Rockets rare, squibs aplenty!

Feted one day, forgotten the next, life as a young prospect can be a yo-yo-like experience. Few emerge unscathed.

India’s fast bowling sensation at the recent Under-19 World Cup, Kamlesh Nagarkoti, has commanded a big price at the IPL 2018 auction.   -  AFP

If you talk to Indian cricket fans over the age of 30, chances are that they will recall where they were, who they were with and what they were doing the night Mohammad Kaif and Yuvraj Singh offered a tantalising glimpse of the future in the NatWest Series final at Lord’s in July 2002. India were 146 for five, needing another 180 to win, when the two who had been Under-19 teammates started their association. They would go on to add 121, and Kaif — who had played in the final of the Lombard Under-15 Challenge Cup at the same venue nearly six years earlier — applied the finishing touches with a stunning 75-ball 87. 

FROM THE ARCHIVES (2002): Second line takes charge

Four years later, as India played their first Twenty20 International, at The Wanderers in Johannesburg in December 2006, Kaif turned 26. As a penultimate-ball victory was clinched, he was watching from the dressing room. Two days later, as the five-match ODI series came to a conclusion in Centurion, he was again on the sidelines, having made 8, 10 and 10 in the preceding games.

Kaif wasn’t the only one heading back home before the Test series began. Suresh Raina too had been given every chance to succeed, but with runs as scarce as rain in Cape Town, a despondent team management had no option but to recall Sourav Ganguly. By the nets in Centurion, Rahul Dravid, the captain who had been ruled out of the last two games with a broken finger, spoke quietly of the young hopefuls and how he had done all he could.

We didn’t know then that Kaif would not wear India colours again, or that his travails would come to symbolise Indian cricket’s lost generation. Six years earlier, under Kaif’s leadership, the Under-19s had won a World Cup. Kaif, Yuvraj Singh and Reetinder Singh Sodhi were all capped soon after, with the expectation being that they would succeed the Tendulkar-Dravid-Ganguly-Laxman generation.

Mohammad Kaif and Yuvraj Singh in 2002 when they inspired an Indian victory in the NatWest final against England. Kaif faded away and though Yuvraj had some good displays to his credit, by and large he performed below par.   -  THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Of that trio, Yuvraj won a World Cup and a World Twenty20, with his dazzling hitting instrumental in both triumphs. In Test whites, he made three superb hundreds in difficult situations, and kept Tendulkar company as India overhauled 387 on a memorable final day in Chennai (2008), but there were few other high notes across 40 games.

Sodhi played the last of his ODIs when he was 22. He exited the first-class arena at 26, after a succession of crippling injuries stalled his progress. After leaving Uttar Pradesh, Kaif has represented Chhattisgarh in the Ranji Trophy and continues to plough a lonely furrow nearly a decade after realising that the India recall he craved would never come.

READ: India's U-19 stars who made it big

But at least Kaif and Sodhi experienced the high that went with winning an India cap, even if it didn’t last. Some of their teammates from the class of 2000 didn’t even get close. Ravneet Ricky, top scorer for India in that competition, scored 13 first-class hundreds across a decade for Punjab, but with the likes of Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir and Wasim Jaffer opening for India, the call from the selectors never came.

Others toiled far longer on the domestic circuit. Niraj Patel played exactly 100 first-class games before emigrating to the United States of America to help run one of his family’s hotels. Manish Sharma, who made three half-centuries in that 2000 win, played the last of his 31 first-class games just as Kaif was exiting the India set-up.

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Ajay Ratra kept wicket in six Tests and 12 ODIs, scoring a Test hundred in Antigua, but the last of those caps came before his 21st birthday. Venugopal Rao was a left-field selection in the Greg Chappell years, but could never summon up the oomph required to last the course in the ODI arena. Uttar Pradesh’s Mritunjay Tripathi left the first-class arena in his early 20s, while Anup Dave didn’t play beyond his 25th birthday.

