Indian junior cricketers in good hands

BLOODING very young cricketers in the international arena is a phenomenon associated with the sub-continent.

BLOODING very young cricketers in the international arena is a phenomenon associated with the sub-continent. However, India, unlike the other countries in the region, can pride itself on having an excellent junior cricket structure in place. It can afford to, of course.

Pakistan throws up raw talent and has somehow been fortunate that quite a few have clicked on the big stage, while Sri Lanka being a small country with the sport centred in Colombo, has constraints that it has always striven to beat. But India, considering its vastness, has managed, quite successfully, to streamline the process of identifying talent.

The BCCI's National Cricket Academy (NCA), launched in 2000, has been a boon to junior cricket, changing its very concept. It has revolutionised coaching in the country. The coaches' seminar that was conducted a couple of years ago introduced an analysis-based approach wherein the method used is that of error-detection, be it in batting or bowling — the process being simple but very scientific.

The seminar saw the coaches learn the psychological aspects of the game as well as to simulate match situations in `net' sessions, the kind practised in the Australian Cricket Academy. Sports psychologist Sandy Gordon provided the insights to the mental side. In the seminar, fitness and fielding, so very important in the contemporary game, were dealt with deeply, with the accent on injury prevention.

The Talent Resource Development Officers' Committee (TRDO) has its web following most of the matches from the junior representative grade to first-class cricket. And when former Test captain Dilip Vengsarkar, chairman, TRDO, said that promising young players would not be left out of consideration, he meant every word of it. And it was Vengsarkar who spotted young wicketkeeper Parthiv Patel, and realising his potential, fast-tracked him to the international stage.

The last three under-19 World Cups saw a few from each edition progress, if not instantly — in a short time — quite successfully to the senior ranks. The 1998 event in South Africa saw Virender Sehwag, Harbhajan Singh, L.R. Shukla and Amit Bhandari make the grade while the 2000 edition in Colombo, which India won comprehensively, had, from its ranks, Md. Kaif, R.S. Sodhi (both were part of the '98 campaign, too), Yuvraj Singh and Ajay Ratra progress to the senior grade. From the 2002 event, in New Zealand, surfaced Parthiv Patel and Irfan Pathan, part of the young brigade of whom much is expected. Pathan has done wonderfully well in his debut series in Australia, while Patel has earned accolades from all, including Adam Gilchrist, considered the contemporary game's best wicketkeeper-batsman.

The country's cricket system, at present, runs in two parallel levels: one for the `young' and the other for the `not so young'. The young progress via the age-group levels while the not so young advance via the Ranji Trophy, Duleep Trophy and the Board President's team.

It just goes to show that the under-19 stage is as much the doorstep to international cricket as say the Board President's XI. Zaheer Khan is a case in point. He is a product of the junior system but made the grade based on his performances in the National championship.

It is to India's credit that it provides the canvas for young talent, recognises them and promotes them. There are National tournaments in the under-15, 17, 19 and 22 levels, while NCA conducts zonal camps apart from its annual camp at its place in Bangalore.

The platform as such is splendid, and a young cricketer is assured of opportunities. So much so that by the time a promising cricketer is, say, 19 years old, he is in the Ranji reckoning, if having not already made his first-class debut. Take for instance, Pathan. He is still 19 and was picked for the senior tour of Australia after his nine-wicket haul in the under-19 Asia Cup against Bangladesh. But then, he has been in the first-class circuit for sometime now.

Or, for that matter, A.T. Rayudu, who is leading India in the under-19 World Cup that begins in Bangladesh on February 15. The stylish right-hander has already represented India-A and is spoken of as an India prospect.

This entire age-group cricket has made the boys mature quicker. It has its pitfalls too — some get drafted too early and are unable to cope with the pressure. But then, the gains outweigh the losses.

The levels have fitted in beautifully, making the transition comfortable for the young players. However, some feel that there is need for a rung between under-19 and India-A, the latter being just a notch lower than the highest level. But then, with the junior structure in the hands of men as capable and fair as Vengsarkar, the future looks rosy.