October 10, 2002

Kid gloves

Haresh Pandya
Parthiv Patel, talented Indian gloveman, has brought joy to wicket-keeping purists.

Parthiv Patel, the precociously talented Indian gloveman, has brought joy to wicket-keeping purists and solace to his troubled home state of Gujarat.

Parthiv Patel
Parthiv Patel
Photo © The Cricketer International
Meteoric. This is how one might describe the rise of Parthiv Ajay Patel. Still ineligible to exercise his franchise, he is old enough to represent his country in the heavyweight division of cricket. Few teenage cricketers since the salad days of Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara have so caught the imagination and triggered great expectations.

Pitchforked into the Indian team (he was told to get ready only 15 minutes before the start of the match) after a toe injury rendered Ajay Ratra hors de combat for the Second Test at Trent Bridge, Parthiv took his opportunity with both hands and fully justified his inclusion. If his wicket-keeping was nearly flawless in England's marathon first innings, his 82-minute, 60-ball vigil under mounting pressure in India's second innings ensured the hosts failed to enforce a win on the last day.

"Like any debutant at my age, I was a bit nervous to begin with," said Parthiv, who will not be 18 until March 9 next year. "I didn't expect to play any Test cricket on this tour. I was quite content playing county matches and getting more exposure and experience. So it took a while for the truth to sink in that I was actually making my Test debut at such a young age. I was overwhelmed and delighted by the enormity of the fact that I was playing with and against some of the biggest names in contemporary cricket.

"When I went in to bat in the first innings, Sourav Ganguly was at the other end. Though he was encouraging me after every ball I faced, I didn't last long. This made me pretty disappointed. But I didn't allow it to affect my wicket-keeping in England's mammoth first innings. I don't think I made too many mistakes. But I must admit to having butterflies in my stomach when I went out to bat again.

"However, the realisation of the fact that I had to save not only my own face but also the Test for my country made me determined to fight it out to the best of my ability, although this wouldn't have been possible without Ajit Agarkar and Zaheer Khan playing important innings. I don't think I deserve so much credit. It was a collective effort and compared to the massive contributions of Rahul Dravid, Tendulkar and Ganguly, mine was nothing."

These words reflect Parthiv's true character. His genius and his maturity belie his tender age. England captain Nasser Hussain thought that Parthiv looked only 12! "He not only played well but behaved impeccably as a person and showed no nerves," said Hussain. "He just got on with his game and has been very impressive."

Parthiv Patel
Parthiv Patel
Photo © The Cricketer International
Indian skipper Ganguly was also effusive in his praise: "When I was out in the second knock, I had a bit of a scare. I suddenly realised we could still lose, but Parthiv showed a lot of character. He may not have scored big runs, but he batted for 25 overs under pressure and there are not many 17-year-olds who could do that."

Parthiv's temperament has always been impressive. "To keep a level head is one of my virtues," he says. "I think no sportsman can afford to be complacent, even a wee bit."

At Trent Bridge, aged 17 years and 152 days and playing only the 10th first-class match of his career (he has yet to play a Ranji Trophy match), Parthiv became the youngest Test wicket-keeper, eclipsing Hanif Mohammad of Pakistan, who made his debut against India at Delhi in 1952/53 aged 17 years and 300 days. Hanif kept wicket in his first three Tests only, but Parthiv was also younger than Zimbabwe's specialist stumper Tatenda Taibu, who was 18 years and 66 days old when he played his first Test against West Indies last July.

Farokh Engineer, who knows a thing or two about wicket-keeping, believes that Parthiv has all the right credentials to be India's finest gloveman since his own retirement. This is a significant statement because between Engineer's retirement and Parthiv's advent, stalwarts such as Syed Kirmani, Kiran More and Nayan Mongia have kept wicket for India. "Parthiv's reflexes, movement behind the stumps and gathering down the leg side, which is the blind zone for a wicket-keeper, are of a high quality,' he says.

