He has class

S. DINAKAR

THE wickedly bouncing Anil Kumble delivery kisses the edge of Shivnarine Chanderpaul's blade, and the young man responds to a severe test of skill, by rising with the ball, and allowing it to ease into his gloves.

The teenager flings himself to his left, gobbles the sharp, low snick, and it's curtains for southpaw Ridley Jacobs.

Then poor Ramnaresh Sarwan cannot quite believe it! He had barely lifted his right leg and the bails are off in a flash!

The lad dives to his right this time, scooping up a wonderful catch in front of first slip and the West Indian captain Carl Hooper starts the long walk back.

These were lingering vignettes from the India-West Indies Test series. This much is simple - Parthiv Patel is a born wicket-keeper, with a quick mind, lightning reflexes and fast hands.

Someone who could end India's often futile search for a wicket-keeper batsman, for the 17-year-old Gujarat cricketer can wield the willow with aplomb; the left-hander's compact defence, crisp stroke-production, and sound temperament are valuable attributes. Parthiv's rapid rise has been stunning, really.

Indeed, it was not long ago that he was seated in the press box at the M.A. Chidambaram Stadium, during the India - England under-19 Test of January 2001. He was just 16, and, in fact, appeared much younger.

The sheer confidence in the boy stood out even then, he nursed big dreams for one so young and had the belief that he could make them come true. "I want to play for India," he said, and at that point of time, he was not even in the India under-19 eleven. The sparkle in his eyes was unmistakable.

Ajay Ratra was the wicket-keeper batsman in that match, and little did we know then that within 16 months, the tiny tot, would wear the big gloves as India's wicket-keeper batsman. There is something about this truly gifted player who can so easily transcend the barriers of age; lifting his game to another level, handling the pressures that can consume the less talented. In his short career for India, Parthiv has done remarkably well. He does belong to that special category - those who are born to play the game. How else can we then explain such calmness, such level-headedness that Parthiv is showing under pressure.

He is a product of the system in every sense, having represented India in the under-15, 17, and 19 levels. Yet Parthiv had not played a first class match, when he was picked for the England tour this summer.

Was he inducted a little too early? Here, The Sportstar sought the views of India's finest stumper Syed Kirmani. "My personal feeling is that he is too young for international cricket. They have thrown him into the deep sea and he is doing his best to stay afloat. But it will take time. He is young, has talent and there is some fine-tuning to be done yet. However, it cannot be denied that he is promising and has shown good temperament." Kirmani, who kept wickets with aplomb to the famous spin trio to earn his place among the golden greats of the game, is a firm believer in the grooming process. "You know, I was an understudy to Farokh Engineer for four years, between 1971 and 75, and though people said I should have played then, I was receiving valuable experience all the time. This enabled me to be completely prepared when I got my chance."

The Karnataka 'keeper, who spent some time with Parthiv Patel and the other young wicket-keepers during a National Cricket Academy camp in Bangalore, says Parthiv is lucky to wear the India cap so soon. "He has to make the most of it. He has some problems with the rising deliveries while standing up, but with more exposure, he should improve. With the bat, he has shown good poise, and has not been bothered by the big crowds." According to Kirmani, wicket-keeper batsmen like Ajay Ratra, Parthiv's predecessor in the Indian side, should not be discouraged at the same time. "He too is young and did not do badly for India in the opportunities he received. But when wicket-keepers like him see Rahul Dravid do the job in the ODIs, they are bound to get demoralised. If you ask me, there is no dearth of talent in the country."

Parthiv has a long journey ahead, if he has to match the deeds of Kirmani, yet, so far, he has already shown that he has it in him to make the most of the opportunities. After sterling deeds at the under-14 level, Parthiv excelled in the below-16 category also, notching up 101 and 201 against Maharashtra in Kolhapur.

And, it was hardly surprising that he captained the India under-17 side to a title triumph in the Asia Cup, Dhaka 2000, an experience which he says matured him as a cricketer. The doors opened soon for Parthiv.

While at the NCA, he along with Delhi opener Gautam Gambhir and Karnataka middle-order batsman Deepak Chougule travelled to the Adelaide-based Australian Cricket Academy as part of the Gavaskar-Border scholorship this year. There, the time spent under Rodney Marsh enabled Parthiv to grasp more about his trade. In fact, the season 2001-2002 saw Parthiv covering a lot of ground. He travelled to South Africa with the India 'A' side, where apart from learning to keep on bouncy tracks, he faced some competent pacemen. On the India 'A' team's campaign in Sri Lanka, he kept well, apart from batting with purpose at the top of the order.

Despite his sterling displays, it was a major surprise when Parthiv was picked as Ratra's understudy in the England-bound Test squad. Reason? He was only the second 'keeper for Gujarat, with Pallav Vora being the first choice!

Here, the selectors do need to be complimented for backing a cricketer with the right credentials, despite his tender age, and the lack of any first class experience. Often a pilloried lot, the wise men deserve their share of praise in this instance. The tour with so many side games, presented a fine chance for Parthiv to hone his skills, and he eventually ended up doing far more than that. Parthiv made an impressive debut in the second Test at Trent Bridge, 'keeping creditably and batting bravely on the final day, when India, striving to save the game, was not quite out of the woods. And in the famous Indian victory at Leeds, Patel did play his part.

Here was a boy, who could, one day, become a star. Importantly, in the cauldron of international cricket, he had managed to hold his nerve, stay focussed. He did make the occasional mistake, dropped the odd catch, which was only to be expected from one so inexperienced. In Parthiv's case, it becomes necessary to look at the bigger picture.

Even a casual glance at the Indian wicketkeepers over the last two years, or rather the musical chairs associated with the slot, betrays a complete absence of a clarity of thought when it came to choosing the right men.

After the glory days of Kirmani, India had a reasonable replacement in the combative Kiran More, who was succeeded by the efficient Nayan Mongia, but when the latter was dumped - not exactly for pure cricketing reasons - a period of total chaos followed. Names appeared and then disappeared, some of them grossly inadequate with the gloves; what India desperately required was stability in this vital department.

In this context, the selectors were on the mark again, when Parthiv was picked as the first 'keeper for the home Test series against the West Indies. Here lay his real test. How would he 'keep, while standing up, to Kumble's bouncing leg-breaks, and Harbhajan's fizzy top-spinners and drifters on the spinner-friendly Indian surfaces.

Parthiv was equal to the challenge for most part. He possesses the right attributes for a 'keeper - he stays low, tends to rise with the ball, and waits for it to nestle in his gloves, rather than grab at it, and concentrates hard. He also goes for catches in his vicinity and it is such a pleasing sight to watch him hold catches in front of the slip cordon.

The man with gloves, has to snaffle 'em up when the edges fly thick and fast.

With the bat, he has displayed the heart for battle, adding depth to the lower middle-order. He is unruffled by grave situations, and did display an ability to blunt the attack with sound defence.

And as he revealed in the Kolkata Test, the southpaw can essay some delightful strokes square off the wicket. The battling streak in him suggests that he will invariably put a price on his wicket.

The new kid on the block does appear set for a long innings with the Indian team. Parthiv Patel is here to stay.