Sudhir Gautam waves an India flag while India players get into a huddle
Anupam Nath / © Associated Press

Analysis

How did India build their world-beating bench strength? They have a system

For long, its population made the country's talent pool notionally the world's largest. Now India has methods to identify and develop that talent to the fullest

Sidharth Monga  |  

MSK Prasad loved the lunch at the MCG. It was 2018-19, he was the travelling selector with the Indian team. He swelled with pride watching his side perform. On a slow, lifeless pitch India had batted two days before the bowlers started to make the surface respond. Prasad felt he was watching highly intelligent bowling machines operate with high precision.

India were on their way to a win when Prasad and Trevor Hohns, Australia's chairman of selectors, were invited for a lunchtime chat in an MCG dining room. Hohns hosted the session. He asked the visiting selector how India were managing to consistently produce such good bowlers. Prasad pointed to Greg Chappell in the audience and said they had taken a cue from his time as India coach.

Prasad said Chappell had insisted on having a pool of 10-15 fast bowlers and looking after and monitoring them centrally. Munaf Patel, Irfan Pathan, RP Singh, Sreesanth were all products of that era. They served India well but not for long. Now there were systems in place to maintain bowlers' fitness and intensity, Prasad told the audience. And there were more in the pipeline.

"Oh, what harm you have caused us, Greg," Hohns joked. India were beating Australia not just on the field but off it too. On it because they had done the work off it. This assertion of depth would be tested on India's next trip to Melbourne, two years later.

Ishant Sharma didn't start the 2020-21 series. Virat Kohli and Mohammed Shami were out after the first Test, where India had been bowled out for 36. With their fifth- and sixth-choice fast bowlers, India levelled the series in Melbourne. Ravindra Jadeja, Rohit Sharma and Umesh Yadav missed two Tests. R Ashwin and Hanuma Vihari were out for one. By the start of the last Test, only two players from the first Test, the team management's 1st XI, remained. Five players made their debuts during the series. Anyone able to walk on his own two legs was played in the final Test.

The real deal: Mohammed Siraj was surprisingly close to the finished article in his first Test series, against Australia a few months ago

The real deal: Mohammed Siraj was surprisingly close to the finished article in his first Test series, against Australia a few months ago Patrick Hamilton / © AFP/Getty Images

On short notice, the replacements played nearly as well as the incumbents. With some luck, of the sort that had deserted India previously, most notably in England in 2018, they ended up winning the series, the ultimate triumph of their depth and bench strength.

Warning: this is a boring story. It is replete with words such as "structures", "systems", "pathways", "depth", even "superannuated". This is the story of how India put together their bench strength.

Not only is India producing a high number of international-quality players, those cricketers are coming in ready. Hardly any debutant looks like he doesn't belong. Hardly any of them is a desperate pick or a gamble. Even when it might look like one - Mayank Agarwal in Melbourne in 2018 comes to mind - the player is unfazed.

Washington Sundar might have been a freak case of a predominantly T20 player coming good, but none of the people who oversee the feeder lines of Indian cricket was surprised at how at home Mohammed Siraj and Shubman Gill looked in their first Test series.

The last time India handed out so many debuts on an away tour was back in 1996, when as many as six players earned a cap in England. Two of those debutants, Rahul Dravid and Paras Mhambrey, now carry the responsibility of ensuring a player making his India debut is ready for that level of competition. Dravid had a stellar international career. Mhambrey didn't play a Test after that 1996 tour; his last Test began on his 24th birthday. Both players felt international cricket was a massive jump.

MSK Prasad (centre) on India's bowlers:

MSK Prasad (centre) on India's bowlers: "They know how to get batsmen out, and they are fit enough to keep doing it" William West / © AFP/Getty Images

Dravid is now the director of the National Cricket Academy, Mhambrey the bowling coach there. Until recently, their partners in crime were the selection committee of Prasad, another Indian cricketer who, not unlike many others in that era, was thrown in at the deep end. Prasad ended with six Tests to his name: the last of them, when he was 24, came on India's horrid tour of Australia in 1999-2000. When India started to put together their now formidable talent acquisition system, the junior selection committee was led by Aashish Kapoor, who played the last of his four Tests at the age of 25.

