A victory for talent

AT first glance, Parthiv Patel's selection at 17 (when his school mates are struggling with class 12 exams) is another example of an extraordinary triumph of youth, a victory for talent and hard work. Parthiv, extremely gifted by nature, would not be where he is without fierce commitment - his success story fires the imagination of others, motivates them to climb to the top.

But looking closely at Parthiv, one realises that his success stems substantially from the BCCI's junior programme and is a direct result of an elaborate structure that consists of various age-level tournaments and coaching activities. Parthiv is a product of this system - if the young keeper has moved up the ladder to Test cricket in double quick time, give credit to the Board to put the ladder there in the first place. Still, that Parthiv, or anyone else as young, makes it is quite amazing. He comes from Ahmedabad, a city known more for cloth and commerce than cricket, unlike Bangalore or Bombay. His family has no tradition of cricket either, father is busy looking after a construction business, nobody else has had much to do with the game, there was no inspirational figure in the background either. Nor did Parthiv go to any fancy cricket academy run by past players. Instead he learnt the basics under NIS coaches Puri and Sharma based in Gandhinagar. There were no turf wickets, cricket was played on matting, which is the reason he favours shots square off the wicket.

Having started at age 9, Parthiv made brisk progress and in the last 4 years played the entire junior circuit representing various teams. Huge scores (including 4 hundreds) at the under-17 level propelled him into the under-19 team and thereafter the India 'A' squad. His keeping is sure and safe, his batting spirited and spunky whether as opener or at No. 7.

Remarkably, for someone so young, four seasons of incessant cricket have given Parthiv a modern outlook and an international attitude, made him a truly global cricketer. As part of BCCI's junior teams he has already travelled the world, been to South Africa and Sri Lanka with the 'A' team, New Zealand as captain of the under-19 team, Australia as part of an exchange programme and Bangladesh with the under-17 squad - the only country left to visit is the West Indies!

Such exposure makes Parthiv an alert, connected cricketer who knows what it takes to play cricket at the top level. He understands the demands, the hard work, the sacrifices required and is willing to absorb the pain and put in the effort needed. Unlike players from a previous generation Parthiv suffers no complexes, he represents the confident, modern brigade which is unimpressed by the west and treats them as equals. Nothing fazes them, they do not get scared by reputations - nor do foreign food, foreign language and foreign gadgets hold any terrors.

This smug, almost cocky self-assurance rests on the fact that he has had a crash course in cricketing education, as though completing a 5-year course in 6 months. Parthiv is not old enough to drive or buy booze from a shop but the cricket world holds few secrets for him. He has seen it, done it, been there.

What is particularly reassuring is he understands modern cricket, having trained at the Australian academy he knows how crucial training, fitness and athleticism are to contemporary cricket. When experts lecture on diet, nutrition, skin folds and similar things Parthiv nods his head because he knows these are important - though his school teacher (explaining the basics of maths) may only draw a blank look from him. Contrast. this awareness with what happened only a decade back when Lillee observed that he could not get through to trainees at MRF because they were unable to grasp what he was saying. And the boys thought the fast bowler was bowling bouncers at them!

But, whatever the grounding, Parthiv knows there is a lot of catching up to do - junior cricket is only preparation, Tests are a different proposition where age is only an interesting but irrelevant statistic, it counts for nothing. Bowlers don't bowl slow just because the batsman is not old enough to vote in an election. Opponents will sledge, distract and pressurise, even teammates will not think twice before freezing you with a stare if the ball goes for leg byes down the legside.

In Test cricket there are no favours done, in this competitive world potential is a non-issue and only performance matters. Fortunately, Parthiv understands this, which is why he spends hours in the net and several more in the gym trying to reduce his skin folds and strengthening thighs and lower back.

He might have to do much more because staying in the team is tougher than getting in, an opinion Dahiya/Deep Dasgupta/Ratra/Prasad/Dighe would agree with. Moreover 17 is 17 and however gifted one is, it is a huge leap and many, in the past have fallen trying to make the transition. Not only is the competition tougher, it is also a matter of handling pressure and adjusting to a far more demanding environment. It is similar to asking a high-school student to take a Ph.D.

How far Parthiv travels, and whether India's search for a successor to Mongia ends with him, remains to be seen though the indications are favourable. Still, that does not disguise the fact that his is a freak case of playing for India without making a first class debut. When he arrived in England last month senior members did not recognise him, they thought he was another kid who'd come to watch practise! Parthiv played with Agarkar (in Deodhar) and Ratra (on the 'A' tour) but did not know others and had only SEEN bigger players (Sachin, Sourav and Dravid) from a distance. Just to put things in perspective please note that Alec Stewart, the English keeper, is 39, which is more than twice Parthiv's 17.