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Where do India's Under-19 World Cup stars go from here?

IPL deals, Ranji debuts, and some day that India cap - the world is at their feet

Sreshth Shah
Sreshth Shah
Though they had little time to practise and play together as a squad, India managed to remain unbeaten in the 2022 U-19 World Cup  •  Michael Steele/ICC/Getty Images

Though they had little time to practise and play together as a squad, India managed to remain unbeaten in the 2022 U-19 World Cup  •  Michael Steele/ICC/Getty Images

In the two weeks since India won the 2022 Under-19 World Cup, many from the squad have earned maiden Ranji Trophy call-ups, five have collected IPL deals, and the rest don't seem far away from higher-profile cricket. But you couldn't have predicted this rosy future six months ago. As convincing as their six wins were at the World Cup, their off-field build-up and campaign was as chaotic.
The BCCI's National Cricket Academy organises age-group competitions, picks a pool of players to represent the India U-19 side in tours for six to nine months before finally selecting a squad for the World Cup. But this time round, because of the pandemic, the Asia Cup late last year was the only competition the India U-19 side played between the 2020 and 2022 World Cups.
For the side's head coach, Hrishikesh Kanitkar, who was appointed to the role in November 2021 after the incumbent, Paras Mhambrey, joined the India senior men's side as their bowling coach, it meant finding a different approach.
"We knew we had talented players, but we had to turn up as coaches to bring the best out of them," Kanitkar says.
"Unlike last time, where we had a few tours - to England, the Asia Cup, South Africa, series against Afghanistan, this time we didn't have any of that. The players played for the first time together in the Asia Cup.
"We had to quickly work on small things like technique, mindset, and what they are going through as cricketers aspiring to play at the highest level. They had to learn that we are well-meaning.
"The other thing is, this group needed is to be allowed to make their mistakes, because that is how you learn quickly."
If mistakes were made, they didn't greatly impact results on the field - India won four out of five matches at the Asia Cup and all six at the World Cup. From the outside, it might have looked like smooth sailing, but within the group there was a crisis that could well have derailed India's World Cup campaign.
Fifteen minutes before their second World Cup game, against Ireland, the group of 14 players learnt that their captain and vice-captain, Yash Dhull and Shaik Rasheed, had tested positive for Covid-19 and would miss the match along with four other players.
"At that point, we had 14 available players, and with these two and Aaradhya Yadav affected, we ended up playing whoever we had," Kanitkar says.
Dhull and Rasheed were not only two key middle-order batters, they were also the only two players who had captained an India U-19 side previously. But in Nishant Sindhu, the 17-year-old Haryana allrounder, who is the son of a boxer, Kanitkar found a captain for a crisis.
"Especially for the Ireland game, Sindhu had no planning - he went on the fly. I had known that he had led Haryana U-19s to the domestic cricket championship, so I knew there was a leader within him. The way the boys played, you wouldn't think they were mentally affected, but they were by the news of the other [Covid positive] players."
India beat Ireland, and then Uganda with ease, but the bigger challenge was managing the players in isolation.
The U-19 World Cup is keenly followed around the world. For the players, the most important attention is from scouts of domestic and IPL teams. Sitting alone in their rooms, Dhull and Rasheed could imagine what missing out on these crucial matches would do to their future.
"Yash and Rasheed were in good touch and to miss their second game was tough on them," Kanitkar says. "They were very disheartened, secluded and removed from the group before the toss. We knew that when they are sitting alone, affected by Covid, you start thinking about the worst scenarios: 'What is going to happen? Is my World Cup gone? How is it going to affect my future?'
"Sitting in a room for seven to nine days and having all those negative thoughts in your head, it's not easy. Even if they were getting negative thoughts, we told them it's natural and that sharing it would make them feel better. They trusted us, and it was easier for us to communicate.
Kanitkar was happy to see that the isolation didn't affect the players' mental preparation. He says "they were absolutely motivated to be ready when the time came".
