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By Suresh Menon
The Board of Control for Cricket in India has got one part of it right. They picked a fine Under-19 side, and importantly, gave the boys enough time and tournaments to bond as a competitive team. Now comes the tough part – ensuring that the talent is not wasted. Nurture is crucial.
Ian Chappell might be convinced that at least two players – skipper Unmukt Chand and left arm spinner Harmeet Singh – are ready for international cricket, but the Board must make haste slowly. They have got it wrong in the past, pushing players into big company and then being forced to repent at leisure. The list of talented under-19 players who failed to make the grade is a long one; not every case is the Board's fault, but there is something to be said for the long-term view and for providing the right atmosphere.
Still, for the first time since the disastrous tours of England and Australia, there is an air of positive energy around Indian cricket, and that is only partially due to the ease with which Mahendra Singh Dhoni's men beat New Zealand. The arrival of Cheteswar Pujara as a batsman to reckon with – the real test will come in South Africa next year – and the anticipation with which Unmukt Chand's career will be followed from here on have contributed to this new energy.
Over the next three or four years, the national team will wear a different look. The Tendulkar generation (and the one that followed immediately) will have bowed out, another World Cup would have come and gone, and those who have shown promise today will be expected to deliver then. India, who have been wondering where the next big batsman or spinner might emerge from have been provided some pointers. But there is a lot of work ahead.
Overenthusiasm from the selectors and a refusal to allow the young talent to grow organically through Ranji Trophy and other first class cricket will be the biggest hurdles on the path of the natural evolution of talent. There is nothing wrong with teenagers making their Test debut – the great spinners Chandrasekhar, Bedi, Venkatraghavan, Prasanna, Kumble, Harbhajan all played Test cricket in their teens or immediately after – and if a player is ready, he is ready.
But in today's atmosphere, where T20 cricket and excessive touring and lopsided results brought on by home conditions tend to skew a player's achievement, it is the responsibility of the selectors and the cricket board to ensure that neither the players nor the administrators lose sight of priorities. Both sets of people will have to learn to deal with the IPL. It cannot be wished away, it is a tournament that is here to stay and will remain a part of the calendar. Like the sirens which tempted Ulysses, the IPL will sing the song of dollars, and careers will depend on how youngsters react to it or are allowed to react to it.
Chappell has pointed out that keeping a player hanging around for too long can be counterproductive. So too can the reverse – pushing him into it too early. It is a judgement call, and this is where the selectors earn their fees. Some players are ready at 19; others will need a few more years. Tendulkar, for instance, was ready at 16; Dravid only at 23. Selectors must recognise this difference, and guard against being carried away by the national sentiment and the brouhaha that usually follows a tournament triumph as the one in Australia.
Generally, the age-group tournaments in India have shown that the path is smooth, even logical till a player is 19 or 20, and then come the big jumps. To adapt the late Neil Armstrong, a small step for a boy is followed by a giant leap for a man. From the under-19 to the Ranji level is one step, and from there to the Test level is another, much bigger one. Those with long careers served their apprenticeship well, and that is no coincidence.