As team India announced their playing XI for the series-deciding fourth Test match in Brisbane, many felt it was just a matter of how long the team could hold off the superior Australian team. When the team won the Test on 19th January, not only did they secure a remarkable 2-1 series victory but also showcased to the world that India’s bench strength was not your run-of-the-mill fillers. They were more than capable of stepping up whenever needed, and they could take on the best in the world and dominate them.
Team captain Virat Kohli left after the humiliating first test defeat for the birth of his first child, Rohit Sharma couldn’t play the first two tests due to quarantine restrictions, Mohammed Shami was ruled out of the entire series after fracturing his arm in the first test, KL Rahul would miss the final two tests due to a wrist injury, their lead bowler Jasprit Bumrah had to miss the final test due to abdominal strain and both Ravindra Jadeja and Hanuma Vihari were out of the fourth and final test due to injuries while Umesh Yadav’s calf injury saw him sit out of the final two tests. One could practically make up a playing XI with the number of injuries sustained, and going into that final test in Australia, it was basically down to whoever could walk on two feet made it to the playing eleven. Yet, somehow, these ‘bench players’ beat a superior Australian team in their own backyard, the chief architects of this victory being Shubhman Gill, Mohammad Siraj and Rishabh Pant.
So how did India not only strive for greatness but along with it built a strong base for the future?
An interesting statistic underlines the root cause of how even without their first eleven, India could win the series abroad. Since 2010, the India A team have played 52 first class games, out of which Mohammad Siraj has played 16 of them, Navdeep Saini 14, Hanuma Vihari 12, Mayank Agarwal 10, Shubhman Gill 8, and Rishabh Pant 4 with Prithvi Shaw featuring in 5 of them. All of these players had a part to play in the series win in Australia and it also shows the system the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) has put in place to spot, nurture and develop young talent throughout the country.
And it doesn’t end just at finding and developing the talent; proper exposure at the highest level is provided to these youngsters so that whenever they are called up, they are ready.
The step towards becoming a cricketing powerhouse today lies in the cricketing system that the country possesses. Twenty years ago, it was Rahul Dravid and V.V.S. Laxman who conjured up one of the sport’s greatest Houdini acts that saw India script an astonishing victory at Eden Garden from an unlikely position against the Australians. Yet again, twenty years later, it was Rahul Dravid who had a significant role to play in India’s series victory in Australia.
Dravid, along with his team at the National Cricket Academy, has transformed the institution into a place where the upcoming players are provided state-of-the-art facilities which help them develop their game, hone their talents and be ready for the highest level.
The NCA, which was founded by former BCCI president Raj Singh Dungarpur, was launched in 2000. Dungarpur had the vision of setting up a cricket school for the emerging talents, where they could have access to the best facilities and coaches and with that the NCA was born. Located in Bangalore, the NCA’s location was strategically picked for the pleasant weather year round which would have made it easier for the players, with the academy today situated within Bangalore’s Chinnaswamy Stadium.
The NCA today isn’t only about providing coaching to the emerging and upcoming players but is also a place which helps coaches evolve, try out their new ideologies, and hone the skills of the physios, trainers, curators and the support staff. It also serves as a rehab centre for the players, with many senior players going back to the NCA to recover and recuperate whilst injured. From high-end technology to grooming youngsters, the Director of the NCA, Dravid, who also is a former coach of the India U19 and India A teams, has had on the impact on a large number of players who have come through the ranks in the past couple of years. He has set up a system which makes sure that the national team maximises its vast talent pool. Dravid is known for providing opportunities to all players of the squads he coached whilst on a tour. The system makes sure all players are given the proper exposure at the national level and have a learning curve heading back from the tours.
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A large portion of how the system at the NCA functions today stems from Dravid’s own experience during his playing days. He has been very vocal about the lack of proper infrastructure during his playing days and makes sure the younger generation today doesn’t miss out on any of that.
While it is important to tip one’s hat to the system set in place that has enhanced and helped the NCA’s structure and vision, it is equally important not to forget about the domestic structure Indian cricket has today. Sure, having over a billion people would mean you have more talent than the others, but utilising this talent and making sure none is lost is the key, and the domestic structure set in place goes about doing just this.
Domestic cricket in India serves as the country’s foundation for the sport, based on which the national team rests. With India’s domestic circuit seeing 27 teams participate in the Ranji Trophy, there is no dearth of talent. The exposure at Ranji Trophy’s four-day format means a Mayank Agarwal or Shubhman Gill is ready to walk out from a Ranji game in Mumbai and go straight to a national team game in Chennai and not be fazed by the conditions; they already have experience of playing in different conditions.
The same can be said for the India A team. Exposure whilst playing in foreign conditions make the players coming through the ranks accustomed to conditions when they travel with national team. Between 2017 and 2019, the A team played a total of 24 unofficial tests, that was more than the number of tests national teams like New Zealand, Pakistan or Bangladesh played during that period. They are provided with the same facilities, equipment, and training levels as their senior counterparts; the BCCI makes sure to not hold back when it comes to developing the A-team.
The A-team is more like the sister team than a junior team. Each senior team player always has a similar back-up player ready in the A-team. The system is set in such a way that whenever a certain player starts getting games for the national side, a player of the same role is groomed and integrated into the A-team. The main thought behind this is to have a replacement fit and ready with ample experience should they need to step up to the senior team.
The BCCI also tries to make sure no A-team games are scheduled during the senior team’s games as the players are kept ready and often even accompany the senior team to get a feel of what it is like at the highest level.
The set up of the domestic season is also something that has been done in such a way that a younger cricketer coming through the ranks understands the importance of the red-ball game and doesn’t neglect cricket’s highest format. Even though the Indian Premier League (IPL) is watched by millions around the world and attracts the best players from around the globe, the BCCI has made sure the IPL takes place at the end of the domestic season so that the domestic tournaments aren’t neglected, and young players give priority and importance to these tournaments rather than running after the IPL.
The IPL has also played a major role in unearthing and developing talent, giving them the opportunity to pick the brains of some of the best around the world. Since its inauguration in 2008, the IPL has seen an exponential rise that has made it one of the foremost leagues in world sport, not just cricket. No other cricket tournament generates the kind of talent, viewership and revenue that the IPL does, and it has played an important part helping Indian cricket find some of the mainstays of their current team today. Players like Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Hardik Pandya and Jasprit Bumrah have all benefited from the exposure given by the IPL. Practicing in the nets against Pat Cummins would have definitely benefited the young Shubhman Gill when he played against his IPL teammate in the India-Australia series.
India’s recent ascent to becoming a cricketing powerhouse isn’t something that happened overnight or a fluke; it’s something that’s just the face of a well-oiled machine that is running tirelessly in the background, with hundreds of vital cogs making sure the game in the country keeps getting better. As cricket and cricketers in India develop, it is important to look beyond the first XI and acknowledge the holistic system set in place today.