The Indian colts have done it again. The under-19 Indian Cricket Team, under the able leadership of Unmukt Chand, has won the Under-19 Cricket World Cup 2012 by defeating the home side Australia in the finals. The Indian team has now won three under-19 World Cups, previous wins being in 2000 under the captaincy of Mohammad Kaif and in 2008, under the leadership of Virat Kohli. The whole idea behind starting such a tournament was to give promising young cricketers a taste of what international cricket is all about. It is designed to give them a feel about playing for one’s own country and the pressure and expectations that come along with it. This would in turn ensure that promising young cricketers have a smooth transition into the senior national side. Have the Indian team selectors been successful in doing so?
If we had to look at the Indian players who made their way into the national side through the under-19 team, we have the likes of Virender Sehwag, Harbhajan Singh, Mohammad Kaif, Yuvraj Singh, Irfan Pathan, Suresh Raina, Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma and Dinesh Karthik. Some of them have made it big on the international stage and are instrumental to the senior side.
However, there are also many players who had shone in the under-19 sides but faded away into oblivion after that. Take, for example, the case of Ravneet Ricky, a cricketer from Punjab, who was declared the best batsman in the under-19 World Cup 2000 held in Sri Lanka. He had finished the series just 8 runs short of Graeme Smith, who finished as the highest run-getter in that series. Graeme Smith went on to become the youngest captain of South Africa and recently led his team to the number one position in Test cricket. Ravneet Ricky played his last first class match in November 2008. Same is the case with Manish Sharma, who had a great outing in that tournament but made his last first class appearance in 2006 before joining the Indian Cricket League in 2007.
Another peculiar case is that of Shikhar Dhawan. In the 2004 under-19 World Cup, he was the player of the tournament and the highest run-getter with a total of 505 runs, which included 3 centuries. Alistair Cook was second in that list with a total of 383 runs. Alistair Cook has grown and developed into a solid opening batsman for England with as many as 20 Test centuries in 83 matches. He is second only to Sachin Tendulkar when it comes to achieving batting milestones at a young age. Shikhar Dhawan, on the other hand, has featured in only 5 ODIs for India and is yet to make his Test match debut. Worse, he is not even in contention as far as Test cricket is concerned.
If we had to consider our bowlers, there is Shalabh Srivastava who finished the under-19 World Cup 2000 as the joint second highest wicket-taker with 14 scalps. Today, he is one of the 5 players suspended by the BCCI for spot-fixing. Another player named Anup Dave, a left-arm slow orthodox bowler, finished that same World Cup with 13 wickets, but has not played a single first-class game since November 2005. He simply faded away. Ajay Ratra, Venugopal Rao and Mrityunjay Tripathi are some of the other names who have failed to register much success post their under-19 heroics.
What could be the possible reasons behind this? Do they get lost in all the hype surrounding the under-19 triumphs? When the 2008 World Cup-winning team returned from Kuala Lumpur, there was a grand ceremony at the Chinaswamy Stadium in Bangalore to felicitate these young lads. Cash rewards, brand endorsements and IPL offers followed. These young cricketers earn almost as much as their role models – the senior cricketers – from all of this. Does handling success and keeping their focus on cricket then become a problem for these lads? Former Indian cricketer Robin Singh believes under-19 cricket is several notches below first-class standards and hence nothing should be based on the performances at that level. Former Indian cricketer and coach Venkatesh Prasad also believes that one should play a minimum of two years of first-class cricket before thinking about graduating to the next step.
However, there are few cricket pundits who have a different view. Australian great, Ian Chappell, in his recent article, says that he believes the very best players need to be constantly challenged from a young age, and if left for too long at a lower level, they may develop sloppy habits. The success of Graeme Smith justifies this school of thought. When Smith was made the captain of the South African side at the tender age of 22, the decision was criticized by many. Today, he is still the captain and needless to say, is going strong. Our very own Sachin Tendulkar also made his international cricket debut at the age of 16 after playing not more than one year of first-class cricket. The rest, as they say, is history. Both these wonderful cricketers have benefited because of the exemplary vision shown by the selectors and administrators, who had belief and confidence in their abilities. Conversely, the players who have failed to capitalize on the remarkable performances in the under-19 level may be victims of poor grooming, conditioning, counseling and selection methods.
So it all boils down to the vision of the men that matter the most, the selectors. The recent World Cup triumph by the under-19 colts will ensure enough media attention for the players. They will be felicitated, rewarded with cash and tempted with endorsement deals. It is up to the selectors to ensure that these young stars do not fade away as some of their predecessors have. Ian Chappell firmly believes that Harmeet Singh and Unmukt Chand are already good enough to play international cricket, and it is up to the selectors to provide them with enough opportunities. Are the selectors listening?