It’s been two years in the making, this Under-19 World Cup title win over Australia last Sunday. The young colts of Indian cricket were tested repeatedly through the tournament but they made a quick mental transition that, to quote the cliché, separates the boys from the men.
Captain Unmukt Chand, with a superlative unbeaten 111 in the final, added to his growing reputation as a batting talent in domestic circles and enhanced it with a rare combine of the three Ts cricketers are expected to possess—talent, technique and temperament. But, apart from Chand, there were important performances at different stages of the tournament from Harmeet Singh, Baba Aparajith, Smit Patel and Sandeep Sharma.
Their graduation in junior cricket is now complete. The party, given Indian cricket and its hype machinery, may not yet be over, but what lies ahead for some of these youngsters is a stage in their respective careers where the grind of domestic cricket could get lonely, tiring, yet inherently exciting, given the bigger rewards that lie ahead, Indian Premier League (IPL) contracts notwithstanding. The gap between age-group cricket and domestic cricket is wide, and with the challenge of multiple formats (mainly four-day cricket), the cricketers will be required to bowl against better quality batsmen (or Ranji Trophy veterans) and excel in different conditions.
The ultimate test of a domestic cricketer is his motivation—that unflinching desire to improve as a performer with every game, every season, and the thirst for excellence, a recognition of which is the elusive and coveted India cap.
Tough road ahead
As always with these Under-19 teams, a majority become anonymous within a couple of years owing to lack of opportunities or poor performances. Going by the performances in this edition, the three likely candidates for Indian colours could be Chand (Delhi), Aparajith (Tamil Nadu) and Harmeet Singh (Mumbai)—all of whom had represented their states before the World Cup.
Praveen Amre, former Mumbai and India A coach (and a former chairman of the junior selection committee), reckons that the real journey for some of these cricketers begins now. He says, “They must realize that they have to work harder for a minimum of five-six years, perform consistently for their states to make their mark as future India cricketers.”
Amre warns against fast-tracking some of these cricketers, as experts like Ian Chappell have called for. “There is a process that everyone should go through because if some of these people fail at the highest level, the support system at our domestic level isn’t that strong. They will be labelled as failures overnight and the player himself might not know how to deal with it since he’s young. It is important that we give them time to develop and mature as cricketers,” he says.
Former India opener Aakash Chopra agrees: “It would be foolish to bypass existing structures in domestic cricket and move them into senior levels (A team/national team) and in doing so, it sends a wrong message to other professionals. We have to be patient with some of these players and see what they’re made up of before we even consider them for the national set-up.”
Up and away
Chand’s gradual rise as a domestic cricketer has been impressive. His 151 for Delhi against Railways on a green wicket at the Roshanara Club Ground, New Delhi (2010-11), in only his fourth game for the state is still spoken about in glowing terms. But his impetuous, at times poor, shot selection let him down repeatedly. On Chand’s progress, his IPL franchise colleague and former India all-rounder Ajit Agarkar says: “His improvement has been steady. I played against him in his debut season for Delhi (a couple of seasons back) and even got him out. From whatever I saw on television on Sunday, it was a special innings. To have that sort of a temperament in a final as a captain, that too in Australia, says a lot about his improving maturity as a cricketer.”
In Delhi cricketing circles, Chand has been known as a prodigious talent right from his schooldays. Having watched him closely as an opposition coach, Amre reckons his improvement is largely due to a newfound sense of self-belief and confidence. “He’s more confident, and having seen him play, he always had the shots and the attitude to succeed,” says Amre.
Chand will be part of the India A team which tours New Zealand around end-September.
Parallel to Chand’s rise in Delhi is Harmeet Singh’s growing reputation as a fine left-arm spinner. Singh, who made his debut for the Mumbai Ranji Trophy team in 2009-10, got a haul of 17 wickets in his first three games before being sent back to age-group cricket for reasons ranging from indiscipline to the demands of team composition.
According to Mumbai off-spinner Ramesh Powar, Singh’s development as a spinner is outstanding. “We keep talking to him whenever we get the chance. As a bowler, he’s got a lot of potential and he believes in getting batsmen out by flighting the ball in the air,” says Powar.
Amre, who was coach when Singh made his debut for Mumbai, says: “He is worth keeping an eye on. Unfortunately, there are established players in the Mumbai starting XI now (two left-arm spinners), but if he’s patient, he will get his opportunities.”
Chopra, who has played against Singh as a batsman, reckons he will have to wait. “I played against Harmeet last year in one of the pre-season tournaments, and I thought he was impressive in terms of approach. It’s important that he grabs whatever opportunities he gets with Mumbai and that will help him immensely going forward.”
The rather interesting problem with Mumbai cricket today is the plethora of left-arm spinners—with the likes of Iqbal Abdulla and Ankeet Chavan already in the first XI—and Singh may have limited opportunities.
Baba Aparajith’s consistent rise in junior cricketing circles has been phenomenal. A regular member of the Tamil Nadu Under-19 side, and subsequently the national junior side, he’s an interesting all-round prospect—a more accomplished batsman with competent bowling abilities. For a batsman who used to struggle against the short ball, he looked more than comfortable in Australia, a technical deficiency he’s overcome in the last 12 months.
“I am really impressed with Aparajith,” says Chopra, adding, “He looks really organized as a batsman, knows his shots and has a good defence. Also, he can contribute with the ball if needed.”
The party for some of these blokes, like it or not, might end as soon as the domestic season starts. Their immediate objective? To break into their respective state teams (except for those already established) and improve further.
They need the following couple of years to establish themselves in their sides, then consistent performances may lead to a call-up to the national side.
U-19 players who made it to the senior team
1988: Nayan Mongia, Venkatapathy Raju, Narendra Hirwani
1998: Virender Sehwag, Harbhajan Singh, Amit Bhandari, Laxmi Ratan Shukla
2000: Yuvraj Singh, Mohammad Kaif, Ajay Ratra, Venugopal Rao, Reetinder Singh Sodhi
2002: Irfan Pathan, Parthiv Patel
2004: Robin Uthappa, Suresh Raina, Shikhar Dhawan, Dinesh Karthik, R.P. Singh
2006: Rohit Sharma, Cheteshwar Pujara, Piyush Chawla
2008: Virat Kohli, Ravindra Jadeja, Abhinav Mukund, Saurabh Tiwary
2010: Jaydev Unadkat
Compiled by Venkat Ananth.
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