obviously want to eventually play for your country, but you are not sure if you have the desired temperament. That is where the role of the coach becomes critical. We were all very fortunate, to have someone of the stature of Sandeep Patil as our coach. A successful international cricketer who had taken on the Australians in their own backyard and who had played a key role in India’s 1983 World Cup triumph, Sandy-bhai wasn’t just excellent from a technical perspective, but his people management skills were equally outstanding.

He immediately put us all at ease. We were all a little intimidated at first at having such a giant in our dressing-room, but he quickly helped dissipate all the nerves. At the end of each day’s play, most of us would assemble in Sandy-bhai’s room in the hotel, spending three or four hours with him that would include dinner and an unending session of story-telling. Sandy-bhai would talk of his experiences at the international level, on playing in alien conditions, the challenges that Test cricket in particular posed. He would also talk at length about legends like Sunil Gavaskar, Dilip Vengsarkar and Kapil Dev, how they would prepare for a match, what their routines would be like, how they would analyse game situations and conditions and the oppositions. For us 18- and 19-year-olds, it was an experience of a lifetime. Sandy-bhai opened up a world of possibilities for us, but he did so in such a way that we were neither intimidated nor carried away.

At the end of that series against Australia, Sandy-bhai told the media that I had it in me to play for India. That was a huge confidence-booster for me. Like I said before, you are not sure if you have what it takes to succeed at the next level. Sandy-bhai’s words were like a double promotion for me. That was when I seriously started to believe that I had the potential to play at the highest level and that it was no fanciful dream to think of an India cap.

During that ‘Test’ series, we played a game in Bombay (as it was then known), and I came to know later that Sandy bhai had asked Sunny-bhai (Sunil Gavaskar) to come and have a look at few of us. When we saw Sunny-bhai watching us it made us proud and more determined. Though he did not speak with us, his very presence was inspirational. I am sure if Sunny-bhai had been impressed with any one of us, he would have discussed it with the men who matter, and obviously, his words and thoughts have always carried a lot of weight in Indian cricket.

After the Australian series at home, we went to England in June 1994, and once again, it was an educative journey. England Under-19 team was led by Michael Vaughan with Marcus Trescothick as his deputy. It also included another future international, Vikram Solanki, among others, and playing at international grounds like Edgbaston and Headingley sent shivers down my spine. Once again, Sandy-bhai’s role in helping us remain grounded was phenomenal. In many ways, his influence in my growth as a cricketer is beyond quantification. I will always remember his faith in me, and his caring, elder-brotherly guiding hand, with tremendous fondness and gratitude.

Like our Under 19 Team, the current India Under-19 boys too have a fantastic role model to look up to in their coach. I have forever been an admirer and fan of Rahul Dravid — for his commitment to the game, for the manner in which he played it and conducted himself, and of course for the runs and catches and substantial contributions that dotted his illustrious international career. For someone of Rahul’s stature to decide to take up the role of coaching India A and India Under-19 sides is another feather in his already overcrowded cap.

Under-19 cricket had been just another stop on the Indian domestic calendar until Rahul decided that something had to be done to make sure the team was ready and firing by the time the World Cup came around. He got BCCI to organize a Challenger Series, as well as a tri-series in Kolkata, before India travelled to Sri Lanka to play another tri-series, against the host nation and England. He might not have had much of an idea about a majority of the Under-19 players when he took charge in early November, but typically, he had done his homework and it did not take him long to work out who had what to offer, and whom to mould into what shape.

At Under-19 level, coaching is as much about handling occasionally fragile and always impressionable minds as it is about high left elbow or the ideal back-lift. In having Rahul as their coach, the Under-19 boys have hit a jackpot. I know from experience that while he will keep an eagle eye, he will not captain the side from the sidelines. He will promote individuality and help the leadership group realise their potential, only stepping in when it deems it absolutely necessary. He must have quickly realised that Ishan Kishan is an inspirational leader. I really do not have words to explain what Rahul’s presence has done for the team. I only hope for their own sakes that the boys have imbibed the best from the once-in-a-lifetime individual that Rahul is.

The brand of cricket the Indian lads have displayed in Bangladesh has been entertaining and aggressive. There is a lot of exceptional talent. I have enjoyed watching Avesh Khan and Khaleel Ahmed bowl with the new ball, as well as the correctness, orthodoxy and elegance that Washington Sundar and Armaan Jaffer have brought into the middle order. Pant has been brilliant, as has been Sarfaraz, while Anmolpreet Singh is a very promising all-round package, fluent and poised at the batting crease, accurate and classical with his off-spin. Of course, I am not sure Rahul would have particularly enjoyed the send-offs from Avesh and Khaleel! But you must have aggression, as a fast bowler, and if you do not cross the line — which, I am happy to see, these two young men have not — then that is perfect because you do not want robots or automatons on the field.

I would anoint India as the favourites to go all the way in the tournament. India are one win away from a fourth Under-19 World Cup crown, and as well as West Indies have played, if Kishan and his team stay true to their potential, India should win the cup.

But, needless to say, Under-19 cricket is not an end in itself. It must be used as a springboard to greater things, and you cannot get carried away by success at that level because the next step up is quite steep. For every Virender Sehwag, Harbhajan Singh, Yuvraj Singh, Mohammad Kaif or Virat Kohli that has come through the Under-19 World Cup to become shining stars on the international stage, several others have fallen by the side, unable to bridge the gulf between Under-19 cricket and Senior cricket.

It is here that the role of the associations and coaches comes into sharp focus. I remember after India won the Under-19 World Cup in 2012, Ian Chappell was speaking highly of captain Unmukt Chand and left-arm spinner Harmeet Singh and went on to say that  they were ready even at that point to play Test cricket. Unmukt has been there and thereabouts without really pressing his case while Harmeet is not a regular even in first-class cricket. I recall this only to highlight the hurdles that confront young players despite huge opportunities provided by tournaments like IPL. It therefore becomes our responsibility collectively, as coaches and mentors and associations and BCCI, to ensure that we nurture young talents with care and responsibility.

Becoming a superstar at Under-19 level will only be another spoke in the wheel in a first-class set-up. While it is incumbent upon the player himself to get his priorities in order, we must have systems and checks in place to ensure that if someone does veer off the path, he is reminded to stay focused on his ultimate career goal, which should be to play for the country at the highest level. I am sure Rahul has already drilled a lot of that into the boys, but the transition from junior to senior cricket is an arduous task as both Rahul and I know very well. Our collective challenge lies in ensuring that we get a steady stream of the Yuvrajs and the Kohlis who have successfully straddled the gulf between Under-19 and the highest level of International Cricket.

(VVS Laxman, CricketCountry’s Chief Cricket Mentor, remains one of the finest and most elegant batsmen in history. He was part of the iconic Indian middle-order for over a decade and a half and played 134 Tests and 86 ODIs. He tweets at @vvslaxman281)