India’s recent triumph over Australia in the final of the Under-19 World Cup opened up the floodgates. From receptions on the tarmac on arrival to felicitations and cash rewards from the Board of Control for Cricket in India to panel discussions on television channels, the young men who were till recently merely cricketers have taken their baby steps towards stardom. To wonder whether this is good or bad is an exercise in academia, for the times we live in are such. As a society, we are constantly on the hunt for celebrity, and, increasingly, associate our own well being and happiness, however fleetingly, with the deeds of others. It’s just the situation we live in; if India win, we’re happy, and feel a deep connection with those who are successful. If they lose, there’s despair, which manifests in many ways, from the trivial, such as venting frustrations on social media to the obnoxious, such as tarring the nameplates of cricketers at their residences or flinging a rock through someone’s car windows.
While the celebrity aspect is unavoidable, what should be in our control is how the cricketing lives of these striplings unfold. Ian Chappell, who was a television commentator for the host broadcaster and watched the event closely, wrote in a column on Cricinfo that some of the India players, most notably Harmeet Singh and Unmukt Chand, were ready to play for the senior team, and went so far as to suggest that playing for India A or in lesser events would be a waste of time, as they would stagnate. While Chappell knows a touch more about cricket than most people who watch the game, and has consistently had the best interests of the sport at heart, his suggestion is fraught with danger.
In many countries in the cricketing world, prime among them England, for whom and whose systems Chappell usually has thinly veiled contempt, there’s been a historical approach of not picking players young. And, often, once the player has been through the grind, he’s had any semblance of individuality coached out of him. In such a system there’s merit in his suggestion, but this has never been the case in India. History is littered with cases of players being picked extraordinarily young – both in terms of age and in terms of the body of work they’ve put together – and the hit rate of successes versus those left behind is not something to be proud of. For every Sachin Tendulkar – and you could argue he’d have done just as well even if he was first picked five years later than he was – there are several players who have shone briefly, only be lost to the game in the long run.
In India, we’ve been very good at nurturing success, but the only thing we’re better at is ruining a cricketer with the best of intentions. Without even going into the usual suspects who lost their way, there are two examples staring us in the face at the moment. On the fringes of the Indian team is one player who is thought to be so good that when he is out of the side, his talent is so lionised that it seems a sacrilege that he isn’t playing. When you watch Rohit Sharma bat, you can see that he has more time at the crease than anyone in recent memory. Speak to his coaches, his peers, his closest well-wishers, and a picture emerges of a young man who enjoyed the trappings of success before learning the value of the grind, and someone who perhaps doesn’t have enough time to listen to the wisdom of those who have walked a similar path before him. When he’s out of the team, experts chorus in unison that he simply must play. When picked, however, Rohit doesn’t quite suggest that he believes this, and the runs don’t come close to matching the potential.
For too long, now, the Indian cricket fraternity, in its search for the next big thing from the Mumbai school of batsmanship, has told Rohit that he’s simply too good to be left out. At some point he’s believed the hype, and is now paying the price.
At the other end of the spectrum, nibbling at the edges of the Indian team, is S Badrinath. For years, he built mountains in domestic cricket, scoring so heavily that it became impossible for the selectors to leave him out, even though they confided that they did not believe he had the “X Factor” needed to succeed at the highest level. Through his time in first-class cricket, Badrinath has been picked at precisely the wrong moments – not when he was in the best form or in situations that might give him the best possible chance of succeeding – and then jettisoned when he didn’t instantly set the world on fire. Cricketers who have done much less than him have been given a long rope, and there’s no joy for Badrinath in watching them hang themselves with it. After all, the passage of time, and the consistent message, despite protestations to the contrary, that those that made these decisions thought he was not quite good enough, have whittled away at the core of a once-determined cricketer.
For Badrinath, who was in the squad for the two Tests against New Zealand but did not play, time might have finally run out, for there’s no saying what the new selection panel will do when they convene in October to pick the team to play England, and you can’t blame them for wanting to plan for the future. For Rohit, how much cricket he plays for India seems to be entirely up to him, but in some ways, the seeds of self-destruction seem to have been planted already.