It is not just Engineer who gushes about the precocious Parthiv, the only left-hander among 31 'keepers who have represented India in Test cricket. Rodney Marsh, Wayne Phillips, Ian Smith, Kirmani and More are also impressed. Indeed, it was only after Marsh had spoken highly of Parthiv that he was picked ahead of Deep Dasgupta, Samir Dighe, Vijay Dahiya, Mannava Prasad and Nayan Mongia for the Test series in England.

Parthiv's forte is a safe pair of hands. Marsh has taught him to gather the ball with the body right behind it so that he is comfortable against bowlers quick and slow, but he feels leg-spinners like Anil Kumble pose a challenge, often making the ball lift awkwardly. "But if your reflexes are smooth, judgement perfect and gathering neat and clean, there should not be any problem," he says. "Having said that, I must admit that there is still a lot of scope for improvement in my work behind the stumps."

With the bat, Parthiv's stroke-play can be a treat to watch when he is on song. He can also check his aggression and drop anchor when needed but, like his hero Adam Gilchrist, he prefers to attack. "I've opened and also batted in the middle-order in both forms of the game, so I don't have any particular favourite batting position," he says. "I just love to bat and play my natural game as far as possible."

Appointed captain of India Under-17s for the Asia Cup in Bangladesh in 2000/01, Parthiv led by example as his side won the tournament. It was also under his captaincy that India reached the semi-finals of the Under-19 World Cup in New Zealand the following year. He was then included in the India A team that toured South Africa recently. He averaged 45 with the bat in the 'Test' series against South Africa A and snapped up 13 victims. Coach Yashpal Sharma described his showing in the rainbow nation as 'outstanding'.

Born in Ahmedabad, Parthiv hails from a middle-class Gujarati family. His father, Ajay, is a businessman; his mother, Nisha, is a housewife, while Parthiv has just one sibling, his elder sister Kinjal. The Patels live in one of the most communally sensitive areas of Ahmedabad, Dhana Sutharni Pol, near Relief Road. Infamous for frequent spells of communal riots, the area has suddenly become famous for its star cricketer.

Parthiv's ability to handle difficult situations could have come almost from the moment of his birth. When his mother complained of labour pain, there was curfew in their residential area. A way was somehow found to rush her to the hospital. The curfew was again broken when the mother returned with little Parthiv in her arms.

"So many times have we seen stones, nails and crude bombs being thrown at our old building," said Parthiv. "I remember everything since I was seven or eight years old. I have been a witness to bombing and firing on my home. I'm now used to all these things." Hitesh Patel, the secretary of the Gujarat Cricket Association, explained what Parthiv's success meant to the region: "He has done the whole of Gujarat proud. The news of his selection brought much welcome relief to our riot-ravaged state."

He began playing cricket seriously at the age of nine and by 12 he was playing for his school. In no time he was representing and captaining Gujarat and West Zone in various junior tournaments. Never short of encouragement, including plenty from the bigwigs at the Board of Control for Cricket in India, he was chosen for the National Academy in Bangalore. His wicket-keeping and batting made a good impression, and he was singled out for special treatment. His reward was a 45-day stint at Commonwealth Bank Cricket Academy in Adelaide as part of the Allan Border/Sunil Gavaskar scholarship.

Parthiv has had a host of coaches but he gives full credit to his uncle, Jagat Patel, above all. "My uncle is the single biggest influence on me, my cricket and my career," he says. "Rather than a relative, he is more like a friend, philosopher and guide to me. I wonder if I would have reached this far without his help and guidance. He has sacrificed so much, even vowed to remain a bachelor, in order to pay all his attention to my development and progress."

Jagat, an employee of the State Bank of India, recognised his nephew's innate talents early. "I knew that if nurtured properly, Parthiv would grow into a very fine player," said his uncle. "I'm glad he has proved me right. He is a very hard working boy who has not allowed laziness to enter his body, his mind and even his cricketing lexicon."

A bright student, Parthiv is a pupil of Vidyanagar School in Ahmedabad. He could not take his annual examinations in February and March owing to his busy schedule and the communal riots in Ahmedabad. But he hopes to go on to take a university degree in commerce. Right now he does not have too many ambitions other than holding on to his place in the Indian team for as long as he can. "I want to play regularly for India and bring many laurels for my country," he says.

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