Mind the gap

The members of India's under-19 World Cup winning team still have a long way to go, and the BCCI will have to play a key role in their transition.

The Indian team celebrate winning the 2012 ICC U19 Cricket World Cup Final. (Getty Images)

First things first, and I thought India Under-19’s successful campaign in the recently concluded World Cup was special for a variety of reasons. They tasted defeat upfront, came through fixtures that could have gone either way with a sense of character not expected of teenagers, and ultimately, excelled in the final.

This was an eventual culmination of everything they did right and went through together as a squad over the last two years.

The BCCI, whom I otherwise have no particular love for, deserve every ounce of credit coming their way for their work in age-group cricket, for their proactive measures in ensuring this success. It’s an aspect of Indian cricket they’ve always believed in, and taken whatever steps needed to facilitate age-group cricket. While celebrations are a must, especially for a bunch of lads who’ve been through the classic ups and downs in the last two years, a little sense of perspective will help, and hopefully prevail.

While praise is something they deserve, it’s also important to remember a) fast-tracking them into higher levels of competitive cricket is unjustified and b) the gap between age-group cricket and first-class cricket is real, irrespective of the mediocrity in standard as they’re likely to encounter. Only a few survive this long, often lonely, and arduous road towards capping that eventual goal of playing international cricket for India.

The real story of age-group cricketers who have represented the Indian junior teams is not about those who make it to the top, but those who inevitably fall apart. They either aren’t good enough to make it through or even in some cases, quit the sport for  what they consider better things in life i.e. education. What these cricketers will now realize, and should do so is the fact that they enter the uncertain world of domestic cricket, not as Under-19 World Cup winners, but as 15 of the 560-600 aspirants who’ve chosen a
labour of toil - never-ending for some, fruitful for a chosen few and lonely for the rest.

And this is where, the BCCI along with the respective state associations need to intervene and assist some of these cricketers rather than let them fade away into oblivion. All calls for fast-tracking talents to international cricket must be unanimously rejected by the powers that be, given that excellence in a single format, at a particular level, three tiers below international cricket doesn’t exactly, or automatically translate to guaranteed success at the highest level.

So how do we bridge this gap? For a start, be patient. Some of these cricketers aren’t even established members in their respective first-class sides and as Praveen Amre told me, they might have to go through additional tiers like Under-22 cricket to even get noticed as proper first-class cricketers.

The first two years, as Amre said, will mostly be about breaking into the Ranji side - through performances in national age-group cricket or divisional cricket within the states, or even in cities like Mumbai and Delhi, through club/corporate cricket.

Once they make the cut and break into the Ranji setup, the next step will be to establish their spots, withstand intense competition from the pack following them, or discards trying to win their places back. And probably, the most difficult bit in this journey - to try and excel consistently, get noticed through your performances with selectors often lurking around at those grounds.

The point here is, that if the system doesn’t get carried away, this process of talent development could easily take close to 4 or 5 years (I call it the Cheteshwar Pujara way - four years to break through), unless there are exceptional cases, as we’ve previously seen with the likes of Virat Kohli or even Yuvraj Singh for that matter.

The ones who have had a head-start in domestic cricket - the likes of Unmukt Chand, Harmeet Singh and Vikas Mishra might have to consolidate their performances over two to three seasons to find themselves on the fringes of the national team.

Chand, whose progress over the last few years for Delhi has been steady (not exceptional) has been rewarded with a place in the India A tour of New Zealand in September - purely on potential and as a small recognition for his emergence through junior cricket.

For someone whose shot-making has been nothing short of impressive at this early stage in his career, Chand’s problems lie elsewhere - temperament - though if you purely consider the stunning hundred he scored on Sunday, you’d reckon he’s perhaps ready for the big-time.

In fact he might well be there, but last year, as Delhi struggled to conjure up the runs needed, Chand repeatedly got out to poor shots, most of them impetuous and instinctive - the bowlers winning the mental battle, by simply denying him the width to free up his arms square of the wicket, something he excels at, and more often than not, a ball closer to the off-stump would result in a flashy stroke, with Chand out caught behind or by slip fielders.

