It's not even amusing anymore and to quickly clear the air straight away, this column is not so much about that young, tall and lanky leg-spinner from Jalandhar i.e. Rahul Sharma as it is about a mindset that has become commonplace in Indian cricket these days. The very mindset that gets us believing that any cricketer with a half-decent performance in the IPL is good enough to play international cricket.
Week one this season was about Paul Valthaty, whose hundred made us believe he was, to quote some, "the future of Indian cricket". This for a lad whose credentials in what we consider our primary domestic competition, Ranji Trophy, was next to nil. The following weeks, the attention has seamlessly transitioned towards Rahul Sharma, or as excited apologists tag him, "the next Anil Kumble" -- a guy who takes a wicket every 85 balls in First Class cricket - a number so modest, he'd struggle to take the Australian spinner's spot, and this isn't an exaggeration.
Tomorrow, there will be another such story, the next Zaheer Khan, the next Harbhajan Singh, the next Paul Valthathy, perhaps. Is this what a fledgling cricketer needs to do to make it to the highest level? A few performances, 4 over spells, 10-ball 30s to make it to the Indian one-day/Test team, World Champions in either formats no less? I ask humbly, do we even have a proper reward system in place or are we looking for cricketing Justin Biebers i.e. overnight sensations?
DEVELOPING A REWARD SYSTEM
Like most issues, there are two sides to this debate. One which firmly believes that India's best interests lie in a reward system that takes the whole into account, over the part. The whole, where performances in First Class cricket precede miniature acts in a six-week slogathon.
There is the other view, which encapsulates and argues that the IPL is near-international standard and performances here count for more than events that unfolded six months earlier. In effect, the latter amounts to the ultimate insult or ridicule to a system that, over the past seventy years, has been the bedrock of Indian cricket and has contributed world class performers.
That view to me, is the Rahul Sharma Syndrome. It also brings us to the question about what we are expecting from the IPL. Is it a level of reward and recognition for budding cricketers, a platform for them to kind of show what they are capable of, or a de facto selection tournament, an opportunity where a few performances could seal an India cap? The answer may well lie in Rahul's impending selection for the West Indies tour.
One of the common arguments in favour of picking players straight from the IPL is the point that they're adept at handling pressure, given that they play before huge crowds with a lot at stake and their performances coming under intense scrutiny. Sure. But ever thought of a lad, waking in the morning, almost like a farmer ploughing away, playing in the most unheard of places, in front of crows and empty seats, and yet picking wickets by the bucketful? That's your Ranji bowler, making that India cap his sole determination and goal. And if playing in before empty chairs in games even selectors don't attend isn't motivation enough, I am afraid nothing is. Mind you, the problem isn't the IPL, the problem is how we choose to see it.
Which is precisely I ask why a little-known bowler like Rahul Sharma should jump the queue and make it ahead of consistent performers in First Class cricket. Take the case of Iqbal Abdulla, who, by all means deserves to be in contention for an Indian one-day spot, not by his exploits for the Kolkata franchise but the Mumbai Ranji team, where his improvement graph has only been moving upwards.
During the 2009-10 Ranji season, Abdulla was the stock bowler, defensive both in intent and execution, with the luxury of his batsmen scoring close to 400+ runs in the majority matches of their Ranji campaign. His job was simple - to keep the runs tight. His left-arm spin over the wicket and outside leg-stump is colloquially called negative bowling. In the season of 2010-11, Abdulla showed considerable improvement and has emerged as Mumbai's leading wicket-taker and the second highest wicket-taking spinner in the season after Bhargav Bhatt.
He started flighting the ball ever well, varying his pace and trajectory according to situations and importantly, there was an attacking intent which was refreshing to see from a young spinner, given the times we live in today. This against Rahul, who is out of favour with his own Ranji team, Punjab who prefer left-arm spinner Bipul Sharma to him, which then begs the question, how can someone not an automatic choice for their First Class team squeeze himself into the reckoning for the national setup? Simply because he has an economy rate of 5.60 in 10 IPL matches for his franchise and some wickets to go with that? I hope not.
WHAT DO WE DO WITH RAHUL AND VALTHATY?
This brings us to another fundamental problem with this reward system. Now that they're in the limelight, what do we do with the likes of Rahul and Valthaty? In the case of Rahul, who is still young, perhaps the IPL exposure was the break he was waiting for, proving a few in the Punjab selection committee wrong along the way. If anything, his performances in the IPL have more or less ensured a place in the Punjab set-up, where two good seasons would put him in contention for an India cap.
As a leg-spinner, there are certain attributes you carry with yourself - the ability to attack no matter what, bowl fuller Test match lengths, draw the batsmen into mistakes, work him over with a sustained spell and importantly, bowling to different kinds of batsmen, different situations that unfortunately don't emerge in Twenty20 matches.
Most importantly, develop a temperament for a leg-spinner, which requires a degree of patience, persistence, relentlessly hovering around middle and leg-stump and importantly, from whatever little I've seen of him, the lad needs to learn to give the ball a classical, mighty rip. To prematurely liken him to Anil Kumble because he doesn't turn the ball, is the greatest disservice to a legend of Indian cricket, for Kumble embodied qualities that at times outdid his talent, which wasn't limited by no means.
This is precisely why I reckon Rahul Sharma is not ready for international cricket. Only after two good years of education in Indian dustbowls can the jury can decide if he's good enough. Till then, let's collectively give him a break. Ditto for Valthaty, I'd imagine, though his age is a factor in where his future might lie. If anything, he's trumped a few mediocre non-performers in the Mumbai ranks to give himself a last shot at first-class cricket. That's all.
In sum, it would be fair to say that Indian cricket has a choice to make about the reward template it chooses to follow. First-class cricket is something that most Test-playing nations recognize and consider their primary feeder system for international cricket and long may that stay, given that an odd good tournament must never be the guiding mark of consistency or even talent at its finality.
The challenge for Indian cricket is to resist popular temptation. The IPL era has changed perceptions about a cricketer's talent, which is considered high without even a semblance of experience in levels below international cricket. If we can hold back this urge to blood quick-sand talents and give thoroughbred, nurtured and consistent performers the chances they deserve, Indian cricket would have most definitely overcome that Rahul Sharma Syndrome.