Lost in transit
It's exactly ten years since the Indian Under-15 team defeated Pakistan at Lord's in a match attended by over eight thousand people to bring home the Lombard Challenge Cup, the World Cup equivalent in that age-group. In a dramatic final interrupted by two pitch invasions, India beat Pakistan by four wickets with 14 deliveries to spare, and ended up as the only team with an unbeaten record in the competition.
The Indian side, picked on the basis of performances in the domestic inter-school league, were a talented bunch. Rajiv Jolly and Maninder Singh Bola, then 13 and 14 respectively, showed plenty of promise with their left-arm spin; Ravneet Ricky was a vital member with innings of 66, 35 and 45; Gulzar Inder Singh and Rakesh Jha were medium-pacers brimming with talent; and then there were Reetinder Singh Sodhi and Mohammad Kaif, already being spoken about as future India prospects. Sodhi captained the side admirably, picked up 14 wickets and knocked off fifties like it was his birthright. A fluent 67 against South Africa in the semi-finals was followed by a mature 82 not out in the final. Kaif batted and fielded with excitement - his livewire antics in the field would have put the then senior side to shame - that indicated much potential, and captaincy material.
It's a telling indication, however, that of the eleven Indians who featured in the final, only six represented their states at the first-class level. Pradeep Chawla, who kept wicket in the competition, is in and out of the Delhi side; Ricky is still an integral member of the Punjab team but a fair distance from national selection; Vivek Mahajan played just three first-class matches for Punjab; Ishan Ganda showed flashes of brilliance - 101 against Rest of India Under-19's in 2001 - and managed three Ranji Trophy hundreds but as Sarkar Talwar, the coach of that 1996 side, lamented, "the Haryana Cricket Association never promoted him". The rest didn't even get that far. Jolly, Gulzar, Jha, who fell victim to a poor administration in Bihar. Bola, who supposedly shifted to the USA and got involved in American football, Gagan Inder Singh, and Bhavan Chander never even got to the Ranji level.
Where did these heroes go? Did the brimming talent fade away as adolescence unfolded? Were the expectations too high? As Ricky told Cricinfo on the eve of the ten-year anniversary, it is hard to predict in which direction a 13 or 14-year old talent will go. "We were very, very fortunate to get such exposure at the Under-15 level. Shayad koi kismat walon ko hi milta hai. (Maybe the lucky few get such a chance)," he said. "At that time we were kids. You can never predict where a player will go and how far. You can get an idea of where this one guy will go, that he will graduate to this level or that but it comes down to hard work in the end. And luck has its say too. Those of us who have really worked hard have progressed and have survived. If you give up, you get lost somewhere along the way. We haven't given up and we have the honour, in these competitive times, to represent our states."
Ganda, who along with Ricky also plays for the Indian Airlines in the corporate tournament, hinted at survival of the fittest. "Yes, there are only a few of us playing first-class cricket but we don't really stay in touch with players from other states, so its hard to say exactly why," he said in a contemplative mood, adding that this was his first interview regarding the 1996 win for close to ten years. "I wouldn't say it's because of politics, which is part and parcel of life, or any such thing. We were all talented, so maybe it's destiny. Perhaps some performed better and more consistently and moved up faster. Some of us [from 1996] went on to play Under-19 cricket for India. I would say its all about performance and attitude."
The hunger still burns for these two. "We were very young then. The first aim was to play for our state sides, and then obviously there's the dream to play for India," said Ganda. "Some of us are still playing first-class cricket, and Kaif and Sodhi have played for the country. I still have the desire to go higher. I'm in the Haryana squad, and soon there is the Duleep Trophy and Ranji Trophy coming up to aim at." And as Ricky added: "I haven't given up and live on the honour of playing for my state."
Talwar shared his memories but there was a tone of disappointment when asked about the ones that slipped away. "We had a very young side, full of promising cricketers. The key aspect of that side was the allrounders. Added to that, it was a fantastic fielding side and it gave us balance," he reminisced. "Mahajan was a very talented allrounder from Punjab, but somehow he fell out of favour with the selectors. Ishan was one of the best allrounders in that tournament. He won us a match with a last-over six, but was never given proper encouragement. Jolly too was very good - he was rated as the next Bishan Singh Bedi - but has not been heard of for some years now. I don't know what happened."
For India, only Kaif withstood the test of competition, politics and adulthood. "I said upon our arrival from England that no one could ever stop Kaif from playing for his country," Talwar conceded. "He made all the difference in that team. His thinking, his approach was special. At just the age of 14 you could see the hunger in his eyes. I think he could captain India one day." Sodhi, who went on to play 18 one-dayers for India, picked out drawbacks in his game that were probably holding him back. "It's been a long time, really, since the final," he recalled. "There are certain aspects, such as mental and physical toughness, attitude, discipline that you can always improve. I'm still working hard to make a comeback."
Where only two members of that Indian side managed to graduate into the international scene, seven members of the opposition - Taufeeq Umar, Hasan Raza, Bazid Khan, Faisal Iqbal, Yasir Arafat, Kamran Akmal and Shoaib Malik - went on to play international cricket. Other teams in the tournament also had their promising stars: Sewnarine Chattergoon (West Indies), Thilana Kandamby and Jehan Mubarak (both Sri Lanka) have played one-dayers, while Ryan Hinds, Marlon Samuels(WI), Mluleki Nkala, Gavin Ewing, Alester Maragwede (Zimbabwe) have broken through to their Test sides.
The tournament was a big draw in England. Paul Allott, the distinguished commentator, admitted in his column ahead of the final, "All misconceptions that this tournament would be played out between naive and immature teams were dispelled after the first semi-final between India and South Africa. You could not have wished for a more competitive, highly exciting and skilful game of cricket."
Mention the acknowledgement - or lack of - that the side received when they departed, and Talwar points to the satisfaction of returning as winners. "On the Indian circuit, the youth cricket was very competitive but when we left for England nobody bothered about us, nobody noticed," he continued. "Then, after we reached the semi-finals, Sky TV and Indian television broadcast the matches. Beating Pakistan in the final in front of a full house at Lord's, being watched by fans of both countries and former players from India and Pakistan, and Sharad Pawar [the current board president], was incredible. Pawar and the Indian ambassador honoured us after the win. The President of India hosted us; the Chief Minister of Delhi hosted us."
Like Talwar, Sodhi, Ricky and Ganda carried fond memories of India's golden run. "It was like a dream come true and it's always a great feeling to look back and remember it," Sodhi gushed. "It was one of the best moments I've had. Kaif was there too, and it was a combined effort." For Ricky, the tournament was an awakening of the senses. "We gained so much exposure from that World Cup at a young age," he said. "We had never played in front of such a crowd. That was the beginning of my cricketing journey. What a collective effort it was on our part." Added Ganda: "It was fantastic. We didn't go there with starry eyes or big dreams, but thanks to hard work and Talwar sir's guidance we beat Pakistan in the final, at Lords and in front of such a large crowd."
Ten years on and the memory of that triumph lingers fresh but the fact that half of the squad weren't even traceable tells you how often talent often gets lost in transit.
Jamie Alter is editorial assistant of Cricinfo