Receiving incoming calls on your mobile phone cost more than Rs 10 a minute. Bollywood actress Kareena Kapoor had not heard of size zero. The financial capital was still widely called Bombay and its stock exchange ended the year down 26 per cent, burdened by underperforming technology, media and telecom sectors. Russell Crowe won an Oscar despite being the first gladiator with an Aussie accent and Atal Bihari Vajpayee was India’s poet prime minister. And in cricket news, the year 2000 was when Hansie Cronje confessed to match-fixing, Courtney Walsh became the highest Test wicket-taker, Sourav Ganguly was India's captain. Oh, and India won the under-19 World Cup and the world heard the name Yuvraj Singh for the first time.
A cricket website, itself a novelty at the time, called Yuvraj Singh “the cleanest striker of a cricket ball since Sachin Tendulkar.” More intriguingly, the youngster from Chandigarh, once asked a reporter who was smoking, “Why do you smoke? Do you get a high? Is it like alcohol?”
A decade later, Yuvraj is the symbol of all things successful in cricket, and is now the one answering the questions. He is India’s powerhouse in 50-over cricket, the man who hit six sixes in an over of Twenty20 cricket — that can't be topped — and well, plays Tests too. Life as he now knows it began for Yuvraj when he was the star of the first Indian team to win an under-19 World Cup.
Context is king
Since India’s victory in 2000, under-19 cricket has assumed massive significance in the country. Until then the youth World Cup, as it was called, was a jolly mad scramble for young batsmen and bowlers to get a passport in order to make their first foreign trip. They barely received an allowance, forget about being paid to play. It was a lot of fun, but counted for little.
What mattered then was playing Ranji Trophy for your state, toiling away with the ageing veterans till one of them called it a day and you got your time in the sun. Now, the under-19s are a chance for cricketers to bypass the long grind. Get noticed here, and you could be fast-tracked into academies, where better facilities and coaching kick-start your chances of climbing faster.
The other catalyst is the Indian Premier League. Thanks to the stipulation that each squad must have four cricketers younger than 22 in their ranks, talent scouts and coaches are looking closely at every cricketer who makes his state junior squad. And those who make it to the Indian junior team? They’re already earmarked for bigger things.
A beginning of sorts
Ashok Meenaria, from a family of priests in Udaipur, Rajasthan, does not behave like a newcomer to the spotlight. The right-hand batsman who bowls tidy left-arm spin is leading India in their campaign to defend the title won in Kuala Lumpur in 2008. “There is no question of pressure,” he says. “We only carry a lot of confidence into the tournament.” And no, he’s not shy about talking up his team. “You don’t need to do a lot with this bunch. When the players are good, it doesn’t take time to become a champion side.”
Welcome to the world of today’s under-19 cricketers. Industry experts suggest that 80 to 90 per cent of today’s under-19 cricketers have agents actively pushing their cause and most have contracts with leading equipment manufacturers.
“We have multi-year contracts with several India under-19 players,” said an industry expert who works with a leading sports goods and apparel manufacturer. “Performance and success are the standard filters we look at when signing on a star. But at the under-19 level you have to look at many things. If you look at TV shows like MTV Roadies you’ll get an idea of the section of youth that our young players represent — confident, irreverent and brash. The way we look at it, a young cricketer’s values are a subset of the values of the premier Indian team of the time.”
An agent who represents more than 20 cricketers nationally at varying levels, confirmed that youngsters were now hot property. “The entry level has changed. If you don’t sign a player when he plays under-19 cricket for his state, as an agent, you’ve missed the boat.” The agent who did not want to be named as it might impact his clients, added. “These days the approach is to try and sign as many players before they’re noticed. Later, if even one makes it to the India team, you’re set.”
Don’t ask me, I just play
When Dav Whatmore, previously Sri Lanka’s coach, took over as director of the Board’s National Cricket Academy in Bangalore, one of the things he stressed on was the need to have training modules for young cricketers that went beyond the game itself.
Dealing with the media, investment planning and career path mapping were among topics to be addressed, but before anything was implemented Whatmore moved on.
Ask any young cricketer, and even a few national team players, and the need is obvious. “I haven’t actually read the contract. My manager handles all that,” an under-19 player said when asked what sort of deals he had bagged. “If I have any doubt I can always ask my seniors.”
The problem is, in a lot of cases, the contracts have long since been signed before a player actually finds out what he has committed to.
Tell me it isn’t so
If the revolution is now in full swing, it wasn’t always so. In 1992, Rahul Dravid was captain of the under-19 team that played a series against New Zealand. Not one of Dravid’s 14 squad mates made it to the national team.
S Sharath went furthest, representing Tamil Nadu for many years in the Ranji Trophy. Most languished in state teams for a few years before giving up the game. One of them, promising batsman Rambabu Pal, was not even that lucky, and ended up taking his life, after repeated rejection from his home state.
The class of 2010 is under more pressure than ever before. For most of them, cricket is already the chosen career. There’s little to fall back on in terms of a professional qualification and most will have no time to develop skills that sell in the real world.
They’ve already got buzzing Facebook pages, clothing sponsors, the latest mobile phones, and now- mandatory gel-enhanced spiky hair.
“They are all very fashionable boys. If they don’t do well I might have to give them haircuts,” says Chandrakant Pandit, the coach of the team headed to New Zealand.
What he really means is that cricket will administer a fitting life lesson to these fresh-faced hopefuls if things don’t go well on the field.