Sobering struggle awaits India’s U-19 stars

The hard and unforgiving grind at the first-class level could be a different world for many of India’s U-19 World Cup stars.

Time will tell whether Manjot Kalra, the century-maker in the final, goes on to fulfill his promise.   -  AFP

The U-19 World Cup is understood to be a testing ground for future international cricket stars. It has now become natural for players from prominent or successful teams to be highlighted on television; after all, the event is now quite widely patronised by cricket’s stakeholders.

India’s title win earlier this month was a cause for celebration for fans of Indian cricket as well as for its protagonists, and for a few days the broadcaster kept reminding its viewers of the occasion through little snippets.

Amid the euphoria in the aftermath, however, was a word of caution, too. India’s coach Rahul Dravid said career challenges for the players began from this juncture, a fact that must have been underscored by him several times in his shepherding role.

But he also mentioned the need for success at the first-class level, which isn’t very straightforward, for a stint in international cricket.

As in any pursuit which has many aspirants, there are bound to be failures. Sandipan Das, a seam-bowling all-rounder and a member of the squad that clinched the title in 2012, struggled to build his first-class or even List A or T20 career since. Left-arm spinner Karan Kaila, a member of the India U-19 squad in 2014, has failed to go beyond two List A appearances for Punjab.

These players weren’t very much in the spotlight during the televised tourneys as they hadn’t regularly featured in their teams’ campaign. Therefore, the fall must not have been so hard.

READ: India's U-19 stars who made it big

But the scenario was different for Kamal Passi and Harmeet Singh, prominent members of the 2012 Indian side. These bowlers were the toast of the nation for a few weeks for their performances that eventually led India to the title. Following a heady cocktail of success and attention, however, their careers failed to take off. Passi, now 25, has managed to play just four first-class matches, two each for Punjab and Services; his last first-class fixture was in December, 2016.

Harmeet’s tale is even more frustrating as he got caught up in a spot-fixing controversy, although he was cleared of wrongdoing. After failing to hold a spot in the Mumbai team, he moved to Jammu and Kashmir, for whom he played four first-class matches, the latest in November, 2016.

Harmeet, also 25, now finds himself stranded after 14 first-class matches. Such stark fall can be difficult to digest, but such is the era of television and the profession of uncertainty; after all, there are but 11 places to occupy in a State team.

Perhaps the Indian Premier League is an alternative to get noticed, but pinning hopes on it is like buying a lottery ticket – there is no certainty of prolonged success. That’s not to suggest the U-19 World Cup isn’t a foretaste of bigger success and star power.

Virat Kohli is perhaps the biggest poster-boy for the event – a marketable commodity – as his 2008 title win was followed in time by his coronation as the most prominent torch-bearer of Indian cricket. Yuvraj Singh and Mohammad Kaif, members of the 2000 U-19 World Cup winning team, emerged as solid limited-overs players for India.

From the 2012 side, Unmukt Chand, the captain, has carved out a regular spot for Delhi; his peers Baba Aparajith and Hanuma Vihari have been even more prominent performers for their State sides, and seamer Sandeep Sharma has even gone on to play for India, the only one from that team to do so, a fact underscored by Dravid himself.

READ: Rockets rare, squibs aplenty!

More recently, Shreyas Iyer, participant in the 2014 edition of the World Cup in the UAE, developed his reputation as an attacking striker of the cricket ball and a run machine for his State side Mumbai. In the 2015-16 domestic season, he scored 1321 runs at an average of 73.38 in the Ranji Trophy, and since then, has compelled the Indian selectors to include him in the limited-overs squads. His U-19 peer Ishan Kishan of Jharkhand is not far behind either.

The 2016 World Cup was the first time the Indian team was coached by Rahul Dravid.

Within a matter of two years, two played emerged as India players, with prominent roles in their State sides and the IPL. Washington Sundar, only 18, plays as an off-spinner for Tamil Nadu and has enjoyed success in the IPL; in December last year, he represented India in an ODI and a T20I against Sri Lanka.

Delhi’s Rishabh Pant has made his name as an attacking batsman and a wicket-keeper, and has also represented India in two limited-overs matches. He is looked upon as a successor of M. S. Dhoni.

The latest World Cup-winning side will also likely produce household names among followers of Indian cricket. Shubman Gill, the highest run-getter for India in the event, continued his good run by producing a century for Punjab in the Vijay Hazare Trophy, and captain Prithvi Shaw has already grabbed headlines by collecting five centuries in nine first-class matches for Mumbai.

Time will tell whether Manjot Kalra, the century-maker in the final, goes on to fulfill his promise, or whether left-arm spinner Anukul Roy contributes to Jharkhand cricket’s golden era. Ishan Porel could well be Bengal’s next big seamer after Mohammed Shami and Ashok Dinda, and the genuinely fast Kamlesh Nagarkoti of Rajasthan a bigger India prospect than the somewhat unlucky Pankaj Singh.

But there are sure to be those deemed failures in their pursuit as well, such is its boom- and-bust nature.

What Dravid perhaps meant, besides imploring his wards to gear up for a hard struggle, was that it is important to mentally prepare for what is to follow. The prospective shock after a taste of limelight could be mitigated by early conditioning.

For, there is no neat formula of establishing oneself at the elite level. It requires hard work and struggle, but is by no means ensured by it.