In July 2002, the Indian Test team touring England lined up on stage at the Wisden Indian Cricketer of the Century awards in London. Among them stood a cherubic 17- year-old, visibly dwarfed by his colleagues, on his first senior tour.
Even 17 seemed an exaggeration, in fact. That young man, who many mistook to be the team's mascot, was Parthiv Patel, a relatively unknown wicketkeeper and seemingly a wild-card pick. Some knew he had led India in the Under-19 World Cup in New Zealand a few months earlier, but with the limited television coverage back then, Parthiv's name was largely confined to the newspapers.
A little ahead of him on that stage was Sanjay Bangar. The two were polar opposites in terms of domestic experience. Almost 30, Bangar had recently made his India debut after toiling for eight seasons. Parthiv, on the other hand, hadn't played a single first-class match in India, let alone a season, and was now hobnobbing with the senior side while still not old enough to legally get behind a steering wheel.
It's now more than 11 years since Parthiv's debut at Trent Bridge in a Test that he helped save with the bat, showing an ice-cool temperament well beyond his years. At 28, the only change at first glance is a pair of spectacles; the boyish looks remain. Now a senior pro and Gujarat captain, Parthiv has scored 4302 runs in 60 Ranji Trophy games at an average of 46.25, with 180 dismissals.
A selectorial gamble, he was the youngest Indian Test debutant since Sachin Tendulkar's entry, at 16, in 1989. After 1999, the national selectors tried out MSK Prasad, Sameer Dighe, Saba Karim, Vijay Dahiya, Deep Dasgupta, Ajay Ratra, and Nayan Mongia for the national wicketkeeper's spot. The search for a quality wicketkeeper-batsman had proved elusive and Parthiv was the latest gamble.
He was picked as reserve wicketkeeper, and understudy to Ratra for the England tour. Parthiv had been on India A tours to South Africa - where he made his first-class debut - and Sri Lanka, thus bypassing the traditional Ranji Trophy route to selection.
"I had returned at 5am [from Sri Lanka] and I was asleep that afternoon when the news came via the news channels," Parthiv says. "I didn't even know the selection meeting was happening. My family was expecting me to do well in the Ranji Trophy, as my next goal. They were not even sure if I would be picked [for the Ranji side], since Gujarat already had a keeper called Pallav Vora who was playing well."
"I wasn't expecting anything out of it. I was 17, with nothing to lose" Parthiv on his Test debut
Was he surprised himself? "I did half expect to be picked as the second keeper. In those A tours, I kept well to [Debasis] Mohanty, Murali Kartik, Rakesh Patel and [Sairaj] Bahutule. I was batting well against formidable attacks, against Andre Nel, Nantie Hayward, Rangana Herath. Mentally and physically, I thought I was ready."
It was a surreal experience for Parthiv, sharing space with greats like Tendulkar. The jury was still out on whether he was Test-ready. Did he place high expectations on himself? "Honestly, nothing," he says. "I wasn't expecting anything out of it. I was 17, with nothing to lose. I was well received in England because everyone knew what I had done in the A tours."
He remembers his first meeting with Tendulkar at the National Cricket Academy during the rain-affected England Test in Bangalore in 2001. A few other senior players joined Tendulkar to talk to the young trainees, which Parthiv described as "unbelievable".
He recounts an incident in his second Test, at Headingley. "I got hit on the knee and couldn't stand. I was about to take off my pads but then Sachin came up to me and said, these are the moments you must cherish, because India doesn't win Test matches easily abroad. You should stay on the ground and guts it out. He shared his experience of being hit on the nose by Waqar Younis in his first series. He continued batting and people still remember that. He inspired me, and I was lucky to be part of that moment of celebration."
By the end of the series Parthiv had grown into a steady, dependable batsman and was being considered good enough to face the new ball in Tests. His wicketkeeping, however, wasn't as secure, especially against spinners. As his competency in his primary role started to fade, he was dropped during the home series against Australia in 2004 and replaced by Dinesh Karthik.
His lack of experience, once taken for granted, had started to sting. "Honestly, it didn't affect me in the first three to four series because everything was going smoothly. But I had a bad Test against New Zealand in Mohali [in 2003] and then it had started to creep into my mind that I had never experienced anything like that before.