Purely as a fan of talent development and an admirer of Chand’s ability, I’d love to see the lad improve his shot selection, be more methodical, yet to quote the cliche, play his natural game. Considering that he’s already made quick strides as a age-group cricketer and that he’s been picked to play for India A, I’d expect to see some maturity and improvement when he starts for Delhi this season.

Harmeet, on the other hand faces an interesting challenge. As a follower of Mumbai cricket, I remember the late Dilip Sardesai bubbling with excitement somewhere around 2006 excitedly gushing about this schoolboy who made his mark in the Giles Shield with some wonderful performances as a left-arm spinner.

He came through sub-junior cricket with great numbers, and after four matches for the Mumbai U19 team, got selected to represent the Mumbai Ranji team in 2009/10. After two games for Mumbai in his debut season, he went to play one more first-class game in the following season, after which his progress stalled due to non-cricketing reasons like  indiscipline.

A part of the reason I call it an interesting challenge is because, Mumbai’s maidans have somewhere turned into a factory which produce left-arm spinners aplenty. Two of them - Ankeet Chavan and Iqbal Abdulla are more or less first-choice spinners for Mumbai, and Harmeet, despite his talent and superb start might again have to break through again, with performances in the Times Shield, Kanga League and other tournaments.

The advantage in Iqbal and Chavan’s case is that they’re undoubtedly better batsmen, and with Mumbai’s penchant for late-order rescues, it could be Harmeet’s batting and not bowling that could deny him a place in the XI. What next for him?

I am sure the Mumbai management would hand him enough opportunities to prove himself as a front-line spinner and importantly, if he’s not assured of a future with Mumbai cricket, the best case scenario for him personally, would be to ply his trade elsewhere and see how that goes. That nearly happened last season when Haryana approached Mumbai over a transfer for Harmeet, but the MCA refused him the NOC, and Harmeet was chosen to lead the U19 team, whom he led to the national championship win.

The choice in a way is his - to hang in, try and compete for a place in the coveted Mumbai line-up or move to a different state and restart his career. His progress either way deserves to be monitored, given all the appraisals coming his way. I believe this is precisely where the BCCI could proactively intervene and help some of these players perhaps secure a move to places where they might get opportunities and in a sense adopt a more national approach, than leave it to state associations.

Even from a BCCI point of view, who I believe have been exceptional as far as talent development at an age-group level are concerned, should opt for a three-tier system, where some of these performers are given regular international exposure through squad tours to different countries at different stages of the year.

Basically, those players from this bunch who have been performing well in say, Under-22 cricket or Ranji Trophy in the coming season - be rewarded for a squad tour to Bangladesh or UAE or Sri Lanka (an unofficial A tour), just to let them know that their progress is being monitored carefully and the system cares.

I’ve previously written about a transitional squad or to use the sporting jargon a “developmental squad” or even take a cue from the Aussies, who have now introduced an “Australia AA” team, thereby expanding their talent base and a careful adoption of the squad approach.

A reward for performing in these AA tours, along with a good domestic season should automatically result in a progression to the A team and then later on, if they click, the national team.

However, the easy way out for some of these players could be the Indian Premier League route, and that is where the Board and these players have to be careful. For a start, the no T20s for Under-19 cricketers is, I believe an excellent initiative by the BCCI and long may that continue.

But realistically speaking, most of these cricketers are in line for big-money IPL contracts (some may say deservedly so), and in a sense they could be tempted to use the tournament as a launchpad for national ambitions (let’s call it the Ravindra Jadeja way - though he had a superb domestic season in 2007/08).

With selectors now taking IPL performances seriously, sometimes over the Ranji toil, I won’t be surprised if an Unmukt Chand or a Harmeet Singh ends up playing for India sooner than the four-year period I stated. I’d be disappointed, though.

It’s fair to say that Indian cricket is entering an interesting phase as far as talent development is concerned. While it may never be an overt priority for the BCCI, their quiet, unassuming work deserves to be applauded, with some element of caution.

These players are pretty much works in progress - none of them could lay claim to the finished material label. Much will depend on how efficiently they make the transition from anonymity to the big-time. That, for the BCCI should be the next project.