Grooming them right

AMBATI RAYUDU and PARTHIV PATEL (below) succumbing to pressures.-P.V. SIVAKUMAR AMBATI RAYUDU and PARTHIV PATEL (below) succumbing to pressures.

Nurturing talent is a painstaking process, and shortcuts generally guarantee only short-term results. Some former Indian cricketers defended the inclusion of Gujarat wicketkeeper-batsman Parthiv Patel in the Indian team as an investment. The people of Hyderabad saw in Ambati Rayudu another Azharuddin. Where have these two talented young cricketers disappeared? Are they victims of competition or petty politics?

In 19 Tests, Patel, 21, has scored 669 runs and taken 51 catches. He kept wickets to Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh. He also played 14 ODIs. Rayudu, 20, has played 42 first class games and scored 2380 runs with six centuries. He scored a double century and a hundred on his first class debut for Hyderabad.

Cricket being the most popular sport in India, the competition is always going to be fierce. But having identified Patel and Rayudu as talented cricketers, one expected the state, zone and national selectors to ensure that these two cricketers were handled properly.

Talent doesn't necessarily mean consistency. Dry spells are inevitable, though they can vary depending upon the length and cause. Age and media hype make youngsters vulnerable to situations which force them to give vent to their frustrations publicly.

The incident that took place between Arjun Yadav and Ambati Rayudu in the Hyderabad-Andhra match proved that one casual comment was enough reason for them to fight on the field. Rayudu, who wasn't sure of his place in the Hyderabad team because of his poor form, shifted to Andhra. When Rayudu scored heavily for Hyderabad in his first season, he was being considered for the India `A' team. He may have had some technical flaws, but the way he played his shots impressed even the connoisseurs of the game. But the moment he stopped getting runs, those who were praising him became his critics. Rayudu, not knowing how to handle the pressure, continued to fail.

The case of Parthiv Patel is even more serious. He was selected for the country when he was 16 and now at the age of 21 he is a veteran of the India `A' team. Selecting him at a very young age to play for the country was not a mistake, but when he lost confidence in wicketkeeping, he was persisted with. The explanation given was that Pathiv was an investment.

V.V. KRISHNAN

Eventually, when he was dropped at the age of 19 we were again told that he would be picked once he regained his confidence. And despite regaining confidence in keeping and batting, Parthiv finds himself out of the Indian team.

Young, talented cricketers face one major problem. They are unable to handle on-field and off-field pressures. Their families too become critical of them when they stop performing. And if he is a son of a former first class player, the pressure is even more. With no support from selectors, coaches and families, these talented cricketers get into bad company.

I can name a dozen talented cricketers who played for Indian schools and for their respective states in the Ranji Trophy in the 1960s and 1970s and for lack of support from the associations and selectors gave up the game and fell victims to alcohol and drugs. Some of them are no more.

When I took up the assignment with Karnataka juniors in 2001, all that I was told about Robin Uthappa, who was 15 years old then, was negative. His movements on and off the field were a subject of discussion. And the worst part was that he was aware of it. This unnerved him every time he failed to score a hundred.

At 17, he was becoming a bit of a rebel, but the turning point came during the six-week camp at the CCI where he spent time with Nari Contractor, Hanumant Singh and Vasu Paranjape. All three talked to him as if they were his colleagues in the team. Contractor, known for getting the best out of the moody Salim Durrani, said that cricketers like Uthappa and Rayudu need assurance, affection and appreciation.

Suddenly Uthappa, who was the captain, wicketkeeper and the No. 5 batsman in the Karnataka under-17 team, changed. In Bangalore, when we sat to plan his future after returning from the CCI camp, he agreed to a suggestion that he open the innings and give up wicketkeeping which was affecting his batting. More importantly, he realised that he had underestimated his talent. The innings of 86 against England proved that he is capable of handling pressure, but that achievement was consequent to the grooming process of the past three years. One needs to understand the pressures a player goes through and he has to be put in the enjoyment zone.

Former Mumbai cricketers feel that had Vinod Kambli received assurance, affection and appreciation, we would have seen more of the left-handed batsman who averaged 54 in 17 Tests. Kambli also scored two Test double hundreds.

Shahid Afridi is another talented cricketer who is being handled well by the Pakistani coach Bob Woolmer.

Being critical of talented players is possibly the easiest thing to do. Coaching in India is so technique-oriented and hidebound that a coach refuses to accept the fact that each individual is different from the other. If we have to get the best out of talented kids, we need to involve counselling psychologists to ascertain the behavioural pattern of coaches and players through psychometric tests.

Cricket basically is a mind game and it is necessary we get professionals to treat the mind. Leave technique to coaches, but not mind-management. That would be disastrous. Such costly mishandling will only give us more Parthiv Patels and Ambati Rayudus.