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The National Cricket Academy's second batch commenced training in Bangalore on Tuesday and the twenty probables selected for the enterprise comprise almost exclusively of players aged 19 and less. Only two, Deep Dasgupta and Swapnil Hazare have crossed teenage. Last year, the average age was higher but the priorities have changed somewhat since then. Chairman of the NCA Committee Raj Singh Dungarpur said the exercise is designed to produce a winning combination for the Under-19 World Cup in New Zealand next year for which most of the lot will be eligible. Several players aged slightly older and no less talented would have benefited just as much from the facilities and coaching available at the NCA. Perhaps the zonal academies could have focused on a younger clientele and the NCA on India prospects rather than India Under-19 prospects.
Twelve of the 20 have played first class cricket, so it is not an entirely raw batch of youngsters. Of the 20, six are batsmen, five all rounders, three wicket keepers, three medium pacers and three spinners and several exceptional talents abound in that lot. Like Vinayak Mane and Gautam Gambhir, India Under-19 openers against England earlier this year, who made double centuries apiece in the third 'Test' at Madras. Mane is perhaps the more exciting prospect of the two; making his first class debut in the Irani Trophy last October, the 18-yearold's progress has been swift over the last six months. Ishan Ganda, Y Gnaneswara Rao, Gaganinder Singh and Arindam Das are the other batsmen in the fray. Rao, 16 topped the batting averages in the Cooch Behar Trophy this season (his brother Venugopala Rao, three years older, also averaging in excess of 100 for good measure) although his first foray into the Ranji Trophy for Andhra Pradesh was not especially memorable. Ganda too made a stack of runs at Under-19 level and is a relative veteran amongst the lot, having made his first class debut in the 1997/98 season for Haryana at the age of 16.
There are three stumpers: Ajay Ratra, Deep Dasgupta and Parthiv Patel. Ratra is being assiduously groomed for a succession to the India throne. As India Under-19 skipper for the aforementioned series against England, he performed appreciably with the bat, knocking up a century in the Hyderabad 'Test', accompanied by some polished work behind the stumps. But Ratra hasn't yet been able to extend that success to the first class level: in 18 first class games since 1998/99, he has a highest score of 77.
Dasgupta's selection comes close on the heels of his inclusion amongst the Indian probables for the Zimbabwe tour and should set him up for a possible assault at the India cap. In seven games for Bengal and East Zone, he has 26 dismissals abetted by a respectable average of 30+ with the bat. Patel is one of the babies of the group, a 16-year-old keeper cum left handed opening batsman, who idolises Adam Gilchrist. Before he had turned 16, the precocious lad was chosen to lead West Zone Under-19s in a warm-up game against the touring Englishmen and it was only the presence of Ratra as India Under-19 skipper that prevented him going one notch higher.
Clubbed amongst the category of allrounders are Kashinath Khadkikar, Arjun Yadav, Raza Ali, Maninder Singh and Swapnil Hazare, the first three of them spinners. Khadkikar is yet to have a taste of the first class game but did outstandingly in the Cooch Behar Trophy this season, although he was not at his best against the England Under-19s. Yadav has an immaculate pedigree, being the son of Shivlal, and like his father is an off spinner. A member of the Under-19 World Cup squad in January 2000, he did not play a game in India's victorious campaign. Maninder, Hazare and Ali all made their first class debuts this season and the latter was part of the Railways team that agonisingly finished runner-up. Although Ali didn't play the final it was his crucial unbeaten 32 in the semifinal runchase against Punjab that tilted the scales in a tense situation.
There are three medium pacers in Shalabh Sriwastava, Uday Karkera and L Balaji, the first two being left armers. Shalabh has come on by leaps and bounds since his showing in the Under-19 World Cup in Sri Lanka last year where he was India's leading wicket taker. Lean as a flagpole, he reaped a respectable 31 wickets in eight Ranji and Duleep Trophy games this season. Mumbai's Karkera and Tamil Nadu's Balaji have not had a chance to parade their wares beyond the cauldron of age group cricket.
Vidyut Sivaramakrishnan created ripples by bowling India to victory almost singlehandedly in the first Youth 'Test' against England in Mumbai. However the left armer has not been an unqualified success in the more demanding first class arena. While he struck an abrasive 115 at No.11 for Tamil Nadu in the Ranji pre-quarters against Delhi, Vidyut's been a bit of a letdown in his primary role as a bowler, averaging 56 in five games. Off spinner Mulewa Dharmichand also had a rude initiation into first class cricket: in three Ranji Trophy games for Karnataka he took a solitary wicket at an average of 189. The third tweaker is a leggie, Gujarat's Salil Yadav who did adequately well in the Cooch Behar, and makes for an improvement on last season when there wasn't a single wrist spinner in the NCA. Two other leg spinners in the same age group have been far more successful, Sandeep Sawal and Amit Mishra; instead both have to remain content with a place in the North Zone Academy at Delhi.
But they should not be too disappointed on that count. The most heartening aspect of the NCA's role this season has been the establishment of five regional centres with the avowed intention of standardising coaching techniques across the board. Coaching personnel at the zonal centres are no less qualified. The facilities may not be comparable to that at HQ just yet but that is likely to be resolved quickly in the aftermath of the reconnaissance mission conducted last month by a two member inspection committee comprising Director Brijesh Patel and Polly Umrigar. That is the biggest success of the NCA: the initiation of a more federal structure with the transfer of power to local units. Instead of an elite and miniscule bunch of 20 fortunate trainees, it has thrown open the window of opportunity to a wider section of aspirants, numbering over 120. The outcome is likely to produce a uniformly high standard, and raise the level of competition, all portents that augur well for the future of the game in this country.