August 10, 2012

U-19's fine, but don't forget first-class cricket

Age-group cricket is increasingly being seen as a shortcut to the big time. We need to make sure players don't bypass first-class cricket entirely

The Under-19 World Cup is around the corner, and so are the hopes of a dozen or so teenagers from India, who will be looking to make the event count. Ever since Yuvraj Singh and Mohammad Kaif jumped the queue a decade ago on the back of their performances for India Under-19, this tournament has been considered the most convenient route to realising the ultimate dream of playing for the country.

It wasn't always like this, for U-19 cricket used to be considered a stepping stone and nothing more. If you did well for your state at the U-19 level, it was imperative to back it up with strong performances in district or league matches to earn a call-up for a Ranji Trophy trial. And if you represented India at the U-19 level, the best you could get was a spot in the list of probables for Ranji selection. First-class cricket was sacrosanct; it was the real test. Back then there was only one choice: if one wanted to play for the country, he'd have to do well on the first-class circuit. That separated the wheat from the chaff.

There was a huge gulf - and there still is - in standard between U-19 cricket and first-class cricket. First-class sides would put budding teenage cricketers through stern tests, both in the nets and in matches. I remember when I started out for Delhi as a youngster our senior cricketers asked one of our seasoned fast bowlers to deliver a barrage of bouncers at me. If I wasn't equipped to handle chin music, the chances of succeeding in the Ranji Trophy were slim, the thinking went. Similarly the senior batsmen would single out young bowlers in the nets and unleash assaults of the sort they hadn't faced till then. The idea was to prepare youngsters for the bigger battles ahead.

Since first-class cricket is played over four days, we would spend a lot of time moulding our techniques to suit the demands of the long format. Our growing-up years were all about knowing where the off stump was; learning about proper weight transfer, to keep the shots on the ground; and getting the defence impenetrable. Bowlers were taught the art of taking wickets in the longer format. Fast bowlers would regularly bowl with a ball that was 50-60 overs old, to develop reverse swing, while spinners would be encouraged to flight and turn it, and to acquire deception.

A lot has changed since. Playing representative U-19 cricket has become almost mandatory if you want to gain entry into the Indian senior dressing room - so much so that players are regularly pulled out of Ranji assignments to play U-19 matches. I distinctly remember Virat Kohli and Ishant Sharma being summoned to play in some U-19 inter-zone tournament once, and having to abandon Ranji matches for Delhi to do so. When Delhi won the Ranji Trophy in 2007-08, we were denied the services of Kohli for the final because he was leading India U-19 in a bilateral series. The Indian board too seems to have changed its position with regards to the significance it wants to confer on its first-class cricket.

With U-19 cricket becoming ever more important, young cricketers in India have become ready customers of those willing to provide fake age certificates

While purists will raise an eyebrow about Under-19 getting more than its fair share of attention, one must confess that cricketers of this generation have matured double quick. The unparalleled exposure on offer has fast-tracked the evolution of young cricketers in terms of acquiring experience of performing under different conditions, playing under pressure, and acquiring monetary security. It is only natural for players to give as much weight to Under-19 as they do.

U-19 cricket not only provides young players an opportunity to represent the country, it also often gets you a coveted IPL contract. If one aims to be picked for India U-19 and to bag an IPL deal, it is almost imperative that you mould your game to suit the demands of the shorter formats. Taking the aerial route, playing innovative shots, and rarely fretting over your previous dismissal has become the norm. The role models have changed too. Kohli and Yuvraj both came to prominence after their U-19 exploits, having replaced Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly, both products of a solid domestic structure, as idols. In the age of Facebook and Twitter, which underline the growing desire to instantly be approved and appreciated, it's not surprising that U-19 cricket seems to be satiating the same needs too.

Indian cricketers of the '80s and '90s, like the majority of their fellow countrymen, were insecure, and playing defensively was natural - the cricket counterpart of the idea of investing for rainy days. In contrast, today's Indian cricketer is full of confidence. This generation is no longer scared; ergo the aggressive technique.

While that's great news - for who would like their youth to be spent in self-doubt and apprehension? - the rise of age-group cricket has its negatives. With U-19 cricket becoming ever more important, young cricketers in India have become ready customers of those willing to provide fake age certificates. It is amusing to see cricketers with beards and physiques of 20-plus year-old men play as 16-year-olds for years on end on the U-19 circuit, not to mention unfair to their opponents, who are genuinely in their teens.

Another flip side is that first-class cricket becomes increasingly irrelevant - for why would anyone want to take the long route when a shortcut is readily available? And then there are the concerns about the fading of interest in Test match cricket. By not encouraging young cricketers to aspire to play the five-day format - by, in fact, making other formats far more lucrative - are we being myopic?

We may have seen many U-19 players skip the first-class circuit on their way to playing for India, but almost all of them have had to go back to domestic cricket after they were dropped from the Indian team, before making it back into the side. Some managed that retreat successfully, while others disappeared in the wilderness.

While it's great to rejoice in a teen prodigy's success at the U-19 World Cup, it may not be too bad an idea to let him then prove himself with a few successful seasons in first-class cricket and delay his arrival at the biggest stage. Losing a couple of years is much better than losing a player.

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