India’s next big things

In IPL-XI, India’s youngest showed they can hold their own against the best in the world. It is now up to the system to nurture them so they are able to transition into complete cricketers.

The likes of Shreyas Iyer (in pic) and Rishabh Pant are not quite striplings, not fresh faces that IPL 2018 has thrown up. They come with a track record in domestic cricket, and the fact that they will be in England with the A team even as the seniors prepare for their battle in the same country bodes well.   -  AFP

Every edition of the Indian Premier League defines itself in ways that it neither intended nor anticipated. The league, into its 11th year, has a life of its own and, surprisingly, it has defied all stereotypes, propaganda and hype to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The IPL, like most Twenty20 cricket, was conceived as a young man’s game. Instead, the most marketable tournament in the world became a showcase for the biggest stars, most of them established players, some of them raging against the dying light in their own countries.

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In IPL-XI, however, India’s youngest showed that they can hold their own against the best in the world like never before. There was always one young bolter who made an impact, but not once had young Indian cricketers been part of a pack before the 2018 edition.

The youth brigade

Prithvi Shaw, like state mate Sachin Tendulkar, was identified at a cruelly young age, put under the microscope and preordained for greatness. To his credit, the 18-year-old has proved himself at every opportunity, scoring runs by the bucketful for the India under-19 team, following that up with five first class centuries in 10 games and then giving the Delhi Daredevils the impetus the team needed at the top of the order.

Mayank Markande, on the other hand, has not played a single first class match. While he has turned out in domestic T20 and 50-over matches for Punjab, it would be fair to say the young man is yet to get into the serious grind of learning his craft against high-quality batting attacks. The fast-bowler-turned-leg-spinner is only 20, an age when results are less important than constant improvement. Yet, there was an assured confidence to him when he bowled in this edition of the IPL. His googly was good enough to fox Mahendra Singh Dhoni, and you can be sure that that wicket alone will ensure that people keep a close eye on him.

Mayank Markande's googly was good enough to fox Mahendra Singh Dhoni, and one can be sure that that wicket alone will ensure that people keep a close eye on him.   -  AP

 

In Karnataka circles, Prasidh Krishna is highly spoken of. But with Vinay Kumar, Abhimanyu Mithun, S. Arvind and Ronit More around, there was little chance Krishna would break into the squad before properly proving himself and earning a spot through wickets at the lower levels. He has pace, is tall enough to extract that bit of extra bounce when he hits the seam, as he as shown in the IPL, and has enough variation and presence of mind to keep the batsmen honest even in high-pressure situations.

The 18-year-old Shubman Gill is an unusually quiet cricketer in an age of loud under-19 stars. That he was destined for bigger things became amply clear at the Under-19 World Cup earlier this year, where he scored 372 runs with crisp, pure stroke play and earned praise from some of the sharpest batting minds in the game. V.V.S. Laxman, to whom Gill has been compared, noted his maturity and calmness. Rahul Dravid, the India under-19 coach, once challenged Gill to stop playing aerial shots after he holed out early in an innings. In the next two games, the ball stayed on the turf when hit and both times Gill scored hundreds.

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Ishan Kishan scored three ducks in the first half of the Mumbai Indians’ IPL season. Most youngsters who do so can reasonably expect to spend the rest of the tournament on the bench, ferrying drinks. Kishan wasn’t, because his captain, Rohit Sharma, recognised that the 19-year-old wasn’t just any other cricketer. Being a wicketkeeper-batsman from Jharkhand comes with its own set of expectations. When he is out in the middle, Kishan is fearless. Against the Kolkata Knight Riders, Kishan had his day in the sun, smacking a 17-ball 50, with five sixes, four of which came against Kuldeep Yadav, a bowler that even experienced international batsmen have had trouble decoding.

These five young men are not alone, though they are at the forefront of the charge of the young brigade. In previous seasons of the IPL, almost without fail, one young Indian player has used the opportunity to showcase his ability in a widely watched, highly scrutinised event. But never before has there been such a consistent showing of young cricketers across teams.

Nurturing talent

The weak link in the IPL, when you compare it with international cricket, is the fact that each team has to field a minimum of seven Indian players each game. You might think that a country of a billion-plus, with nearly 30 first class teams, should have no difficulty putting out 70-100 top-flight cricketers. But, the fact of the matter is that, while there is no dearth of talent, it takes years of work, experience and being challenged to make a player complete.

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Since many Indian players, especially those who play for and against the weaker Ranji Trophy teams, are denied this experience on a consistent basis, they find it difficult to transition from being talented players to ones who deliver day in and day out. Which is why, in the IPL, just like in other domestic competitions, it is possible to play out the good bowlers and wait for the weak link to attack; it is also possible to winkle out the three best batsmen in the line-up cheaply and know that the rest will not be able to ride the pressure and rise to the challenge.

In Karnataka circles, Prasidh Krishna is highly spoken of.   -  K.R. Deepak

The emergence of young cricketers who are closer to the finished deal is possibly the best thing to happen to Indian cricket. While it would be unfair to give all the credit to Dravid, the junior team coach, and the India A set-up, it is clear that something right is being done at this level. The variance in coaching standards and facilities across the country at the domestic level was one reason why consistency was elusive. But, given Dravid’s fastidious approach and attention to detail, this is something that has been overcome at the under-19 level.

While it’s exciting to see young players come good on their potential, it is worth remembering that the whiz kids of IPL 2018 cannot be expected to step up to the India plate just yet. If the lessons learnt at the under-19 level two years ago made them IPL-ready now, then these achievements are only a couple of more rungs climbed on the ladder. How they are groomed from here on, how well they are taken care of at places such as the National Cricket Academy and how their state associations treat them are all central to whether they are prepared well enough to serve the country.

There is, however, already a small group of cricketers who could be the bridge between generations. The likes of Shreyas Iyer and Rishabh Pant are not quite striplings, not fresh faces that IPL 2018 has thrown up. They come with a track record in domestic cricket, and the fact that they will be in England with the A team even as the seniors prepare for their battle in the same country bodes well. At short notice, if a replacement is needed, these players could be in form and, to a degree, acclimatised to the conditions. While it won’t always be possible for India A to act as a shadow team to the seniors, a case can certainly be made for this to be a planned practice when India travels to countries where the conditions are significantly different from home, to avoid a player coming into the mix cold.

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In the past, the gap between the state-level game and the national team was a wide one, but this has been bridged to some extent by the NCA and a more rigorous India A schedule, with games in the 50-over and four-day formats against international opposition being played with increased regularity. Remember Shreevats Goswami? Saurabh Tiwary? Iqbal Abdulla? They were all named emerging player in different editions of the IPL. Unfortunately, that emergence was not blessed with the permanence of constant improvement that leads to national success.

The hope is that the system will not fail today’s youngsters as it did yesterday’s potential heroes.