September 3, 2012

Blood them young, but be careful

India Under-19s may have won the World Cup, but if the selectors wish to pick some of them for the national team, they must make sure MS Dhoni backs their picks

If any of the India Under-19 stars get into the national team soon, they will owe some of it to the broadcasters of the World Cup. The Indian juniors put up a superb performance to win the tournament in Australia, where their seniors were humbled six months ago. But the attention the U-19s received this time was exceptional. As they progressed in the World Cup, the broadcasters increased their focus on the tournament. Why, even while India played their first Test of the home season, against New Zealand in Hyderabad, viewers were continuously informed there was a final being played in Townsville and were given updates of India's chase. That got the Indian media and fans involved as well.

In recent times, Indian selectors have shown a clear tendency for populist picks. With the change of guard in the national selection committee scheduled for the next meeting, that approach may change, but one still cannot rule out the possibility of a couple of players from the U-19 team getting fast-tracked into the national team.

People in power love to take decisions that make them popular, and, given the current mood, picking Unmukt Chand or Harmeet Singh or any other would certainly make the selectors very popular among a large part of the media and fan base.

I believe fast-tracking is a good thing. When I was Mumbai captain, I often indulged in it, but you must do it only in exceptional circumstances and with great care and thought, because there is a rare, young talent at stake.

Pakistan have had an incredible track record of picking players straight from the club level. A few players were even picked after being observed a couple of times in the nets and, guess what, some of them went on to become legends of the game.

How did Pakistan manage to pull a rabbit from the hat so often? First, because they did not have an elaborate first-class cricket structure, the system habitually got bypassed. The men in power did not have much respect for the assembly line. But the more critical reason for their success with fast-tracked players was the fact that their captain backed his picks.

Imran Khan was as excited about the raw talent as the fellow player or selector who had spotted and recommended it to him. Pakistan's top run-getter, Inzamam-ul-Haq, was picked largely on hearsay. Imran had only one good look at Inzi in a friendly match and he was hooked.

But what happened a few weeks later with Inzamam in Australia was interesting. Struggling to cope with the seaming, bouncy conditions in the 1992 World Cup, Inzamam ran up some low scores while batting at No. 3. But instead of thinking he had made a wrong punt, Imran dropped Inzamam down the order to No. 5 and batted at No. 3 himself. The runs started to flow from Inzamam's bat again and Pakistan went on to win that World Cup.

The pick was successful because the captain believed in the talent too. It was not one thrust on him by someone else. Imran also had a personal interest in Inzamam's success to show the world that he had picked a winning horse.

So if India's selectors decide to fast-track any U-19 player into the national team, they should go ahead and do it, but not before making sure that MS Dhoni is as enthusiastic about the talent as they are.

For fast-tracking to succeed in the long-term, the selector or the captain must be excellent judges of talent. I am still astonished at how so many outstanding and experienced players turn out to be very poor judges of talent. I remember Imran reacting to one failed attempt to fast-track an Indian player during Raj Singh Dungarpur's reign as chairman of selectors. "One needs to have a real good understanding of the game and talent to take such risks," Imran told me. "People like Dungarpur are just not qualified to make such decisions."

Dungarpur meant well for Indian cricket when he tried to replicate the Pakistan theory in the late '80s and early '90s, but it's obvious not everyone has the eye. I think among all the India captains I have seen, Sourav Ganguly perhaps had the best eye for talent.

So I'd tell the selectors: go ahead and pick any U-19 player from the World Cup squad that you think can make it to the Indian team - but make sure you have Dhoni on your side.

Former India batsman Sanjay Manjrekar is a cricket commentator and presenter on TV. His Twitter feed is here