It is tempting to think of it as four men trying to make sure the next generation doesn't face the same challenges they did. To an extent it is, but this success is largely down to the robust system India have built, a board willing to spend massively on that system, and the vast improvement in the knowledge of all the coaches, trainers and physios in the country.

After the Lodha Committee's recommendations to overhaul Indian cricket came into full effect, 38 teams play Under-19 and U-16 domestic cricket. These matches are not televised nor are they covered by the media.

Picking an India team based on these matches is difficult, so the junior selection committee, in consultation with Dravid's team at the NCA, picks 150 players from these 38 teams. The five selectors on that committee can travel only so much; they have to rely largely on the players' numbers, and also on the informal scouting system: umpires, scorers, match officials and the like. The zonal system of picking players was done away with to deny politically appointed officials undue say in selection.

These 150 players are then divided into six groups of 25 and each group is sent to a month-long camp at a Zonal Cricket Academy (ZCA). The physios and trainers at the ZCA are as good as those at international level. The coaches at the NCA - Mhambrey, Narendra Hirwani, Abhay Sharma, sometimes Dravid - travel to these camps, taking turns so that between them they watch as much of as many young players as they can. The camps themselves are run by experienced former players who have officially trained as coaches: Shitanshu Kotak, Ajay Ratra, Ramesh Powar, Gursharan Singh, Bhaskar Pillai, to name a few.

In India, the primary focus of the processes leading up to selection for the U-19 World Cup is not winning the tournament but rather spotting players who have what it takes to succeed at higher levels

In India, the primary focus of the processes leading up to selection for the U-19 World Cup is not winning the tournament but rather spotting players who have what it takes to succeed at higher levels Hagen Hopkins / © ICC/Getty Images

Over this month, fitness and actual matches between the players are given prime importance. All the data is collected: fitness parameters, reaction to workloads, runs, wickets, catches, run-outs. The coaches add another, qualitative, layer to these assessments: whether someone is a big hitter, whether someone can rotate strike, how quick someone is to the ball in the field, how consistent and relentless a bowler is. Eventually the junior selectors and the NCA coaching staff prune the group down to 50 players, who take part in two national month-long camps of 25 cricketers each.

The primary focus of this selection process is not to win the U-19 World Cup. If that is your main aim, that list of 150 can come down to 15 or 20 pretty quickly, but with players 17-18 years old, you don't cast the net that narrow. Not everyone blossoms early; you don't want to look past someone only for his performances to surge six months down the line. This approach has also discouraged the system from promoting overaged cricketers, who might not necessarily be better players but just stronger and faster than actual 18-year-olds.

It starts about 18 months before the World Cup, and only towards the end, after a lot of rotation and matches - both intra-camp and international - does the list come down to the 15 who go to the World Cup. This final selection is done after every player has been given enough matches to present his case. That is Dravid's philosophy. If you give everyone enough matches to score 800 runs and be that standout player, he will not feel hard done by if he scores 400 and someone scoring 425 or 375 gets selected. During this time the players have had exposure to NCA training, coaching, fitness approach, and plenty of matches, which gives the coaches a whole lot of data.

Anand Date, one of the trainers at the NCA, felt the players were falling away on some aspects after they left the camps. There was not much Dravid and Mhambrey could do except tell them to follow the programmes they were given. So Date sat down with Devraj Raut, the U-19 analyst, and they developed an app. The fitness of India's 30 centrally contracted cricketers is now tracked using GPS devices, but there aren't enough of these yet to hand out to the U-19 cricketers as well. They use the devices when they are at the NCA, but when away, they are asked to report everything using the app: their food intake, their workouts, their training, the number of balls they bowled, the number of miles they ran.

At the end of every week, the app tells the trainers of any spikes or dips. One of the coaches then rings the player to understand why there have been irregularities. Often a state team or a club team wanting to win desperately is the reason, or a match on which the player's selection for his state depends. The week or two after such a spike is when players tend to get injured. The NCA has to step in and prevent these injuries with all the diplomacy it can muster.

