October 20, 2011

The privilege of youth

Two promising new fast bowlers have given cricket watchers everywhere cause for cheer

Like the opening shots of Manhattan and the closing explosions in Apocalypse Now, the scene remains engraved on the retina. Hampshire v Surrey at Basingstoke, June 1989, and the planet's premier stump-menacer, Malcolm Marshall, is having much the worse of his duel with a nondescript teenage debutant. On 11, the 18-year-old makes a winning early statement by walking; recalled, he survives a catch off a no-ball from the Bajan maestro before driving, nudging, cutting and clipping his way to a wondrously patient hundred. My introduction to Graham Thorpe was love at first sight, however unrequited.

There's something almost shamefully proprietorial about this sort of affection. Even if you aren't the first to discover the wonders of a musician, a band, an actor, writer or sportsman, catch them in the first flush of fruition and they have a stake in your heart - and you an emotional stake in their future. You urge them up the charts or bestseller lists, rejoice in every goal, run or ace, ache at every duck or double-fault, each success a dose of self-affirmation, every failure a gobful of humble pie. In the cricketing corner of my heart, Thorpe followed Carl Hooper, Mark Ramprakash and the two Phils, Tufnell and Edmonds, and was followed in turn by Nadeem Shahid, Chris Schofield, Marlon Samuels, Dwayne Smith and Peter Trego. That Thorpe has thus far been alone in fulfilling his promise testifies to both my own shaky judgement of temperament and the pain that so relentlessly pursues those seeking joy through vicarious means.

And nothing, of course, can ever beat that very first sighting, that sudden heady glimpse of what might be, what could be and what bloody well ought to be. Experiencing that buzz twice in the space of a week is almost as rare an occurrence as a conference on dentistry featuring a keynote lecture by a sabre-toothed tiger. All the more reason, then, to cheer Australia and Pakistan for thrusting Patrick Cummins and Junaid Khan onto our plates.

To see these tenderfoots make monkeys out of Jacques Kallis and Mahela Jayawardene this week has been a fillip and a half. More than a new Tendulkar, a new Gilchrist or a new Murali, what the game needs right now, in playing terms, is a new Marshall and a new Wasim - if only to confound the rumour that Dale Steyn is actually a Martian. In the Age of the Bat, nothing is likelier to correct the imbalance than a sudden eruption of bone-cracking, bottle-testing, timber-rattling twentysomethings.

The first time Junaid impinged on my consciousness was July's Twenty20 Cup game at Northampton between Lancashire and Northamptonshire, barely a month after his arrival in Red Rose Country: with six wickets standing, the hosts needed just seven from the final over, but the slim youth restricted them to an almost pitiable three. Tuesday found him in the UAE and luring Mahela Jayawardene into one of the least elegant shots of his stylishly prolific career.

Pakistan's achievement in detonating a strong Sri Lankan top order on the first day was rendered all the more notable by the fact that the previous Test in Abu Dhabi, last November, saw South Africa and the ostensible hosts rack up 1374 runs between them for the loss of 27 wickets; AB de Villiers wrested the Proteas' five-day high from Gary Kirsten with 278 not out. It helps if you can cut the pitch out of the equation, and Junaid did just that.

He has connections with two notorious figures. He hails from Abbottabad, scene of Osama Bin Laden's death earlier this year, and opened the bowling for Pakistan's junior sides with another spritely left-armer of even more abundant promise, Mohammad Amir. If the snaking, swinging toe-cruncher that swept the adhesive Prasanna Jayawardene off his feet in Abu Dhabi evoked not-so-distant memories of another whippy Pakistan southpaw, it was no surprise whatsoever to hear that Junaid has described a session with Wasim Akram at the start of his stint with Lancashire as a catalytic seminar in "how to seam, how to swing the ball, how to bowl a yorker".

Then there's Cummins: 18, a veteran of three first-class outings and poised to become his country's youngest Test player since Ian Craig nearly six decades ago. Rapid, rangy and resourceful, his only obvious shortcoming to these eyes is an apparent aversion to pouting and macho posturing. He'll learn, though one can't help but wish with rather greater fervour that he learns how to catch.

Those who regarded the Australian selectors' decision to pick Cummins on such skimpy evidence as proof of institutional panic have been obliged to reconsider with some haste. Like Steven Finn, he may have to fill out a shade, but the action looks relatively stress-free and repeatable. Judging by the variety of deliveries he already has up his capacious sleeve, he also seems to be the owner of a useful bowling brain.

Then again, promise can be a curse, as Craig himself would doubtless attest. The latest "New Bradman", he went on to become Australia's youngest captain at 22 but retired at 26, dogged by hepatitis, harried by expectation. For the past 52 years Brian Close has been his Anglo doppelganger - the youngest the Poms have ever capped. To him this two-faced honour was nothing but "an albatross", a label "trotted out every time I [was] recalled to a Test side - and God knows that… happened enough". When the 18-year-old Ramprakash won the Man of the Match award in the NatWest Trophy final, he once told me, "I felt untouchable"; it took him the best part of two decades to feel anything like as good again.

From Jack Crawford to Vinod Kambli, scores of purported cricketing prodigies have turned out to be either profligate or prodigal. Winning the ICC Emerging Player award is fast becoming a guarantee of a brisk fade - witness Irfan Pathan, Shaun Tait, Ajantha Mendis and JP Duminy. Woe betide those burdened by stardom before experience has broadened their shoulders.

But let's resist the doom and gloom. Given the right guidance, why shouldn't Cummins and Junaid continue to prosper - aside, that is, from the somewhat dispiriting fact that being a fast bowler in the 21st century is about as secure a job as running a record shop? Handled with care and honesty, protected from leeches and temptation, they can be every bit as good as we would love them to be. So long as those doing the guiding do so selflessly.

Another indelible scene from the forefront of the mind's eye, courtesy of Fandango, the low-budget, sorely-neglected coming-of-age movie that marked Kevin Costner's first major step on the road to the Hollywood A list. A Texas desert, 1971; high on a rock, our Kev hoists a bottle of Dom Perignon to the skies and toasts a near-fatally misspent wild weekend, prior to being carted off to fight the not-so-good fight in Vietnam. "It's the privilege of youth!" he exclaims. To fail, to mess up, to let even your best friend down. So if our new-found heroes go astray along the way, or deflate us with bouts of mediocrity, let's be patient out there. They may owe us big, but we owe them that.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton