"Nothing can be judged from Under-19 cricket," Robin Singh, the former India cricketer, said after the 2004 Under-19 World Cup. "It is several notches below first-class standards. The most important phase in a cricketer's development is between 19 and 24.
"The sad part is, U-19 gets more hype than a Ranji final," he added. His words ring truer than ever now as, a few days on from India's victory in the 2008 edition of the tournament, in Kuala Lumpur, the nation toasts the young side's success. There has been a parade through Bangalore, a grand ceremony at the Chinnaswamy Stadium, and plenty of keen advertising agents ready to latch on to these young players' success. The Indian board has announced a cash reward of Rs 15 lakh (US$37,500 approx) for each of the players, and brands like Reebok and United Breweries are eager to cash in on the young stars. Reebok already have Ravindra Jadeja, Manish Pandey, Iqbal Abdulla and Shreevats Goswami. Pandey, not yet 19, has also been signed on for US$105,000 by the UB-owned Indian Premier League Bangalore team. Other brands are reportedly interested as well.
Too much too soon? Chandrakant Pandit, a former player with plenty of coaching experience, thinks the players need to keep themselves grounded. "The money will come later. What remains to be seen is what's important for these players," he told Cricinfo. "Let us see how seriously they take the game. It depends purely on the individuals and how they handle their success."
Even Rahul Dravid, the only one from the U-19 class of 1991 to go on to play for India, has weighed in with a word of caution.
The lost generation
Why the worry? Shouldn't the side just be appreciated? Well, yes, but there are lessons to be learned as well - especially from India's 2000 U-19 World Cup team. That side, led by Mohammad Kaif, included Yuvraj Singh, Ajay Ratra and Reetinder Sodhi. Pause for a moment to ponder these names who were also there: Manish Sharma, Ravneet Ricky, Venugopal Rao, Niraj Patel, Shalabh Srivastava, Anup Dave and Mrityunjay Tripathi.
Sharma and Ricky were stars at the 2000 tournament but failed to register much success afterwards. Ricky once admitted he made the mistake of thinking he would definitely play for India. Sodhi played 18 ODIs but couldn't make the cut in the long term. Rao (16 ODIs) and Patel ended up domestic giants but not much more. Ratra captained the U-19s to victory over England in a home series but became a victim of poor handling, and despite becoming the youngest wicketkeeper to score a Test hundred, struggled to find a Ranji team for a while. Srivastava was third on the wicket-takers' list in the 2000 U-19 World Cup but wasn't given his due. Disillusioned by the powers that be and unemployed, he switched to a Plate Group team last year, Railways, and subsequently joined the Indian Cricket League. Dave and Tripathi simple faded away. Only Yuvraj and Kaif made the step up.
There will be transitional phases in the lives of the current lot, not to mention distractions. The ICL, which will conduct four additional tournaments in 2008, has attracted plenty of youngsters with lucrative contracts. The flip side? They have been barred from competing in any other form of domestic cricket. The BCCI has instructed junior cricketers to wait before signing with the Indian Premier League, but when huge sums of money are up for grabs for a two-month extravaganza, will these youngsters - at an age when decision-making isn't the strongest suit - be able to resist? There are also plenty of agents monitoring talent who are eager to pitch the U-19 stars to IPL teams in order to influence their equity. These young players can earn sizeable packets from signing with brands, much like their role models, the senior cricketers.
Venkatesh Prasad, bowling coach of the India senior side, hopes the myth that the next step after U-19 success is the senior side is debunked. "When I was the coach, as soon as they played U-19 their next expectation was the Indian team, which I couldn't understand. I don't agree with that, unless a player is exceptionally good," he says. "At that level it's a learning curve. They need to be playing a minimum of two years of first-class competitions, and probably from there they could graduate to the next step, the Duleep Trophy. That's the right approach."