Paras Mhambrey:

Paras Mhambrey: "You know you have to be on top of your game, every time, every spell, every ball that you bowl" Jan Kruger / © ICC/Getty Images

"We have to be fair to the player and the association," Mhambrey says. "You just can't say that it's in the player's interest because we do understand that associations spend a lot of time on the player, because he's been part of the system. So it is his responsibility to represent the state whenever required and do well for the state.

"Sometimes you feel that if a particular player is in the scheme of things [vis a vis selection for a higher level], it's wise to have a word with the state association, actually get feedback from the trainer and the physio, maybe about any niggles he is carrying that are kind of reflecting, and possible injuries he should be concerned with."

Every year, the 50 best U-19 players leave the NCA having received inputs from many coaches, having learnt how their bodies work, having played many matches. The work of the NCA is not measured in junior World Cup titles or senior India caps, but on how quickly these boys go into first-class cricket and establish themselves among the men, more experienced and battle-hardened.

A recent trend in Indian cricket has been that batters who do well at the U-19 level make it to international cricket while bowlers blossom later. Jasprit Bumrah, Shami, Siraj, and before them, R Ashwin, were not U-19 stars. It can't be ruled out that young bowlers with promise perhaps get bowled into the ground before they can really be at their best.

The A team structure is crucial here. From the start of 2017 to the end of 2019, just before the pandemic struck, India A played 24 unofficial Tests. That is more than the actual Tests New Zealand or Bangladesh or Pakistan played in that time. No other A team played more than 14.

Made in the IPL: the tournament has been a crucible for Indian talent, throwing up stars like Rishabh Pant and Sanju Samson (seen here with Rahul Dravid in 2017)

Made in the IPL: the tournament has been a crucible for Indian talent, throwing up stars like Rishabh Pant and Sanju Samson (seen here with Rahul Dravid in 2017) Deepak Malik / © BCCI

Before Dravid took over the developmental teams, there was no structure or continuity to A-team cricket in India. Not long before then, A-tour selections were sometimes about picking players to appease them for their missing out elsewhere. The series themselves were few and far in between.

Now the target is to have at least four such series a year: two at home, two away - the away ones preferably in places where India are touring in the near future. Selections are accordingly made with future in mind, which doesn't necessarily mean the end of the road for older players. If there is a stop-gap vacancy at senior level, an experienced player can go straight from Ranji to international cricket, but A-team cricket is focused on providing long-term replacements.

At its best, this can provide a shadow tour backing up the national team, like when Rishabh Pant was scoring first-class runs in England when he was asked to step in for Wriddhiman Saha in 2018.

The A team is given the same facilities, the same level of training and physio support, same level of analysis, as the senior team. They try to play the same brand of cricket. When India dropped fingerspinners from their senior side, the A team started playing wristspinners too. If Ravindra Jadeja made a comeback to the national team, Axar Patel started getting games for India A. If they persisted with Hardik Pandya at the senior level, India A tried to give as many games as possible to Vijay Shankar. The idea is to have a replacement fit and ready should the senior team need it.

At this level of the game, footage of players is scarce, but the team analysts use their connections with opposition analysts to organise clips so that they can sit down with the players and simulate the kind and amount of planning that goes on at international level. It is a reciprocal arrangement - which the parties do not have a problem with because the intention is to get a taste of what it is like to play opponents who have broken your game down, looking for any flaw.

Sometimes even the opposition the A side plays is not far off what the India senior players face. When Siraj took 11 wickets against Australia A in September 2018, he bowled at six batters who played Test cricket in the Australia season shortly after.

England Lions vs India A in Worcester in 2018. A-team cricket has been a major priority for the Indian board and its role as a proving ground has been recognised

England Lions vs India A in Worcester in 2018. A-team cricket has been a major priority for the Indian board and its role as a proving ground has been recognised Harry Trump / © Getty Images

No other country has the large pool of talent that India has. It is a level of luxury different to many teams that are, as Prasad says, usually rotating 20 or so players between Tests and developmental tours.

In India, there are far too many players for five selectors to judge. "Through India A cricket, we shortlisted some 60 to 80 players that we wanted to follow in domestic cricket," Prasad says. "We posted ourselves for all those matches where these 60 players were playing. Otherwise, you have 15-16 first-class matches going on every day. You can't keep running here and there."

At matches for which the selectors can't be present, the match referees - former cricketers all - are asked to be their eyes and ears. They submit a brief qualitative analysis of the big performers in the matches they stood in, and also alert the selectors to any talent they might have missed. There is relegation from and promotion to this group of 60.

"How did we identify those 60 players?" Prasad says. "[We looked for] consistent performers over the last two years in different formats, who will be the ideal successors for players who, four years down the line, might get superannuated in the senior team. For example, Murali Vijay. We had Mayank Agarwal and Priyank Panchal ready."

When India played at home at times when there was no A cricket on, the selectors named extended squads. Panchal and Siraj are the examples Prasad gives of players who experienced what it was like to be in the India dressing room even when they were not going to play in a series. It kept the incumbents on their toes too, he believes. That was a message he felt was necessary to send every now and then.

India's second-string players have access to the same physios, trainers and other support staff that the likes of Rohit Sharma do

India's second-string players have access to the same physios, trainers and other support staff that the likes of Rohit Sharma do Rafiq Maqbool / © Associated Press

A-team cricket has provided these cricketers a crucial bridge between a robust domestic system spread too wide and international cricket. "In domestic cricket, unless you're playing a top side, you're going to get away with a bad ball," Mhambrey says. "But when you are playing A teams and international-quality players, you aren't going to get away with that. You will be punished. So I think that helps you as a bowler: you know you have to be on top of your game, every time, every spell, every ball that you bowl. And that's what you see right now with the younger lot - you see very few bad balls in domestic cricket as well."

If you need to get fitter to be able to bowl like that, you are given every opportunity - and the inspiration you need: apart from being provided world-class trainers and physios, players are exposed to real-life examples of what it takes. Dravid uses the example of Deepak Chahar, who has had to be extremely professional in how he looks after his body because of the injuries he has had. If someone like Siraj watches Chahar go about his routines, he knows what he has to compete with to have an India career.

The focus still is not so much on winning as it is on developing players and managing workloads. "I tell them upfront, if you come on an A tour with me, you will not leave here without playing a game," Dravid says. "I've had that personal experience myself as a kid: going on an A tour and not getting an opportunity to play is terrible. You've done well, you scored 700-800 runs, you go, and you don't get a chance to show what you're good at.

"And then you're back to square one from the selectors' point of view, because the next season you have to score those 800 runs again. It is not easy to do that, so there is no guarantee you'll get a chance again. So you tell people upfront: this is the best 15 and we are playing them. This is not about the supposed best XI. At U-19, we make five-six changes between games if we can."

A good example of workload management and rotation going hand in hand is how Siraj was rested the match after that 11-wicket game against Australia A. The selectors wanted to see Chahar in the long forms, and they also felt Siraj needed a break.

Technique and tactics? Bowling coach Bharat Arun is your man

Technique and tactics? Bowling coach Bharat Arun is your man © Associated Press

A lot of the costs for an A-team match are the same as for a Test match. Unlike for a Test, there is no corresponding financial return. Still, the BCCI has spared no expense when it comes to A-team cricket, once even lending a helping hand to a hosting board to make sure a tour went ahead.

Some of the matches in that 2018 series against Australia A might not have been played. A cyclone on India's east coast threatened to wash out the games to be played in Visakhapatnam. Within a couple of days, the BCCI moved the fixtures, and both teams, to Bangalore. Chappell, who was with the Australia A team at the time, was amazed all that was done for an A series.

Prasad's tenure was long over by the time India finished their scarcely believable series win in Australia this time around. He says both the team managements made it a point to compliment him and his committee on India's bench strength. This recognition makes up in part for the derision Prasad and his colleagues tended to receive in the past for not having played a lot of cricket themselves. "When one of our selectors offers a cup of coffee to the Indian team's captain's wife, it becomes a big controversy, but when the Indian team with seven Indian superstars missing wins a Test series against Australia in Australia, not even once that credit was given to selectors.

