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A few years ago, when I was still playing for Delhi, I saw a young Delhi batsman struggling against short-pitched deliveries in the nets. He had the tendency to square up the moment the bowler dug it short, and to add to his woes he would also take his eye off the ball. More often than not, the ball crashed into his body or helmet. He needed a little help, obviously, but was too bigheaded to ask for it. Or perhaps he was shy. So, I made the first move and asked him about his apparent discomfort. To my disbelief he didn't acknowledge there was any particular problem while facing the short ball. When I pointed to the deliveries that had him jumping like a cat on a hot tin roof, he continued to be defiant and said that it wasn't as serious as I was making it out to be. I got the message and didn't pursue further.
Was it an aberration? Unfortunately, it wasn't. The moment you try telling a youngster about the things he may not be doing right, he would not only rubbish your observations but also 'enlighten' you on how it is done these days.
Most young cricketers from the metros have a similar mindset now: oozing with confidence, brash and close to becoming haughty. The veterans in the team don't take long to accept their new role in such a scenario, which is limited to minding their own business and offering 'limited' advice, and that too only when they are asked.
I went to Rajasthan with a similar mindset and thought of keeping to myself in the beginning, for being told to mind your own business isn't very nice. But that didn't last long, for shortly after I got acquainted with the new environment and people, kids started coming up to me for advice. They would not only listen but also follow almost every instruction. Their inquisitive nature reminded me of my younger days - a time when we used to wait for a senior cricketer to come for practice and share his experience and knowledge. During those days, the exposure to the outside world was limited and it was imperative to pick up whatever you could whenever you met these experienced cricketers. Also, observing how these successful players conducted themselves was another important tool for learning.
That's how it is in smaller state teams even now. Youngsters are far more grounded and willing to learn compared to their counterparts from big cities. The normal chats in the Delhi dressing room revolved around new gadgets, cars, Facebook likes and Twitter followers. There was a bit of cricket too, but it wasn't an all-consuming topic. There were distractions, which were increasing by the minute. Their strong social and economic background also contributed to their carefree attitude, for there wasn't a need for a back-up plan.
On the contrary, for the youth in the smaller towns of India, cricket remains their only route to get away from the struggles. The lack of exposure hurts them and the moment they interact with a senior, they use him as a window to get a peep into the world not known to them hitherto. Though they are immensely focused, since failure isn't an option, you'd rarely find a guy without a back-up plan. Most guys try to add another degree (through correspondence) to their graduation degree, and those who don't also keep saving to secure their future post their playing days.
While there are many things to appreciate about these kids from smaller towns, right from their unadulterated focus for cricket to their penchant to work harder than most, the lack of confidence in their own ability often hampers their growth. Their lack of confidence stems from their lack of exposure to the outside world and also the lack of good infrastructure in their own towns.
After playing two seasons for Rajasthan and a season for Himachal Pradesh, I believe that it isn't the dearth of talent that's stopping smaller teams but essentially the lack of similar opportunities, experience and confidence. The ones who manage to break that barrier and are fortunate enough to venture outside from an early age have managed to shed those inhibitions. They are the future heroes of Indian cricket--the likes of MS Dhoni have done a world of good in boosting their morale.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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Aakash Chopra is the 245th Indian to represent India in Test cricket. A batsman in the traditional mould, he played 10 Tests for India in 2003-04, and has played over 120 first-class matches. He currently plays for Delhi in the Ranji Trophy; his book Beyond the Blues was an account of the 2007-08 season. Chopra made a formidable opening combination with Virender Sehwag, which was believed to be one of the reasons for India's success in Australia and Pakistan in 2003-04. He is considered one of the best close-in fielders India has produced after Eknath Solkar.