Prasad believes four or five years of domestic cricket would do a U-19 player plenty of good if he is ever selected for India. "They would be more mature, they would understand what it requires to succeed at this level. They have to wait for the right time. That's where it is very important the respective coaches in their states handle them and show them the right direction and don't overload the players or burn them out."
Singh thinks it is the job of the state associations to nurture youngsters. "At 19 you don't know much about what is right and wrong, and if they go astray the states should take care of them. What are the academies for? They need to make sure the players are making use of the various structures properly."
It is a view that Lalchand Rajput, who coached an U-19 team to successful tours of England and Pakistan in 2006, echoes. "The key is to get them mentally strong. It's the responsibility of the coaches and the state association to monitor the same. If opportunities are not given at the right time then the player loses his appetite and gets frustrated."
It is in Ranji Trophy cricket that players really make the transition, say those who have been there. "The difference between the Under-19 level and first-class cricket is huge. You can't play the same way and expect to consistently excel," says Pandit. "Bowlers around the country can sort you out in no time and within a few weeks all the players know your weaknesses. You need to constantly adapt your game, which most of these players are not used to at the lower levels."
Ratra agrees. "Ranji is where a player really learns and matures. You play tougher teams and older players and that matters tremendously. At 19 your body may seem ready, but mentally you still have a ways to go. These players need to play with seniors - and plenty in this side already are - to hone their skills."
"Most of the youngsters are happy to perform at the U-19 level, but unless it's an outstanding talent, those performances don't matter much at the higher level," adds Rajput. "I look for people who perform above their potential.
Feet on the ground
The need for sound management seems to be the running theme. In the day of satellite television, brand endorsements and Twenty20 cricket, these youngsters need a firm hand guiding them and keeping them grounded.
With the win comes an overdose of adulation and big bucks, and there are more distractions today than ever before, Roger Binny, who coached the 2000 winners, points out. Binny says market forces now virtually dictate the game and believes India needs to follow the Australian prototype. "In Australia the development of junior cricketers is based completely within the state programme. Playing in tournaments is then just a part of the process. Their young players are groomed, there are counselling sessions where specialists tell them how to conduct themselves and what to expect.
"These players are too young to take big decisions. The management here should have similar training sessions for our stars. For example, have a marketing or media expert come in and conduct a seminar on how to handle money and all the excess attention."
Ravi Shastri, a member of the IPL's governing council and chairman of the National Cricket Academy, recently said young players would be given much-needed financial advice. Shastri spoke of Dav Whatmore, the coach of the U-19 side, as an advisor, and even suggested that parents of cricketers be invited for counselling with their sons. Ian Chappell said on Cricinfo that with all the IPL money pouring in, what Shastri said about advising young players must be followed through with or the board runs the risk of players falling by the wayside.
Whatmore may be the best man for a crucial role in this regard. In his first season in India he has displayed that he is an extremely hands-on coach, always participating in any exercise and training drill he conducts. His reputation as a skilled professional precedes him, and the results have been impressive. A couple of the players have said that Whatmore was more involved than any of the other coaches they saw during the World Cup, and how, even if someone had a bad day, he would never belittle or criticise them. The team respects him and believes in him. Whatmore could forseeably be a father figure.
To counter the rising concern over young cricketers being paid so much money early in their careers, the BCCI has decided that U-19 cricketers will be eligible only for one-year IPL contracts. In the wake of the elaborate auction of the bigger stars on February 20, the IPL franchises have been busy trying to sign up their quota of Under-22 players and other local players from the catchment areas. The BCCI is said to be considering a rule to have U-22 players play for their home teams. Franchises are also advocating that there be a limit on the amounts that can be paid for junior players, but will all this come to pass?
It's difficult to tell what route India's U-19 winners will take. Many, if not all, will have to decide between whether to pursue a cricket career or study further. Age may also factor in. If some cannot find places in their respective state sides, after a point they may just leave the game. At this point in time, you can only hope they use the wonderful platform they have and go further.