"All the senior players were very helpful at that time," Parthiv says. "They made sure I didn't see the news channels or read newspapers in the dressing room. If you read too much of the criticism, it can get into your mind. At this level, players understand what helps them and what doesn't. You cannot stop anyone from giving their opinions. I personally would avoid reading such things because I know how hard I have worked, so at the end of the day it's up to me to trust my abilities."
By the end of 2004, not yet 20, Parthiv's career had already come full circle. The period after was a crash course in reality. His appearances for India became sporadic. In hindsight, was being picked at 17 harmful?
"As an individual I would think, 'How many players get the chance to represent the country at 17?' When I was picked I'm sure people would have known that there has to have been something in me to have been selected. I wouldn't say that it was the worst thing to have happened to me."
The pain of being dropped can be countered by adequate support systems - loved ones, counsellors or the cricketing set-up. What prevented Parthiv from getting sucked into a black hole of depression and anxiety was the joint-family system that's common in Gujarat.
"I come from a lower middle-class family and among Gujaratis you would have seen even in daily soaps there are always people around. It helps you, especially when you're down, because you're surrounded by people who you love and don't expect anything from you. They always expect you to smile. I have told them to be normal, no matter how I play, if I score a century or zero. If things are not going good, the only question my dad would ask me is, 'Are you working hard enough?' I only need to ask if I have satisfied myself, and that's how my family functions."
An early marriage, at 23, had positive effects too. "It's given me a sense of responsibility. I've started scoring more centuries after marriage, and it is probably why I have become more responsible and do not play rash shots!"
In 2007, Parthiv rediscovered himself as a batsman, scoring four centuries, in Zimbabwe and at home against South Africa A. Despite the good numbers, a national recall remained elusive once MS Dhoni became indispensable.
"My aim was to evolve as a cricketer during that period. I was a bit disappointed at not getting picked despite scoring 1000 runs or more for the season," Parthiv says. The India coach, John Wright, sent him to work with Ian Healy. Back in India, he began consulting the former India wicketkeeper Kiran More and Anshuman Gaekwad, the former India batsman who had also coached the national team.
Parthiv had to reassess his training in both disciplines. "Initially I used to have one session for the whole day, where I would practise batting and keeping. I broke it down into two sessions a day, focusing on one area alone. That made me think differently during games. For instance, when I was batting, I'd think that I'm a pure batsman. And while keeping, I'd think, this is my only job in the team."
Parthiv was back on television screens once the IPL took flight in 2008, and over six seasons has been part of four franchises. Opening the batting gave him the confidence to face international bowlers again. He played one Test in Sri Lanka in 2008, when Dhoni sat out the series, but hasn't played another since. His one-day comeback came in 2010, as an opener. He featured regularly in 2011 and scored four fifties, including a career-best 95. However, his form fell away after the England tour in 2011 and he was dropped again.
With Dhoni having set such a high benchmark as a batsman, wicketkeeper and captain, wicketkeepers on the fringes will, in the immediate future at least, be measured against him. Dhoni has spoken of giving up playing one format at the end of 2013 if he is to lead India's World Cup defence in 2015. That could free up a slot for Parthiv, who will be competing with the likes of Wriddhiman Saha, Naman Ojha and Karthik - at least in the Test squad. He is comfortable with the idea of playing as a specialist opener in limited-overs cricket. He thinks he is better off attacking the new ball and is humble enough to admit that he cannot fill Dhoni's shoes as a finisher.
Assessing Parthiv's career, one might wonder if he is a victim of circumstance. In the early 2000s, the margin for error among wicketkeepers in India was so small that the selectors were unwilling to hand anyone a long rope. A young Parthiv was shoved in at the deep end, where he managed to stay afloat for two years. However, he then spent some of his best cricketing years on the fringes - albeit piling up domestic centuries. Vacancies in the Indian team have opened up only sporadically, and the best he could do was to be patient.
That is precisely what he has been doing so far. "I'm just taking it step by step. Whatever MS has achieved, everyone should be proud of, as a captain leading India to so many victories. As a keeper I just focus on working hard and the selection will take care of itself."