The saddest case of all, however, was India’s leading wicket-taker in that 2000 tournament, Shalabh Srivastava. A left-arm seamer who had to shadow Zaheer Khan and Ashish Nehra, before being leapfrogged by Irfan Pathan as well, Srivastava took 130 first-class wickets across a decade. But he was then drummed out of the game after a sting operation carried out by a TV channel. To this day, he maintains that he wasn’t given a fair hearing.

Rishab Pant has impressed and is one of those eyeing Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s slot in the Indian team.   -  K. Bhagya Prakash

Once the lingering what-might-have-been scent dissipates, it’s not hard to see that those players formed a special Under-19 group, with each of those that played in Sri Lanka going on to bridge the chasm between age-group cricket and the first-class version. Those that have tried to emulate their achievements in the two decades since have generally found that a formidable barrier to breach.

The 2002 Under-19 side also made the transition to domestic cricket, but few in their ranks went on to scale even the peaks that Yuvraj did. Parthiv Patel made his India debut while still resembling a truant schoolboy and is still on the fringes of selection more than 15 years later. The same can’t be said of Irfan Pathan, who promised so much in a two-year period before the vagaries of form and fitness made us wonder whether the 100 Test wickets and gutsy runs were all part of some dream.

Stuart Binny will always have his spell in Dhaka, a half-century at Trent Bridge and little else, while Manvinder Bisla and Paul Valthaty had to settle for their 15 minutes of fame in the Indian Premier League (IPL). In both cases, their Everest moments came nearly a decade after they had shown promise as juniors.

Like their predecessors, the squad of 2004 also lost in the semis of the Under-19 World Cup. With the exception of Gaurav Dhiman and Praful Waghela, they would all go on to have robust first-class careers, but not one of the seven capped by the national side ever became a regular. Dinesh Karthik, who led the side, made a Parthiv-like transition to the senior XI, but once M. S. Dhoni burst on to the scene with his heroics for the A team in Zimbabwe, he was seldom cast as anything other than an extra.

As for Shikhar Dhawan, it took him a decade to translate the flamboyance into results, though the questions remain about his suitability as a red-ball opener in the most challenging conditions. Ambati Rayudu, once touted as the future of Indian batting, and Robin Uthappa struggled to break into a batting line-up that was as strong as any in the country’s history, while R. P. Singh and V. R. V. Singh couldn’t sustain the intensity with the ball.

It’s a great pity that the R. P. Singh highlights reel ends with the beach-ball appearance at The Oval in 2011, obscuring the pivotal role he played in the World Twenty20 win, and Test triumphs in England and Australia. VRV played his part in India’s first Test success in South Africa, but never became the speed demon that Greg Chappell hoped he would be.

Suresh Raina has had his ups and downs.   -  K. PICHUMANI

And then there was Raina, whose career remains emblematic of those Chappell years. For those that covered the tour of South Africa in 2006, there are few more indelible images than that of Ian Frazer pinging a golf ball down at Raina on a cement strip at Centurion, in one last bid to play him into some sort of form.

It was only more than a year after Chappell’s exit that one of the young talents he wanted to build a team around became a regular in the 50-over side that would go on to win a World Cup on home soil. People talk of Gambhir and Dhoni in the final, and Yuvraj on bended knee against Australia in the quarterfinal, but without Raina’s cameo in that game and an even more vital one against Pakistan in the Mohali semifinal that made a subcontinent press the pause button on normal life, there would have been no World Cup glory.

But Raina’s travails in the Test side, after a glorious century on debut, are also a metaphor for the struggles a new generation of players faced as cricket branched out into three formats. The shortest one offered by far the most lucrative rewards, but their legacies continued to be judged on the basis of what they did in whites.

