February 2002: Columns

No commercial breaks

I can vividly remember one morning in October 2000 when Wasim Akram came up to me excitedly and said: "That new boy in your team is bloody good". Akram was referring to Zaheer Khan, the young Indian left-arm seamer whom he had seen bowl the day before in the ICC Knock-out Championship in Kenya.

Arguably the greatest left-arm fast bowler in the world, Akram has seen plenty of fast bowling talent, especially from Pakistan. His coming up to me, interrupting his own preparations before an important game, proved two things: his passion for the game went beyond the narrow confines of nationality and, secondly, his high assessment of Zaheer. As an Indian cricketer, it made me really proud, and I couldn't wait to share Akram's words with everyone.

Fifteen months later, Zaheer doesn't even find a place in the Indian Test team. To me, it's tragic. But Zaheer's isn't the lone exciting talent to have disappointed us.

Ashish Nehra is another left-arm seamer who looked as good, if not better, than Zaheer, when he burst onto the international scene. And then there is Yuvraj Singh, who made one of the most memorable debuts by an Indian in the same tournament as Zaheer in Kenya. Today, all three are struggling to hold their own.

The swift fadeout is very disturbing. One can understand if this had happened over three or four years, but with these young men, it's been a matter of months. Something is wrong somewhere. I think there are compelling reasons for this downturn.

Special talent needs the right kind of guidance. Be it coach, captain or a senior player, you need the right kind of people giving them the right kind of advice. Imran Khan was unbeatable in this regard. He was singularly responsible for turning Pakistan's assembly-line talent into consistent, world-class performers.

When the likes of Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and Inzamam-ul-Haq were starting out, Imran was always around, telling them what to do, and more importantly, what they dare not do. He could be schoolmasterly at times, but you can't argue with the results.

There is no Imran in India to guide our impressionable youngsters. Beyond the stray tips, a newcomer into the Indian team is very much on his own. Which is why many a young India player loses his way - and his head - on the international highway.

Another reason, and this is something that has been exercising my mind for some time now, is the effect of quick stardom. In a country where cricketers enjoy demigod status, marketing men lose no time in turning a rising star into an instant commodity. The star is making his moolah, the marketing managers are happy with their slice of the cake, but what about Indian cricket? Is any of this beneficial to the country at all?

Following his sensational start in Kenya, Yuvraj Singh was all over the place, endorsing an array of products for, what I learn, were mind-boggling sums of money. With the money came a lifestyle which a lad like Yuvraj wouldn't have dreamed of in his hometown, Chandigarh; and it all happened with in a matter of weeks. It's not easy for a teenager to deal with that kind of wealth: not everyone is a Tendulkar. I can't really blame Yuvraj if he found it all a little too much to handle. It's easy to miss the ball when you are feeling heady.

Which is why I feel the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) needs to take remedial measures to prevent precocious talent going waste. One way is for the BCCI to get an undertaking from newcomers that they will not enter into any commercial considerations - other than those offered by the BCCI itself - for a period of two years or, alternatively, for a certain number of international matches.

I can almost see hands going up in protest. Unfair to the players? Bonded labourers? Certainly not. This gestation period will only help a player mature sensibly, keep him focused on his primary task, and keep the hunger in him going. As someone who cares for Indian cricket, I would honestly view it as a move that is more protective than restrictive.

Talent needs to be protected. When players are young, they are that much more fragile. It's essential that the BCCI handle them with care.