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Sarfaraz Khan (left) and Anmolpreet Singh. Photographs by Subhankar Chakraborty/Hindustan Times and Pal Pillai/Getty Images
Sarfaraz Khan (left) and Anmolpreet Singh. Photographs by Subhankar Chakraborty/Hindustan Times and Pal Pillai/Getty Images

Cricket’s kings in waiting

Many under-19 players have gone on to win India colours in the past and the numbers continue to rise. But apprehension about them playing in the IPL remain

Overcoming some early setbacks, India recovered splendidly to thrash Sri Lanka in the semi-finals of the Under-19 Cricket World Cup. Sport is unpredictable but consensus opinion suggests they will be favourites in Sunday’s final against the winner of the second semi-final between West Indies and Bangladesh on Thursday. Apart from Australia, who skipped the World Cup for security reasons, the best young talent in the sport has been on show in Bangladesh over the past three weeks—several of these players were from India. In the semi-final too, the Indians looked a cut above their opponents in every department of the game, and a couple of hours into the match, it was a question of when, rather than which team would win.

This is the fifth time India are in the final since 1998, when the U-19 World Cup, played every two years, became a regular fixture in the sport. In the nine editions since, India have won the title thrice (2000, 2008, 2012), establishing that the depth of talent in the country at this level is formidable.

In fact, some players from the team playing in the U-19 World Cup currently have already played domestic first-class cricket (Ranji and/or Duleep Trophy) and a few have been picked up in the recent Indian Premier League (IPL) auction.

The Board of Control for Cricket (BCCI) in India has been pilloried roundly—and justifiably—for its shenanigans and errors of commission in several aspects. But when it comes to expanding the base of the sport and nurturing young talent, it has done a splendid job.

The hegemony of the metros (Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Kolkata) that more or less controlled the supply of players to the national side is now a thing of the past. Cricketers now come from every corner of the country. Academies have proliferated. There is a robust hub-and-spoke model in place where players from districts, small towns and mofussil areas, too, can aspire to catch the eye, move to bigger centres and—if good enough—win the India cap, as several examples in the present team demonstrate.

Of course, there is scope for improvement. Not every talented youngster gets the break he deserves, and hard-luck stories abound. But that would be true of every sport in every country. The optimistic appraisal is to look at stories of players who have made it. The number is huge, and some of the stories are deeply stirring; for instance, M.S. Dhoni’s rise from the cricketing boondocks of Ranchi to the Indian captaincy.

More pertinent is the “conversion rate" of under-19 players who have gone on to win India colours —it has been high in the past 15-16 years and continues to rise. This shows that a road map for playing at the highest level has been established. The bulk of the present national team has come from the under-19 teams for previous world cups: Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, Suresh Raina, Yuvraj Singh, Manish Pandey and Ravindra Jadeja, for instance. Dhoni and R. Ashwin, two stellar players who did not take this route, have shown that there are also other ways to reach the highest level, which gives a sense of roundedness to the process of finding young talent.

There is some apprehension about the under-19 players playing in the IPL, for technical as well as socio-psychological reasons. Some former players believe that playing too much Twenty20 (T20) cricket so early will corrupt the technique of the youngsters, and make them less effective when they graduate to the five-day format. There is also the fear that too many accolades and financial rewards at a very early age will blunt their motivation and hunger, taking a toll on the struggle, patience and determination that are so crucial to succeed in Test cricket.

How serious are these concerns? Given the evidence available, concern is valid but pessimism exaggerated. The T20 format is only about a decade old. True, playing techniques are changing. But the best players adapt and, as we see, are playing across all formats in all countries. The other aspect—the ability to handle fame and money so early—seems the more vexing and greater threat. It demands more attention from coaches and administrators.

Restricting youngsters to T20 cricket, or keeping them away from the IPL, is not the best solution. Young players need to see their opportunities through the right prism and optimize their own talent. In that respect, the BCCI has done wonderfully to put Rahul Dravid in charge of the young India players as mentor and coach. Dravid’s own career is an inspiration for any budding cricketer. He is sound not only in matters of cricket technique, but also on how to cope with the myriad challenges that can arise in a sportsperson’s career. If his wards can imbibe some of that philosophy, they will go a long way—in cricket and in life.

Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.

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