"We told them to sit in the room, but still visualise the atmosphere, excitement, see the bowler running up to bowl to you. They did a lot of work in their rooms, and that was evident when they came and played.
"It looked like they must have been practising all the time - but they had practised only once after isolation."
After their return, Dhull and Rasheed rescued India with an unbeaten 204-run partnership when both openers fell early in the semi-final against Australia.
Andhra's Rasheed hasn't broken into his state side yet, but Dhull has gone on to earn an IPL gig with Delhi Capitals for Rs 50 lakh (about US$66,500) and made a glittering first-class debut for Delhi.
While all eyes were on these two players, through the competition others silently sowed the seeds for potentially promising careers. Left-arm seamer Ravi Kumar, now with the Bengal Ranji squad, offered control with the new ball and took nine wickets in the knockouts.
Left-arm spinner Vicky Ostwal, who chipped in with middle-order wickets, was picked up by Delhi Capitals for Rs 20 lakh ($26,500), and has been included in the Maharashtra Ranji squad along with allrounder Kaushal Tambe.
Wicketkeeper Dinesh Bana and Sindhu impressed enough to make the cut for the senior Haryana side, and opener Harnoor Singh and allrounder Raj Bawa are now in the Chandigarh Ranji Trophy squad.
Bawa is one of two players from the World Cup squad sitting atop the rewards pile. The son of Chandigarh-based cricket coach Sukhwinder Bawa and grandson of Indian Olympic hockey gold medallist Trilochan Singh, Bawa says he grew up in a household where the U-19 World Cup is held in high regard. Two years before he was born, at the 2000 tournament, Yuvraj Singh, who Bawa's father coached, was Player of the Tournament, and Bawa's cousin Reetinder Sodhi was the Player of the Match in the final.
Rajvardhan Hangargekar's abilities as a quick seam bowler and a hard-hitting finisher are yet to earn him a Ranji Trophy spot with Maharashtra, but after a three-team bidding war, he will now be mentored by MS Dhoni at Chennai Super Kings while taking home Rs 1.5 crore ($200,000).
Bawa, a medium-pace bowling allrounder, nearly made it a double himself. His 5 for 31 in the final earned him the Player of the Match award in the final, but despite taking crucial wickets against South Africa and making the tournament's highest score, 162 against Uganda, he lost the tournament award to South Africa's Dewald Brevis. However, Bawa impressed three IPL teams sufficiently for them to bid long enough that his price shot up to Rs 2 crore ($266,000 approx) before Punjab Kings finally got hold of him.
"What impressed me most about Bawa is how nothing affects him - the good or the bad," Kanitkar says. "Against South Africa, he was smacked around in his first spell, but he showed no emotion. Even when he returned to take wickets, he did not celebrate.
"In the final, it is natural for someone to rejoice after taking a flurry of wickets, but Bawa was calm. That is his standout trait - to be composed in all type of situations."
The five boys with IPL gigs will get to rub shoulders with the likes of Dhoni, Rishabh Pant, Shikhar Dhawan, David Warner and Virat Kohli among others, while the rest go back into the domestic cricket system, where, Kanitkar says, the key is for them to successfully balance their personal ambitions with the teams they find themselves in.
"They will go into a new set-up, away from the NCA, and their coaching system will change," Kanitkar said. "Each team has its own way of doing things. How you combine your tasks as a team player while also doing your own practice is going to be the challenge. The way we handled them, other coaches won't. They will all naturally have their different philosophies."
Still, the future is bright for these youngsters as they graduate into senior cricket. Last week, as the Ranji Trophy began, Dhull scored centuries in both innings on first-class debut, and Bawa took a wicket for Chandigarh off his very first delivery. Life has never been so good for these teenagers, and a place in the senior India men's side is no longer a dream but a realistic goal.
That is a reflection of the power U-19 cricket wields in India. Kohli, KL Rahul, Ravindra Jadeja, Mayank Agarwal, Shubman Gill, Prithvi Shaw, Pant, Washington Sundar, Ishan Kishan and Ravi Bishnoi all first came to the spotlight through their U-19 exploits. Some of them have gone on to earn among the fattest paychecks in the IPL, others have been captains in the IPL or for India.
Every India U-19 campaign has produced at least one future star. It is no longer a question of who makes it to the big leagues, but how many.

Sreshth Shah is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @sreshthx