Only four from the 2006 squad won India honours, with Ravikant Shukla, the captain, among those that failed to make the grade. The pace duo of Yo Mahesh and Abu Nechim Ahmed caused ripples of excitement, but it was the spin combine of Ravindra Jadeja and Piyush Chawla that made the step up. Chawla never became a stalwart of the side though, while Jadeja’s days as an all-format option appear numbered with the emergence of Kuldeep Yadav.

Cheteshwar Pujara during the ICC Under-19 World Cup semifinal against England in Colombo in February 2006. He has now been branded as a Test batsman.   -  AFP

The career trajectories of the frontline batsmen also make for interesting viewing. Cheteshwar Pujara was India’s top scorer in that competition, but the selectors drew a line under his attempts to be a 50-over player years ago. On the flip side, Rohit Sharma was viewed as a white-ball option for more than half a decade before being given his first Test cap. It can’t be a coincidence that he continues to look far more at home in the blue kit than he does while donning whites.

The likes of Pinal Shah, Mayank Tehlan and Saurabh Bandekar had seasons in the first-class sun without ever threatening to shatter the ceiling, and things were little different with the class of 2008, the first batch that had to deal with the life-changing amounts that the IPL brought into the game.

Millions of words will be written about what Virat Kohli goes on to achieve in what has already been a magnificent career, but what of those that grafted in his shadow? Let’s not forget that during the 2008 IPL auction, the first of its kind, it was the left-arm pace of Pradeep Sangwan that Delhi Daredevils opted for, and not the bristling aggression and deft strokeplay that Kohli promised.

Tanmay Srivastava and Taruwar Kohli scored hundreds at first-class level without being viewed as national team prospects, and Saurabh Tiwary’s fall from grace was as precipitous as his ascent into the 50-overs side as a 20-year-old. Napoleon Einstein, understandably, couldn’t live up to that weighty name, and Ajitesh Argal, man of the match in a low-scoring final against South Africa, became a tax inspector. Siddharth Kaul and Iqbal Abdulla have had decent IPL stints, while Sreevats Goswami continued to turn out for Bengal a decade after the victory that transformed their lives.

But it’s probably Manish Pandey that best encapsulates the frustration of that batch from 10 years ago. There was a time, during the IPL in South Africa in 2009, when even the game’s wisest judges thought he might be a better long-term prospect than Kohli. He seemed more composed and his repertoire of strokes pointed to a thrilling future. But while Kohli recalibrated his priorities and became one of the game’s greats, Pandey regressed. He continues to be part of the discussions for white-ball sides, but has never been a regular. As for the Test team, especially after his Ranji Trophy heroics half a decade ago, that ship sailed a while back.

The class of 2010, sandwiched between two World Cup-winning sides, has largely been anonymous, with only K. L. Rahul regularly making the back pages. His has been a chequered career till now, but he can show off caps in all three formats, unlike his Under-19 colleagues who struggled to summon up the performances required to attract the selectors’ attention. Some, like Ashok Menaria, who led the team, Mandeep Singh and Mayank Agarwal have put together solid bodies of work with the bat in domestic cricket, while Jaydev Unadkat and Sandeep Sharma continue to be sought-after bowlers in the Twenty20 arena. With more and more youngsters coming through, however, it’s hard to see who will take a punt on a group that time has almost forgotten.

But if you want cautionary tales, look no further than the side that won India’s third Under-19 title in 2012. Unmukt Chand, he of the hundred in the final and the thesaurus off the field, published a book soon after, but has struggled to nail down a place even in the Delhi side. Harmeet Singh, after earning accolades from no less a judge than Ian Chappell, played just 14 first-class games across eight seasons. Vijay Zol hasn’t played red-ball cricket for Maharashtra since 2014, while Kamal Passi and Ravikant Singh, the pace bowlers, faded away.

