Long way to go for Under-19 stars
August 26, 2012 was a momentous day for Indian cricket - their Under-19 team had lifted the World Cup in Australia, beating the hosts in the final. While the seniors had been whitewashed a few months ago in the same country, our boys defeated all odds to reclaim the coveted trophy. At one stroke, these youngsters became household names, for they were no longer appearing just on sports pages, but on the front pages of newspapers and tabloids. Even some of the most respectable voices in world cricket thought that a few of our boys might be ready to don the national colours.
With the league phase of this season's Ranji Trophy having concluded, this might be a good time to see how these promising young stars of the U-19 World Cup fared amid the senior men on their home turf. This may not only elaborate the relevance of Under-19 cricket but also reaffirm Ranji Trophy's place in Indian cricket. There have been many occasions when players have been made to jump the queue and represent the Indian team straight from the Under-19 level. Some of these players did sparkle in the beginning, but after a short while were sent back to domestic cricket to reclaim form. While some of them managed to find their way back to the top, others just flittered away into the oblivion.
Let's start with the Under-19 team captain Unmukt Chand, marked as the most promising cricketer of the lot, and touted to be a replacement for Gambhir and Sehwag. Unmukt has scored 445 runs at 37.08 in eight matches, while Jeewanjot Singh from Punjab, who played half of his Ranji matches on a green-top in Mohali, has scored 916 runs in nine matches. In any case, two centuries in 21 first-class matches doesn't really speak volumes about a potential Test opener.
Unfortunately, Unmukt isn't an aberration, for most players from the winning squad (barring Sandeep Sharma from Punjab) have either struggled to hold their own for their respective teams, or haven't even managed to break into the playing XI this Ranji season. Baba Aparajith, Prashant Chopra, Smit Patel and Akshdeep Nath average 39.50, 31.50 and 36.42 and 18 respectively. While left-arm spinner Vikas Mishra picked up 18 wickets for Delhi, Harmeet Singh, who was being pushed as the next big thing in Indian cricket, didn't feature for Mumbai even after he started the season for Rest of India and West Zone in the Irani Trophy and Duleep Trophy respectively. There are a few others who didn't even play a single game.
The only guy who stands out is Punjab's new ball bowler Sandeep Sharma, who has taken 41 wickets at 17.95. Incidentally, he was one of the underrated players of that World Cup-winning team, which tells us how incorrect our assessments could be with regards to youngsters. While most were predicting Chand, Harmeet and Aparajith to set the domestic season on fire, little did they realise that performances are a little difficult to replicate at the higher level immediately. Mostly, the younger lot is judged on potential based on few data points, for the sample size is too small, leaving a lot to everyone's imagination. One solid performance or one courageous response to a certain situation could be misleading and misinterpreted.
While it's important to give youngsters a go and also a long rope, it's equally prudent to hold your horses while making outrageous predictions about their immediate future. First-class cricket in India, however average its standard may be, remains the best breeding ground for upcoming talent, for the difference between Under-19 cricket and Ranji Trophy is huge. Ranji Trophy isn't the finishing school either, and frequent India-A tours must assume that responsibility. If we want to continue to grow as a cricketing nation, we need to get over this obsession with age-group tournaments, for they can only work as a feeder-line to first-class cricket, and not the route to the final destination.