June 12, 2012

Who's mentoring India's youngsters?

Test prospects are not getting enough guidance, if you go by recent performances. The talent pool won't keep supplying quality players endlessly

To the first ball Manish Pandey faced, from medium-pacer Deepak Chahar, he walked down the track and played a wild swish, missing by a foot. It was perhaps the first time in my 15 years of first-class cricket that I saw a frontline batsman act so recklessly at the beginning of an important innings. Was it a one-off, I wondered, standing in the slip cordon.

But to our utter disbelief (and delight) Pandey continued to bat like that before getting out for a 17-ball 16 that included four boundaries. This in an Irani Trophy match in Jaipur, played on a greentop with a bit of moisture underneath. It was only the second session of the first day.

The scoreboard gave an impression of perfect batting conditions - 267 for 2 off 56 overs - but they were far from being ideal. The scoring rate was due to a combination of Shikhar Dhawan's excellent batting and Rajasthan's below-par bowling performance. But even if the conditions had been ideal, how would one justify Pandey's approach to building an innings in a five-day match?

It wouldn't have bothered me if it had been any other first-class cricketer or if Pandey's attitude had been an aberration. He had stormed into the limelight after scoring a fine hundred in the IPL played in South Africa in 2009 - the first Indian to reach the milestone in the tournament. He went on to play some useful knocks for Karnataka in the Ranji Trophy, including a superb century against Mumbai in the final in Mysore. I also watched as he made a double-century in a Duleep Trophy game against Central Zone. From everything I had seen, he looked a special kid.

Since he had come to light with such promise in 2009 and had also scored runs in the following few first-class seasons (he averages 54 in first-class cricket), why had he never been a serious contender for a place in the Test side? As far as this match went, had he been told about the importance of a game as big as the Irani Trophy? If he was under pressure, why wasn't he made aware of other, more positive ways of dealing with it?

The bigger question is: are we worried about such talents not realising their potential?

This brings me to the case of another immensely talented youngster - Rohit Sharma. In this year's IPL, he played some shots that would leave the best batsmen in the world awestruck. I remember a pull off the front foot, hit off a marginally short-of-length ball, that landed in the second tier of the Wankhede Stadium. Having misread the length, Rohit had already committed to the front foot, but he then shifted his weight onto the back foot and despatched it over the square-leg fielder. Any other batsman would have looked for a single.

It takes nerves of steel to hit a six off the last ball to win a match, like Rohit has done. Unfortunately, he has also been guilty of casually throwing away his wicket on many occasions.

Since Rohit has both the technique and the temperament to succeed at the highest level, has someone tried to address why he hasn't been able to make the Test team so far?

Is there someone mentoring these talented cricketers?

Virat Kohli, despite all his talent, had nearly fallen by the wayside when his interactions with Jacques Kallis and Ray Jennings put his career back on track. While Kohli was smart enough to pull back at the right time, others haven't been as fortunate or intelligent. That's where the role of the parent body - in this case the BCCI - becomes important.

After the first IPL, the governing council announced that all young cricketers would be expected to go through a mentoring programme at the NCA. How many young cricketers have benefited from that noble programme? None

Since India is blessed with a huge numbers of cricketers, the talent keeps coming through. But that shouldn't absolve us of our responsibilities. Once the basic cricket foundation is laid, it's mental ability that separates a good player from a great one. There is an urgent need to address that area of players' development. Once talent is identified, a cricketer must be mentored, so he can grow as a player and as an individual.

If Pandey's or Rohit's career graphs aren't heading north, someone should observe the patterns and plug the holes. If Munaf Patel is sacrificing pace for line and length, somebody should explain his role in Indian cricket's set-up to him. If Cheteshwar Pujara is finding it tough to make a seamless transition into Twenty20 cricket, it's the board's duty to lend the helping hand.

Has anyone bothered to find out why Jaydev Unadkat, a bowler who made his Test debut a year ago, isn't good enough to make it to the India A team anymore? If Harbhajan Singh, Pragyan Ojha or Piyush Chawla aren't flighting or turning the ball, the BCCI should ask former spinners like Erapalli Prasanna and Bishan Bedi to help them regain form. The days spent outside the Indian team are the toughest, so it's imperative players are not left to their own devices.

Since the IPL began, I've met many India cricketers who have given up hope of making it back into the national side - and the desire to do so. Instead, they only focus on the annual 45-day T20 extravaganza.

It's because we have the numbers that we look the other way, expecting that the next crop of equally talented cricketers is always around the corner. But what if these players, say the likes of Ajinkya Rahane, Parwinder Awana or Dhawan, also decide they are happy playing in the IPL and aren't really keen to make that extra effort to don the Indian colours? Can we really afford to lose quality talent to club cricket?

After the first edition of the IPL, the tournament's governing council announced that all young cricketers would go through a mentoring programme at the National Cricket Academy. How many young cricketers have benefited from that noble programme? None, because the programme is yet to be rolled out. In the wake of spot-fixing scares, black-money transactions and so on, it's even more important for these younger players to be a part of a programme that educates them about the dos and don'ts.

While we happily bask in the glory of producing world-class talent like Kohli and Umesh Yadav, it's advisable to be realistic and accept that the talent is in spite of the system, not because of it.

Former India opener Aakash Chopra is the author of Out of the Blue, an account of Rajasthan's 2010-11 Ranji Trophy victory. His website is here and his Twitter feed here