"The team management's acknowledgement is the satisfaction. Those on the outside, whether they accept it or not, the inner circle knows what we have done."

Those on the inside include the two bowling coaches, Bharat Arun with the senior team and Mhambrey with the developmental teams. Prasad likes to talk of four aspects of someone's game: technical, tactical, physical and mental. Arun and Mhambrey, he says, are excellent at sorting out the technical and tactical aspects. The world-class trainers and physios look after the bowlers physically. Mental strength is a combination of the previous three, he says.

There's more where they came from

There's more where they came from Rafiq Maqbool / © Associated Press

"Earlier every bowler used to think from his mindset and from his own trial-and-error methods," Prasad says. "They would keep trying to do things, but today everything is preset and pre-programmed. You have a clear-cut plan, what sorts of lines and lengths you have to bowl to a particular batter and which are the areas where he is weak.

"They are sure of their bowling, they know how to get batsmen out, and they are fit enough to keep doing it. Earlier bowlers used to do well for two Tests, get injured and come back after two-three series. That is not happening anymore. Credit should be given to Shankar Basu and the other trainers and physios at NCA.

"A lot of technical analysis goes on. Even during their pre-season and off season, every player is given a particular schedule, how to look after themselves. They know about their body, they know that these are the areas that might get weakened if they play continuously. This is the kind of expertise that has come into Indian team, which is really helping the fast bowling."

During a recent IPL match, Kohli offered to slow down so Devdutt Padikkal could get to a century in a small chase. Padikkal asked Kohli to finish it off. "Many more to come," he said.

Dravid speaks of this little conversation with awe. Padikkal missed out on India U-19 selections, but here he was talking casually to an India captain of many more hundreds to come. The wonders the IPL has worked for India's limited-overs cricket can hardly be over-emphasised. It applies intense pressure, day in, day out, for two months, and now, unlike in the early years of the tournament, Indian players are used in high-pressure situations.

Future proof: India have the system in place to keep the talent pool brimming but they need to continue investing in it

Future proof: India have the system in place to keep the talent pool brimming but they need to continue investing in it © Getty Images

Not only is the IPL building temperaments, its cut-throat teams are providing India extra selectors. Dravid and Prasad are happy to acknowledge the work that franchises have put in in picking T Natarajan and Varun Chakravarthy, and even in the rehabilitation of Hardik Pandya when injuries had slowed his progress down. Bumrah's ascent was fast-tracked because of the IPL. The development coaches are happy for the IPL to do its job every year, before they themselves actively do their bit in the period from June to September.

Dravid speaks of how everywhere he went people used to talk to him of the passion for the game back home in India, of the sheer number of people playing in the streets and on the beaches. "Playing on the beach and playing on the road doesn't make you a cricketer," he says. "It makes you someone who loves the game. That's what we had. We had a lot of people who loved the game. Unless you give that guy a proper matting wicket or a turf wicket, unless you give him some half-decent coaching, some half-decent fitness assistance… where was all this in the 1990s and the 2000s? There was no access to it. We were starved of knowledge. Even in terms of fitness, we used to look at the Australians and South Africans and we used to look at their fitness trainers, and what did we get? 'Don't do too much gym, your body will become stiff. Bowl, bowl and bowl. Run rounds and laps.'"

Today you can pull up YouTube and get basic coaching from Steven Smith and AB de Villiers. As cricket has gained weight as a professional option, the infrastructure for it in smaller towns has improved. The gap in technical knowledge has been bridged. Proper structures and pathways have been put in place. What was for long called the largest talent pool in cricket has only recently started to really become that. The results are scary for India's opponents.

It won't be a surprise if five years down the line another Indian team puts the achievements of the current one in the shade. However, there might be a blip ahead. Since the pandemic struck early in 2020, there has been no camp at the NCA, nor an A tour. Those things are, perhaps understandably, not the No. 1 priority of the BCCI when even the bottom lines are proving hard to meet. If the impact of the work put in on Siraj in 2018 showed in 2020, it's also possible we might see the real impact of no developmental programmes in two or three years' time.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

 

RELATED ARTICLES