Unless you have an exceptional memory, it is unlikely that the names of Ravikant Shukla or Ajitesh Argal would ring a bell.
Shukla captained the Indian team at the 2006 Under-19 World Cup in Sri Lanka, while Argal was named Player of the Match at the final of the 2008 edition in Kuala Lumpur, where Virat Kohli’s team beat South Africa in a tense finish.
Eight years on, Shukla, who made his first-class debut even before he burst onto the world stage, has moved from Uttar Pradesh to Goa in search of greener pastures. Two centuries in 40 first-class games in close to a decade is an indication of why, at 27, he is unlikely to make heads turn. Argal has an U-19 World Cup medal on his CV, but has since fallen under the radar.
Shukla and Argal aren’t alone: there have been a number of age-group players who’ve come and gone; some lost in transition while others continue to grace the periphery of the domestic scene.
According to Mohammad Kaif, once these youngsters are no longer eligible to play in the age-group category, many of them “lose the plot”. “I’m not too sure if players today are exposed to top quality cricket immediately after their U-19 days,” Kaif, who led India to their first U-19 World Cup title in 2000, tells Wisden India. “Back then, domestic cricket was equally competitive. The same can’t be said about a few of our domestic tournaments now.”
For instance, before Kaif could soak in the magnitude of his team’s achievement, he was facing a fearsome South African pace attack in Shaun Pollock, Allan Donald, Nantie Hayward and Jacques Kallis on Test debut in February 2000. And, Yuvraj Singh, the other half of that successful combine then, made a roaring debut later that year in Nairobi.
Parthiv Patel, fresh out of the U-19 World Cup in February 2002, battled to save a Test match on debut at Trent Bridge a few months later, while Dinesh Karthik, Suresh Raina, Irfan Pathan and RP Singh, all part of the 2004 batch, made their India debuts soon after their U-19 days.
“The standard of cricket was an eye-opener, and we had to make the adjustment quickly,” says Kaif, who played 13 Tests and 125 One-Day Internationals. Besides, “Being named in one of the three Challenger Trophy teams back then meant you were among the top 36 players in the country. When you played for your zone in the Duleep Trophy, you knew it was recognition of your talent and performances. The experience of playing big matches with the big names, used to drive us.
“The top players were available for these tournaments. I’ve enjoyed my interactions with Azhar (Mohammad Azharuddin), I wanted to field like him. When we used to face Javagal Srinath, Venkatesh Prasad or Anil Kumble in domestic cricket, we knew if we did well, we would be noticed. But today, these tournaments have lost their significance. Duleep Trophy is often played on flat wickets, Challenger has been scrapped this season.”
Yet, he says, at the same time, “The price we put on our wicket was much more. Ranji Trophy, India A and Challengers is all we had to knock on the doors of the national team. In that sense, a wasted opportunity often left us wondering when the next chance would come. But today, there’s so much cricket across formats that if players don’t score runs in one innings, they feel another opportunity is just round the corner. That may be a good and a bad thing.”
Pressure of expectation
Since the turn of the century, India have won three U-19 World Cups in seven attempts. They finished runners-up in 2006 and were semi-finalists in 2002, 2004 and 2010. The last of the triumphs came two years ago, in Australia, where Unmukt Chand redefined the phrase ‘leading from the front’ in a display of immense mental strength and character – his unbeaten century in the final helping India beat Australia.
The hallmark of India’s campaign was that it was a team effort. Sandeep Sharma was there to provide breakthroughs with his incisive spells of swing bowling upfront, B Aparajith steadied the innings and steered the team home in crisis situations, Chand marshalled his troops with authority and control, and Harmeet Singh, the left-arm spinner, bowled with the kind of guile that elicited comparisons to Bishan Bedi. In fact, Ian Chappell, the former Australia captain, was vocal of the need to fast-track Chand and Harmeet into the national team.
Obviously, this led to heightened expectations, a belief that a number of players were primed for higher honours at a time when the national team was transitioning from the era of the Fab Four. But two years hence, they are still on the periphery of selection in first-class cricket.
Aparajith and Sandeep Sharma have been standouts, delivering consistent performances for Tamil Nadu and Punjab in the Ranji Trophy, but Chand, who made his first-class debut for Delhi in 2010, has been a bit of a disappointment. He scored just 286 runs in 11 innings at an average of 26.86 in the 2013-14 Ranji Trophy season. The poor form also led to him being dropped towards the end of the season. But Chand, who was once the blue-eyed boy of Indian cricket, is quite forthright in his own assessment.
“I don’t think pressure is the reason at all,” says Chand. “The great players of the past have found ways of dealing with it. I’ll be honest enough to admit there have been a number of challenges after the World Cup win. Obviously expectations increased, but that is a part and parcel of sport. If we’ve to be successful, we have to find ways of dealing with it. If I were to assess my game now, I think I’ve done well in limited-overs cricket. Long-form cricket is my aim and I’m trying my best. Hopefully the upcoming season will be a turning point.”
If it’s not about the pressure, then why have only five cricketers (Virat Kohli, Ravindra Jadeja, Saurabh Tiwary, Abhinav Mukund and Jaydev Unadkat) across three editions made the step up?
Youngsters need a road map
“It can’t be a question of ability because they’ve proved their ability on the world stage. If they can be world beaters at the U-19 level, they can prove their mettle on any platform,” explains B Arun, who coached the U-19 World Cup-winning team of 2012. “It’s a question of temperament.
“The way each one executes their skill is different. It’s like handwriting. The words are the same, but the way you write is different. You can better your handwriting, but if you try to write like someone else, the flow is gone. So that is what I sense some players are trying to do, and as coaches, our challenge is to work with them and iron out these aspects,” adds Arun, who on Tuesday (August 19) was appointed assistant coach of the Indian team for the ODI series in England.
Arun also stresses on the need for continuity, a valid argument considering players encounter a number of coaches along the way – local coach, academy coach, U-19 coach, state coach and maybe IPL coaches.
“You need to take the local coaches into confidence too,” explains Arun. “It would perhaps benefit both the player and the coach if you sit down and chart out a roadmap together, so that there is a sense of ownership, and the local coach who has seen a player evolve from his younger days feels his work is appreciated. Now with increased focus on Under-23, not all is lost for the players of the 2012 batch. Already, at least ten out of the 15 members have broken into their state team and are playing in the IPL.”
Kaif adds to this argument. “There is overemphasis on coaching. Sports science has brought with it a lot of complication too. The first instinct of a young player these days is to do what they’re told.”
So what then can help the young players?
“Nothing like playing one or two seasons of country cricket,” says Kaif, who played for Derbyshire in 2003. “Yes, there are a lot of scholarships, you can train at state academies abroad, but a lot of young players will become better players, especially in long-form cricket, if they play in England. The conditions, training regime, work ethic – all these factors change you as an individual and as a professional. It makes you think on your own and not just go through the motions.”
There may be hope yet. No longer are players above 25 looked at as fossils. Stuart Binny and Pankaj Singh are fine examples. Time isn’t exactly running out for the U-19 stars of 2012, but the next domestic season could offer a better idea about whether they’ve taken a small step or a giant leap towards the senior team.