India fawns over extremely young talent. There is no mistaking that and if you switch on the television and surf channels, there is a good chance of stumbling upon the super-singer contest in various languages. Little boys and girls strike the right notes and launch their melodious interpretations of popular numbers while judges waver between an appraiser’s neutrality and the parental tug.

It is saccharine sweet, platitudes are mouthed and they are akin to the ‘I-believe-in-world-peace’ phrase that beauty pageant winners utter while cameras go tizzy. Cut to sport at large and cricket specifically, the tonality of swooning over teenaged prodigies, continues. Perhaps it has to do with our sub-conscious obsession about unearthing another 16-year-old Sachin Tendulkar, much like the quest over finding the next Kapil Dev.

The under-19 squad which gets its share of fame once in two years thanks to the junior World Cup, often feeds this curiosity. Back in 2000 when the young crop triumphed in the final against Sri Lanka, a few lads from that bunch, did make the transition to the senior outfit. Some were stunning in their impact and Yuvraj Singh springs to mind. From that unit, another boy who became a cricketing man was Mohammad Kaif while Ajay Ratra, Venugopal Rao and Reetinder Singh Sodhi, flickered and faded.

The trend continued over the years where the under-19 team got a rapturous send-off and the belief wasn’t entirely misplaced. In 13 editions, India has won four championships besides being runner-up thrice, including the latest bridesmaid tag after the acrimonious final against Bangladesh at South Africa’s Potchefstroom. Surely India has got talent and the current national captain Virat Kohli too emerged from the under-19 ranks, having led the juniors to a title triumph in Malaysia in 2008.

READ|ICC U-19 World Cup 2020: The making of Bangladesh

But the leap into the main team, is never easy. At an age when they should worry about pimples, mull over after-shaves and grapple with the first stirrings of hearts and hormones, these boys have to adjust to the challenge of keeping the Indian flag flying high in sporting arenas besides coping with instant stardom, a bulging bank balance and the need for a qualified chartered accountant! It is never easy. Throw the Indian Premier League into the mix and parents extra-keen about their child’s hop-skip-and-jump into the celebrity-cult and you get pressure in big, bold letters.

Delusions do creep in. Kohli conceded that his move from the India under-19 days to merging with accomplished teams, be it Delhi at the Ranji Trophy level or India in the global scale, was tough. One evening at Bengaluru while he discussed Royal Challengers Bangalore’s prospects in the IPL, he trained his eyes on himself. The skipper spoke about his false sense of entitlement, about allowing bad habits to creep in and then realising what needs to be done when he was picked and then subsequently dropped from the Indian squad. Kohli saw the light, not many have the maturity to do that.

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Where it all began: Surely India has got talent and the current national captain Virat Kohli too emerged from the under-19 ranks, having led the juniors to a World Cup triumph in Malaysia in 2008.

 

Two decades ago, Vinod Kambli said that he took the stairs while his buddy Tendulkar rode the elevator. Truth be told, the latter never took his ability for granted while the former indulged in the good-life and lost his way. Playing for the national team or aspiring to get there, demands the grind: 5 a. m. wake-up calls, the endless stints in the gym, those dawn runs, sessions in the nets, club games, Ranji outings, zonal endeavours, the ‘A’ squad pathways and the added lure of an IPL franchise. All these boxes have to be ticked before an India cap shimmers into view and yet many at the under-19 level think too far ahead.

The current squad that did remarkably well in South Africa despite the loss in the final, needs to avoid this trap of jumping into an imaginary time-machine and surging into a heady future of playing for India. Certainly there is a buzz around batsman Yashasvi Jaiswal and fast bowler Kartik Tyagi but for them and the other emerging stars, the neighbourhood cricket club beckons and the first steps start there.

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Impressive paceman: Kartik Tyagi (second from left) proved quite nippy and devastated Australia with a four-wicket haul in the recent under-19 World Cup.

 

There is the cautionary tale of Unmukt Chand. The Delhi boy, with a penchant for big runs and the right words, seemed cut for greater glory. He successfully led India in the 2012 under-19 World Cup and the title was secured. Unmukt even wrote a book ‘The Sky is the Limit’, chronicling his growth as a player and offered insights into the under-19 World Cup. A soft-drink commercial came his way too and he rubbed shoulders with M. S. Dhoni and company.

Unmukt had blended cricket and commerce besides being expressive in his language. He was indeed a brand manager’s dream and yet the balloon deflated. He couldn’t cement his place with Delhi, struggled with technical chinks and now plies his wares with Uttarakhand. Unmukt remains a fine talent but he has to be prolific before he can press for a berth in Kohli’s squad. In the latest Wisden India Almanack, he wistfully writes: “If everything went right for everyone, I would have been out there bumping fists with Virat Kohli, planning India’s run chase or celebrating a successful one.”

READ|The real challenge starts now, says Yashasvi Jaiswal's coach

Just like Unmukt, another under-19 star Prithvi Shaw, who led India to a successful run in the junior World Cup’s 2018 edition, is also finding it tough at the top. Injuries and lifestyle issues have affected the youngster, though, he is back among the Men in Blue.

The National Cricket Academy’s director and former India captain Rahul Dravid recently spoke about the need for players to gradually climb the rungs. He himself made his Test debut in 1996 much after Tendulkar’s in 1989 but the delay did not stymie his hunger and in fact the hard yards with the Karnataka Ranji team, only strengthened his skill-sets and infused maturity.

Perhaps the fault lies with us too. This whole rush to crown a new prince is needless. Lads need to be given their space, to grow, to fall, to dust aside self-doubts and to emerge stronger. India’s coaching staff be it at the national level or at the NCA, has to devise ways to filter emerging talent and mental-conditioning has to be backed too.

And for starters, what’s with the abuse? Bangladesh did cross the line but Priyam Garg’s boys proved equally worse. Remember those great West Indian fast bowlers? Just a stare would suffice to drive home a point. The under-19 boys have much to learn.