The flowering of potential and the fast-tracking of talent are part of sport’s intrinsic charms. And in cricket, we have many examples wherein schoolboys grappling with acne and aftershave ride on their prodigal skills and get pitchforked into the playing arena while representing their countries.
None bigger than Sachin Tendulkar, who at 16 commenced his journey while countering Imran Khan, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and Abdul Qadir in Pakistan. He emerged unscathed and over the next two decades and a half gained a massive reputation before testing our collective tear glands with a poignant retirement speech at Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium on November 16, 2013.
A youth’s progress signals hope and charts fresh paths. It triggers whispers at the maidans, leaves ripples in the cafes and paves the way for heady arguments inside quaint pubs as both the connoisseur and layman debate the latest star. Sport thrives on that buzz and gets high on those metaphorical sunrises. The emergence of new talent is the permanent grease that moves the conveyor belt.
The latest edition of the IPL, cricket’s premier domestic tournament with international flair and gargantuan hype, has a clutch of youngsters who have cut their teeth in the Under-19 World Cups. The Indian flavour is reflected through players like Shivam Mavi (above) and Shubman Gill (below) of Kolkata Knight Riders. – Sportzpics / BCCI
We are in the middle of a pandemic that has snuffed out lives and disturbed routines. Yet, sport offers hope through the tennis Grand Slams, Formula One, European football and the Indian Premier League (IPL), currently progressing in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Having moved to the West Asian nation following varied restrictions across India, the IPL had a pulsating start despite the mandatory empty stands in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah. Sport in a vacuum while fans lap it up on television is the latest grim reality, but there is delight too in seeing a Nicholas Pooran defy gravity and prevent a six. And while we talk about hope, the IPL continues to be a springboard for many precious lads to get universal attention and the selectors’ approval. The latest edition of cricket’s premier domestic tournament with international flair and gargantuan hype has a clutch of youngsters who have cut their teeth in the Under-19 World Cups in 2018 and earlier this year in South Africa, and are eager to make a giant leap.
The Indian flavour is reflected through Prithvi Shaw (Delhi Capitals); Shubman Gill, Shivam Mavi and Kamlesh Nagarkoti (all Kolkata Knight Riders); Abhishek Sharma and Priyam Garg (both Sunrisers Hyderabad); Kartik Tyagi, Yashasvi Jaiswal and Akash Singh (all Rajasthan Royals); and Ravi Bishnoi (Kings XI Punjab). While from the overseas category, those who emerged through the under-19 ranks are the likes of Afghanistan’s Mujeeb Zadran (Kings XI Punjab) and England’s Tom Banton (Kolkata Knight Riders).
They do have age and ability on their side, and some of them like Shaw, Gill, Zadran and Banton have already represented their respective nations. But these are still early days. In the distant past, the final steps leading into playing for the country were usually built upon a few prolific seasons in first-class cricket and one good outing against a visiting national team.
But in the aftermath of Tendulkar’s debut and the increasing relevance of Under-19 World Cups, many junior cricketers found themselves being fast-tracked. Yuvraj Singh seamlessly moved from the under-19 category and became one among Sourav Ganguly’s key men.
Later Virat Kohli followed the same path. Ever since the annual IPL commenced in 2008, boys with wispy moustaches found another platform to reiterate that they are fit to be labelled as men.
The next five weeks offer another opportunity for the rookies to showcase their wares against and alongside some of the finest, while legends like Ricky Ponting, Anil Kumble, Mahela Jayawardene and Jonty Rhodes watch from the coaching sidelines. Leg-spinner Bishnoi performing under the tutelage of Kumble is an ideal template and television cameras have reflexively moved towards the guru when his disciple flourished.
Shubman Gill of Kolkata Knight Riders. – Sportzpics / BCCI
Shaw, meanwhile, is on the comeback trail. He has both the inspiring tale of Tendulkar and the cautionary story of Vinod Kambli to watch out for. Remarkable talent links these three Mumbaikars, and while Tendulkar soared and Kambli flickered bright and then faded, Shaw has time to recover from his niggles and to also get a grip on himself. Fame doesn’t sit easy on all prodigies, and Shaw is learning that.
The other young Indians in the ranks, be it Gill, Nagarkoti or Jaiswal, have this IPL as their only crutch as India’s domestic season seems washed out due to the coronavirus pandemic. The IPL amplifies voices, and recently famous commentator and former Hampshire skipper Mark Nicholas tweeted about Sanju Samson needing a leg-up into the Indian squad. The television panel with biggies like Sunil Gavaskar or Kevin Pietersen can throw more light on a youngster who otherwise may have languished in the fringes.
The IPL may not be the final word on placements in the senior squad, but even for an established Karnataka trio like K. L. Rahul, Manish Pandey and Mayank Agarwal, the league lends heft to the hard yards earned from first-class endeavours. The carpet coverage, the assembling of the world’s finest cricketers be it a Kohli, Steve Smith, Kane Williamson, David Warner, Rohit Sharma or Dale Steyn, and the added presence of retired giants either in the dugout or in the media box together form an ecosystem where every performance gets highlighted, be it a Pooran save or a Rahul Tewatia blitzkrieg.
The top-of-the-mind recall that the IPL bequeaths has incredible value. But not all under-19 stars make the final cut. Often they get back to their respective states, counties or provinces and have to establish themselves there. In 2008, Kohli, fresh from his under-19 exploits, was picked by Royal Challengers Bangalore alongside his junior India mate Shreevats Goswami.
A dozen years down the line, Kohli is cricketer supreme while Goswami plays for Bengal. It is now up to this latest bunch of Under-19 World Cup heroes to showcase their mettle in the desert stands. The IPL is their current pathway to excellence, and whether they make it their road to prosperity or perdition, only their performances and Father Time can tell.