June 12, 2013

The satisfaction of watching Karthik and Dhawan succeed

For one who spotted their talent nine years ago and got them over to Australia on a scholarship stint, it's thrilling to see such global cricketers rise to stardom

Shikhar Dhawan: took a while to find the spotlight, but now stands firmly under it © ICC/Christopher Lee

Sometimes writing a feel-good piece that has no particular agenda is an indulgence worth savouring, especially in the middle of a cut-throat tournament. I had one of those indulgent moments today watching Shikhar Dhawan and Dinesh Karthik finish off the job in style against West Indies.

Back in 2004, I was lucky enough to captain a cricket tour to India and Sri Lanka (a trade mission organised by the Queensland government), and one of the great privileges of that trip was to identify two young players who we thought showed immense potential and to offer them a short scholarship stint at the Centre of Excellence in Brisbane (formerly Cricket Academy).

On the day we arrived in Chennai, I happened to switch on the hotel television and saw a young Karthik batting in a domestic final, sweeping his way to an impressive century. His slick glovework was no less impressive and I remember saying to Allan Border (who was also on the tour as an ambassador) that we may have found our first scholarship candidate without even playing against him. AB, with his vast experience, nodded sagely, and there was the first candidate sorted before a ball had been bowled!

In the very last game on tour, at a beautiful ground on the outskirts of Delhi, we were torn apart by a young left-hander who batted as if he was always destined for greatness. His brutal century that day was enough to convince us that he was the deserving recipient of the second scholarship. His halting English could not hide a warm smile - welcome to Australia, Mr Dhawan.

Fast forward nine years to the day - how incredibly fulfilling to watch these two players on the world stage, dominating an Indian batting order that has for so long been the domain of elder royalty. No more Sehwag, Tendulkar, Dravid, Ganguly or VVS Laxman; this is the new India, led by young batsmen whose fearless approach is almost Caribbean in style. It's a wonderful feeling to think that we got it oh so right when choosing these two lads from among a whole host of other talented cricketers we came across on tour in Chennai, Bangalore, Mumbai and Delhi.

What was most impressive about these young chaps when they were in Brisbane was their humility and respect for authority, not always an assumed behaviour trait for all who attend this finishing school. I have seen many young cricketers, from all over the world, who entered this place of learning with a sense of entitlement and arrogance, qualities that continue to bring them undone as they get older. Recent examples spring to mind, without having to mention names!

The resident Australian lads at the time when Dhawan and Karthik were around, most of them in the current Australian team, were totally welcoming of the two boys from India. It mattered not; the atmosphere from within the Centre of Excellence management too was one of inclusiveness and brotherhood. They were in the job of taking good cricketers and helping them become exceptionally good ones and the colour of their passports were irrelevant. In matters relating to sharing the fruits of the much-lauded academy of that era, Australian cricket was entirely colour-blind. It was all about the cricket, even though they might have been forgiven for wondering if some of the foreign scholars might come back to haunt them in the future.

Not for one moment am I suggesting that their stint in Brisbane had anything to do with their rise to stardom. Clearly their talent was there for anyone to see and it would inevitably have risen to the surface anyway. Having spent some time looking after them during their visit to Brisbane, it was clear that their date with destiny was carved in stone. But for Dhawan, it took a few years longer than expected. I would have punted on him already scoring 4000+ Test or ODI runs by now, such was his flair and panache back in 2004. At that stage, MS Dhoni was not on my radar, so I also predicted that Karthik would have already been one of India's great keeper-batsmen by 2013.

It is a credit to both men that they have waited patiently for their moment in the sunshine. Those with less self-belief may have allowed the flame to flicker and wane, but these two chaps were clearly confident and resilient enough to keep believing that their day in the sun would arrive, surprisingly in the cloudy and chilly climes of Cardiff and London, on pitches that were meant to disadvantage freewheeling strokeplayers from India. Perhaps some of that overseas training (and the mental discipline that goes with it) played a tiny part in giving them the confidence to conquer these conditions.

