7 min read.Updated: 07 Feb 2018, 05:37 PM ISTVimal Kumar
Only a few players with sterling performances in a junior World Cup have gone on to play for the national team. Most have just languished in domestic cricket or disappeared from the field
Almost a decade ago, a World Cup victory changed the profile of the Under-19 format in India after Virat Kohli caught the imagination of the cricketing community as a precocious talent.
However, in that tournament (played in Malaysia in 2008), it was not Kohli (235 runs in six games) but Kanpur’s Tanmay Srivastava (262 runs in six matches) who was the highest scorer for the team.
Srivastava had made his first-class debut (against a strong Rest of India which had the likes of Zaheer Khan and Lakshmipathy Balaji, among others) ahead of Kohli. After Kuala Lumpur, however, Srivastava’s and Kohli’s paths took entirely different turns.
While Kohli, with 325 international games across formats, has established himself as one of our all-time greats, Srivastava was ignored by his home state Uttar Pradesh in the Ranji Trophy last season after playing 81 first-class matches.
“Every now and then people taunt me, saying, ‘Virat kahan hai aur tum kahan ho (look at where Virat is and where you are),’" says the 28-year-old, who has also played for three teams in the Indian Premier League (IPL) in the last 10 years.
Srivastava is not the only one from the U-19 format who has failed to graduate to international cricket. Apart from Kohli, only three players (K.L. Rahul, Jaydev Unadkat and Kuldeep Yadav) have managed to play for India in all formats from the last four batches of U-19 World Cup teams (Ravindra Jadeja was part of the 2008 U-19 team too but he had played the 2006 U-19 final as well).
Among the remaining 56 players, just seven have managed to play 32 Twenty20 matches—these include four “lucky" ones who have represented India in 29 One Day Internationals, or ODIs (though Manish Pandey alone has played 22).
To put it simply, the strike rate of conversion to international cricket is poor. For every Kohli, there is the depressing tale of an Unmukt Chand (the captain of the 2012 triumph, and was the highest scorer in Australia). Ironically, Chand, 24, was unsold in the recent IPL auction and is not a regular in the Delhi Ranji team either.
“I will share from my experience," says Srivastava, while watching Prithvi Shaw’s team in the final at his Ghaziabad home on Saturday.
“At this level (U-19), everything looks so easy. However, after that your responsibility increases in first-class cricket. One game is in windy and chilly Dharamsala. The next is in the oppressive heat of Chennai and then in Cuttack. Apart from mastering different conditions, you need to keep clearing all the hurdles in the next two years because if you fail to do that, it quickly derails," says the UP opener.
“It’s not necessary that every U-19 player will graduate to Ranji or country," says former India player Venkatesh Prasad, who also heads the junior selection committee. “It’s all about mental maturity and how they handle themselves (after initial success). The others who are not part of the World Cup team are playing somewhere and they are also maturing and will compete."
Over the past decade, stories of failure among U-19 players have generally blamed selectors, the temptation of glamour and money from the IPL, or injuries at the wrong time.
Spinner Iqbal Abdulla and pacer Siddharth Kaul were joint-highest wicket takers, along with Jadeja, from the 2008 team but they just kept floating in the Ranji Trophy and IPL. Shahbaz Nadeem, who played in the 2006 tournament, still wonders why he didn’t make it to India A, forget India, despite being the highest wicket taker in Ranji Trophy (in 2016-17).
Srivastava likens the Ranji to a quagmire, saying it’s easy if you keep climbing but tough if you get stuck for a season or two. Quoting Kohli’s example, he says, “Virat soon got the Border-Gavaskar scholarship and India A and then India..."
“Chadte suraj ko sab salaam karte hain (everyone salutes the rising sun) but few will support you when you are injured or struggling," recalls former India player Reetinder Singh Sodhi, who was part of the first World Cup winning team in 2000 that also had the likes of Mohammad Kaif and Yuvraj Singh.
