A serious and businesslike Rahul Dravid emerges from the dining room of the JW Marriott in Mumbai. He poses for a few selfies with fans, but he seems to have a lot on his mind. Though he doesn't live out of a suitcase anymore, the former Indian captain is still a busy bee. As coach of the Under-19 national team and the India A team, he has been training his boys for the ongoing ICC Under-19 World Cup in Bangladesh. He took on the job as coach and mentor in June 2015 and, in his inimitable style, seems to have settled down for a long innings here, too.
In an exclusive interview, Dravid talks about his expectations from the young cricketers, the importance of first-class cricket and his stint as coach. Excerpts:
Was coaching a natural choice?
I wanted to explore different things after I finished playing cricket. Retirement gives you certain amount of flexibility and I have done coaching, commentary and corporate stuff. At this stage of my life, it is about finding the balance, ensuring that you don't travel like you did when you were playing. The hardest thing was finding that right balance.
Is the job more about mentoring than coaching?
It is a balance of both. For the India A team, it is definitely a lot more about mentoring and guiding. For the Under-19 players, there is not a lot of coaching, but you get into more technical advice. The past year has been more about focusing on tournaments and creating the right environment for the Under-19 team.
What are an Under-19 cricketer's expectations?
They are all keen. It is a transition phase from being an Under-19 cricketer to going on to playing men's cricket. It is a tricky period because, having dominated at this level, they are suddenly playing in the Ranji Trophy. It's not easy [to adjust]. I have been through it myself. It sometimes takes a year or two to get going. I always keep reminding the boys that success at this level does not necessarily mean they will go on and play for India.
While some dream of being the next Virat Kohli, there are many who falter.
Which will happen. It's one thing to compete at the Under-19 level and another to compete with Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane and Rohit Sharma. It is a bit of a jump [laughs]. A small jump, but still a jump. We don't expect everyone to go on and play for India, but most of them will be good first-class cricketers.
What is an Under-19 cricketer's outlook nowadays?
They are hardworking and professional. They are exposed to expert coaching, training and diet from a young age. It is ingrained in them. When they see a tournament like the Indian Premier League, they want to be part of it. Honestly, if I was 18 or 19 and there was an IPL, I, too, would want to be part of it. Think about it, they can share a dressing room with Chris Gayle, AB de Villiers, Dale Steyn and Shikhar Dhawan. There is keenness to do that. But there is also recognition that you cannot really progress if you don't get into a Ranji Trophy side.
What was the process of selecting the Under-19 team?
We started our preparations quite late this time. There wasn't a lot of Under-19 cricket in the last couple of years and there wasn't much data to go by. The selection committee, however, has been around for four years and has watched a lot of these boys from their time at the Under-16 level. I relied a lot on these selectors.
My role, as I see it, is working with the team I have been given.
You have spoken strongly against age fraud. What precautions were taken while picking the current Under-19 squad?
The board has a system. If we come to know of anyone who has indulged in such malpractice, there is no way we are selecting them. But does that mean that no one will ever slip through the cracks? I don't think so. I am passionate about this. We need to keep highlighting the issue, be strict with associations, coaches and others involved. This has long-term implications on Indian cricket. It requires participation of coaches at the junior level, holistic thinking and honest conversation.
What do you talk about with the Under-19 cricketers?
This is a learning process. Yes, we are playing the World Cup and we want to do well. But, at the end of the day, it does not matter whether India wins or not. It would be nice to win it, but that cannot be our goal. Our goal should be to produce good cricketers who will go on and represent India for a long period or have successful first-class careers. [Our goal should be] to create an environment where they enjoy themselves, and understand values like teamwork and team spirit.
India has won the Under-19 World Cup three times. It gets space and there are expectations.
To be honest, I think it gets too much space. That is my personal opinion. I still feel that the message that has to go out is that though this is great, you have to perform in the Ranji Trophy. It is what you will be judged on. For every cricketer who has done well at the Under-19 level and won the World Cup, I can name four who haven't made it.
How different is coaching the India A team?
It's a completely different concept. They are much more advanced in their journeys as cricketers. And yes, there is a lot of frustration. For example, in my time, there were many people doing well in the Ranji Trophy, but four to five guys were established in the team. That can happen.
Are cricketers coming through the domestic system finished products when they are picked for team India?
Some are, some aren't. I think there is big gap between our first-class structure and international cricket. India A helps bridge that gap. We should be trying to organise as many A tours as possible to give our players opportunities. And, more importantly, to give selectors the chance to really see who has the ability.
But if the team management thinks a youngster is not ready, how does he step up?
[He has to] keep trying to improve in the nets and wait for a chance. I have been in that position before as captain. It is not easy to give everyone a chance. But once you have picked a guy in the 15, you have to believe he is good enough to play.
Are you enjoying your job as coach and mentor?
I have really enjoyed the hands-on nature of the job. [I have been] working with a lot of different players and it has been hectic. There is a lot of travel, but it has been fun.