Hardik Pandya has been fast-tracked into the Indian team, including the Test squad, based on his stellar performances in white ball cricket. Other youngsters too may want to follow this route.   -  PTI

  Baba Aparajith has played 60 first-class games without banging the door down, and is now without an IPL contract. Hanuma Vihari and Smit Patel have put together eye-catching domestic numbers, as have Akshdeep Nath and Rush Kalaria. But with so few able to break into what is again a settled and successful India team, recognition has been hard to come by.

The boys of 2014 and ’16 have faced the same problems, with access to the top so restricted in times of plenty. Kuldeep could be integral to India’s World Cup hopes a year from now, and Shreyas Iyer has recently broken into the charmed circle, but for others like Sarfaraz Khan, Sanju Samson and Deepak Hooda, it’s a case of trying to make sure they turn it on in the high-profile matches.

Rishabh Pant, the standout in the 2016 team, did just that, both in the IPL and Ranji Trophy. And after a bout of sophomore blues, he’s at the forefront of a small group eyeing the slot that has been Dhoni’s for so long. Washington Sundar has also been capped, but for others like Armaan Jaffer, merely holding down a place at domestic level has been a challenge. Now, they have become yesterday’s news, with so much excitement and hype over the feats of Shubman Gill, Prithvi Shaw, Kamlesh Nagarkoti, Shivam Mavi and Ishan Porel.

Gill, Shaw, Nagarkoti and Mavi have all just been signed enormously rewarding IPL deals, and the Twenty20 competition is now the elephant that won’t be leaving the room any time soon. When someone like Hardik Pandya has been fast-tracked into the Test team on the back of white-ball performances, it’s unrealistic to expect the young to prioritise the hard yards of the Ranji Trophy. And it’s not Pandya either. Kuldeep and Yuzvendra Chahal, who routed South Africa’s top-ranked ODI team, both grabbed the limelight in the IPL.

Some would argue that even R. Ashwin’s emergence as Harbhajan Singh’s successor was largely the result of his performances in Chennai Super Kings yellow. Like it or loathe it, the IPL matters, with media and fans alike investing far more time and energy in following the six-week-long caravan. Mayank Agarwal may have lit up the recent Ranji season, but a young batsman who sends the ball soaring into the hospitality boxes in April and May is far more likely to get both attention and its positive spin-offs.

The Test specialist, that endangered species that Pujara now represents, may soon be a thing of the past, but pathways need to be kept open for those that can’t necessarily tear it up as teenagers in the abbreviated version. And for that, the huge disparity between IPL salaries and what the average Ranji Trophy player earns needs to be addressed.

It took Shikhar Dhawan quite some time to establish himself in limited-over cricket. But there are chinks in his armour in the red ball variety.   -  VIVEK BENDRE

  Indian cricket is now in rude health thanks to more and more state sides being competitive at the highest level. The players responsible for that, many of whom will never be lucky enough to wear the navy cap, deserve to be recognised for that.

The challenge for those that aren’t necessarily white-ball naturals is to keep faith in their skills and hope that the chances will come. Wriddhiman Saha’s patient wait to succeed Dhoni and Jayant Yadav’s promotion to the Test side in 2016 suggest that graft too is occasionally rewarded, even when domestic cricket is now essentially about the glitz and glamour in April and May.

A decade ago, when they were genuine fears that too much, too soon, especially in terms of lucrative IPL deals, could ruin the younger generation, there was talk of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) setting up mentoring programmes that would help them negotiate choppy waters. Nothing of the sort has happened. Feted one day, forgotten the next, life as a young prospect can be a yo-yo-like experience. Few emerge unscathed.

But as Dhawan’s career graph has shown, so many of these young men need both time and patience to unlock their full potential. In the excitement to embrace the new wave, it’s easy to overlook those that have been on similar paths just a couple of years earlier. And while we should be happy with the Niraj Patels who do yeoman service for their states long after India dreams have evaporated, we need to be equally wary of giving up on some people far too soon.

A look back at Kaif’s effervescent batting in that Lord’s final from long ago is the most poignant reminder of that.