Cheteshwar Pujara, Rohit Sharma, Jadeja and Piyush Chawla have emerged from the team of 2006 that lost in the World Cup final. Half-a-dozen players from the 2004 team also made it to the national team. But two of them, Abhishek Sharma (the highest wicket taker with 12 scalps) and Praveen Gupta (11 wickets), faded away quickly.
Similarly, Ravneet Ricky and Shalabh Srivastava (the highest scorer and wicket taker, respectively, from the 2000 champion team), Manvinder Bisla and another Abhishek Sharma (the highest scorer and wicket taker, respectively, from the 2002 team) could never come close to national reckoning.
Similar patterns were observed in 2010 (Mayank Aggarwal and Saurabh Netravalkar), 2012 (Unmukt Chand and Ravikant Singh) and 2016 (Sarfaraz Khan and Avesh Khan), with those most successful with the bat and ball failing to make it to the next grade.
So, is there a message for Shubman Gill (372 runs in six matches) and Anukul Roy (14 wickets in six matches) from the 2018 triumphant team?
“Many players from our group (the 2004 team) and Virat’s group played for India. My advice to these youngsters is to play as many games, even corporate games. The next two-three years are crucial but, honestly, I believe in three-four years’ time, the whole team can play for India," says Suresh Raina, 31, who has just made a comeback to India’s T20 squad, which will play three matches against South Africa this month.
“This is good for recognition but now the pressure of expectation also kicks in. It can be like candy floss if they start basking in this glory," warns Sodhi.
“Coping with the rigours of senior cricket won’t be easy. Now players will be physically stronger and more mature and it’s a different challenge altogether," adds Prasad.
Shikhar Dhawan, who was senior to Kohli, almost lost his way before making a stunning comeback in 2013 almost a decade after his U-19 glory.
Manish Pandey was Kohli’s teammate in 2008 and scored an IPL 100 in South Africa in 2009. Stuart Binny managed to play in every format after wandering for 12 years in the domestic circuit. He was part of the 2002 junior team which had the likes of Irfan Pathan and Parthiv Patel in its ranks.
“How much maturity does a player have at the U-19 level, in comparison to a 24-, 28- or 32-year-old, whom they will face in Ranji? They start doubting their ability once they see failure at the next level. He will start questioning if he is really good enough," explains Prasad, who was head coach of the 2006 junior team which lost the final against Pakistan.
Another peculiar issue this generation faces is the double-edged sword of the IPL. The arguments from both sides are equally compelling on the positive and negative effects of the game’s most influential format.
“I don’t think the IPL is a distraction or a bad thing. It’s an opportunity to express. Also, they have got the best coach in Rahul Dravid, whose words and guidance will keep them grounded," says Raina.
“The IPL is an advantage, it can rescue you. For eight first-class matches, you need to work for eight months, while the IPL gives you everything (in seven weeks). Nowadays, you get a T20 and ODI cap after a fabulous IPL," says Srivastava.
“The IPL auction (27-28 January) happened before the Pakistan game (30 January) and that is why Gill got just Rs1.8 crore, else he could have got Rs11 crore. The rules have changed and uncapped players get so much. This is good, but is too much money good for players? I bought an LML Vespa after my first season but today many from this team will buy BMWs as their first vehicle. Everything has pros and cons," says Sodhi.
So what is the solution? What needs to be done to ensure there are more Kohlis than Chands from U-19 teams?
“Half of the team will be playing in the IPL but the challenge is to manage someone like Ishan Porel (who took 4/17 against Pakistan), who doesn’t have an IPL contract. That’s the time you need guidance. The NCA (National Cricket Academy) should nurture them," advises Srivastava.
As coach Dravid said at the presentation ceremony, U-19 players should not look upon the World Cup as the defining moment of their careers but as a stepping stone. It has got them attention but until they keep knocking—with a good IPL, a great first-class season and sustained performances—it may not lead them to the enviable path of Kohli.
“I still sleep every day with my India cap on my bed. How badly you value an India cap possibly will determine your journey," concludes Sodhi.
Vimal Kumar is the author of Sachin: Cricketer Of The Century and The Cricket Fanatic’s Essential Guide.