Whatever the outcome of Sunday’s under-19 World Cup final, India have already showed they have one of the best sides at this level. It isn’t an easy achievement. First, team building in this age-group is a brief affair. Since the tournament is held every two years, most teams spend just around a year for match practice. This time, U-19 coach Rahul Dravid had barely four months to assemble a group and assess its strengths and weaknesses. To be able to successfully piece together a winning combination is thus laudable.
Dhaka will be the last stop for this batch of under-19 players, but where do they go from there? Talking up these youngsters as the future of India is common practice but hardly two or three players from a junior side seal a permanent spot in the senior team. Most of the others just fade away from public memory despite the outstanding talent they show in the initial years.
FEW MAKE IT
Past record tells us that for every Virender Sehwag there have been players like Reetinder Singh Sodhi or Amit Bhandari who were mere blips on the radar. The 2002 batch that produced Irfan Pathan and Parthiv Patel also had Manvinder Bisla, Paul Valthaty and Siddharth Trivedi.
The 2006 squad was brimming with talent like Gaurav Dhiman, Ravikant Shukla, Mohnish Parmar and Pinal Shah, but only Cheteshwar Pujara, Rohit Sharma and Ravindra Jadeja made the cut. Same was the case with the 2008 team, led by Virat Kohli, which also had Taruwar Kohli, Tanmay Srivastava, Saurabh Tiwary and Iqbal Abdullah.
Not all players are big hits even at the domestic level after achieving considerable success as juniors. That is because at the U-19 stage, it is mostly about skills. Patience and strength is acquired later, but in some cases they are not. However, it boils down to a simple case of supply outweighing demand.
The senior India team normally undergoes a major revamp every eight or 10 years, maybe slightly earlier if there is a World Cup debacle. Test entry is considered more difficult. Considering the influx of new players, not as many vacancies are created.
“It’s always going to happen irrespective of who is the coach. Every two years there are 15-16 new U-19 players coming through. Every two years there are not 15-16 slots in the India team. That’s not the way it works,” Dravid had said during an U-19 Tri-series here in November.
“If Pujara, Kohli and (Ajinkya) Rahane keep scoring runs, tough luck for a lot of guys, that’s the way it works for a whole generation when guys are set. That’s what I tell these boys. Not all of them are going to make it. That’s a reality,” said Dravid.
Coaches often say how players fail to adapt when domestic cricket provides a reality check after the highs of the World Cup, and as a result don’t focus enough on the transition. Dravid is convinced that only a good first-class career can keep a player in contention.
“Only two or three guys will make it from here and the rest should aim to have really good, successful, first-class careers and push the players in the national team. No matter how good a wicketkeeper you are in U-19, for the time MS Dhoni is in the team, nobody else is going to play. Not every U-19 player will go on to play (for India). And that should never really be the goal and aspiration. We should just help them improve as cricketers and people and hopefully they have good first-class careers and some of them go on to play for India.”
While first-class cricket is one way of going about the knock-on-the-selectors’-door process, the IPL has now given many cricketers the means to earn a decent livelihood without the pressure of having to wear the India shirt. The logic is simple --- not all players have what it takes to play for the country.
Similarly, there are many cricketers who would settle for an IPL contract any day. And the changing economics of the IPL, especially this year, means franchises are more than ready to splurge on quality Indian talent. A few U-19 players --- skipper Ishan Kishan, Rishabh Pant, Khaleel Ahmed, Armaan Jaffer and Mahipal Lomror --- have already been purchased for this year’s IPL. They might not get to play, but will definitely soak in some much required knowledge from the seniors.
But all that is for the future. For now, the U-19 World Cup final against West Indies beckons. And it should be viewed purely as the final of the biggest tournament for the juniors. “I remember, in my time there was no U-19 World Cup. I remember playing two matches in the U-19 age group. But these boys play a lot of cricket. That’s a positive thing,” said Dravid.