I was reminded of this fortuitous cross-cultural friendship just today as I ran a workshop for the current scholars at the Centre of Excellence, focusing on cultural awareness issues pertaining to touring India and Sri Lanka. Most of these young cricketers will tour the subcontinent in the next few years and far from the suspicious mindset that was evident say 20 years ago, Cricket Australia has managed to create a culture where this is now a "how many more sleeps till I get on the plane?" sort of mentality. The cricketers I spoke to today were genuinely excited about their forthcoming trip to that part of the world, but the best part about it was the anticipation of the off-field experiences. One lad who went on a similar expedition last year spoke glowingly about what he expected the trip to be like before he got to India and compared that to how he felt about it on his flight home and you could sense the positive vibes in his tone.

Part of the excitement is the realisation that for any aspiring international cricketer, this part of the world is where cricket's heart beats loudest. That's an inevitable truth but far from it being an inconvenient truth, it is very much a reward for dreams coming true. The IPL has had a significant part to play in that, not just from a financial viewpoint but from the sense that it opens up new horizons in terms of friendships from all over the world. Interestingly, the brief I got from Cricket Australia was to really reinforce the notion that touring India or Sri Lanka was a privilege that was best exploited by getting out from the comforts of a hotel room and seeing the country on foot, so to speak.

I showed them photos of impromptu games of street cricket in the laneways of Colombo and the maidans of Mumbai and their eyes lit up at the prospect of joining in. These are things you just don't get to see or do in modern Australia, apart from a really low-key game of joke cricket on the beach on Christmas Day perhaps.

They sounded genuinely disappointed when I warned them not to eat from every roadside stall until their tummies were used to these foods - that is such a far cry from the mindset of cricketers who toured the subcontinent not so long ago. They were moved by the images of street life in the big cities - we even had questions about how they could get involved and help out local communities, but behind the generosity there was also this refreshing sense of how this could actually enrich their lives too.

I walked away from this session, heartened by the next generation of global cricketers. Some of these Australian lads, like Dhawan and Karthik, will undoubtedly go on to play international cricket, and one can only think that the cricketing family will be richer for these young men who are proud of their own heritage, yet not too proud to embrace foreign experiences. I suspect we will not see the genuine hostilities of a Harbhajan-Symonds type incident again. There will be inevitably be the odd niggle on the field, but with attitudes like this, from cricketers and administrators, one gets the impression that the world is indeed getting smaller by the day.

The genuine warmth with which Hashim Amla's innings was applauded by the crowd at Edgbaston two nights ago, even when he was batting Pakistan out of the Champions Trophy, just underscored the point that some champions transcend trophies. Amla appears to be one of those international cricketers who are impossible to dislike, even as his wrists of steel flay you to the cover-point boundary. He is a credit indeed to his country, his culture and his faith; maybe cricket can blaze a trail where politicians fail. We might do well to remember that in a few days' time when Pakistan and India clash in Birmingham - a cultural melting pot it promises to be, but hopefully one to celebrate a shared love than a mutual distrust.

On a lighter note, one aspect of cultural awareness that is missing with the modern young cricketer is a complete lack of knowledge of cricket trivia. In order to get them in the mood for India and Sri Lanka, I started them off with a cricket quiz relating to that part of the world. Try this very simple quiz for yourself, especially if you're not Indian or Sri Lankan and see how many you get correct without checking Statsguru or Google. You don't need to get many of these right to beat the lads today!

  • 1. Which cities host these cricket grounds? Eden Gardens, Chidambaram Stadium, Chinnaswamy Stadium, Wankhede Stadium, Asgriya
  • 2. Which of the following players have played Test cricket for India? David Johnson, Min Patel, Ravi Rampaul, Yusuf Pathan, Russel Arnold
  • 3. In which year did Sri Lanka make their Test debut?
  • 4. What does MRF stand for?
  • 5. Which Australian took 12 wickets in his Test debut v India? Who was his first Test wicket?

Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane