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‘Put talented guys through the grind of first class cricket first’
Those bright faces of Unmukt Chand & Co bring back memories. Memories of a time when Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly were still trying to find their feet in the international circuit, Sachin Tendulkar was the be-all-and-end-all of Indian batting and Mohammad Azharuddin was still the captain of India.
Whenever an Indian team wins an age-group tournament, one can't help but go back in time and remember an under-15 Indian team, led by Reetinder Singh Sodhi, beating Pakistan in the final at Lord's. It was 1996 and the National Cricket Academy had not spread its wings. Cricketers didn't have a standardised platform to hone their talents and the likes of Sodhi and Mohammad Kaif had to work on their own or their respective state sport's colleges till they reached a certain standard.
They didn't mind and when the 1996 win happened, these kids saw it as a huge opportunity for themselves.
"That was our first brush with stardom. Till that point, we used to play for the love of the game, but that one win changed our lives, " Sodhi says, talking about those days when junior cricketers didn't enjoy the popularity that they do now. Sodhi had scored an unbeaten 82 in that match which was a 55-over-affair against an opposition that had the likes of Shoaib Malik, Taufeeq Umar, Yasir Arafat and Kamran Akmal.
The fiesty Punjab allrounder was immediately earmarked as one who would be a future star. "In 1997, I scored a double hundred for Punjab against Delhi and that is when I got a call for India A, " he remembers.
What he intended to say was that a great performance in an age-group tournament can only put you on course. "It was great to see these boys winning the U-19 World Cup this year. But they should remember that this is just the beginning. The coming domestic season will be crucial, as it was the case with me, " Sodhi says.
As Kaif took over the reins of the U-19 team that won the World Cup in Sri Lanka in 2000, Sodhi was named the vicecaptain. The team also had Yuvraj Singh and they went on to win the tournament, with Sodhi going on to become the Man of the Match in the final again for an allround show against the hosts.
The World Cup-winning performance put all three, along with the likes of Venugopala Rao and Ajay Ratra, in the radar of the national selectors.
Kaif made his Test debut very soon, against South Africa at home, and by his own admission, he found out the hard way that it was a different kettle of fish. He failed against a South African attack which had the likes of Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock, and had to go out.
While Yuvraj Singh was an instant hit, playing a blinder against Australia in the ICC Champions Trophy in Nairobi, Sodhi, too, didn't have to wait too long to get a national callup (against Zimbabwe, 2000).
It was around this time that Raj Singh Dungarpur, a very powerful figure in the BCCI then, made a famous statement that he would prefer 11 Sodhis in the Indian team to a lazy, talented cricketer (read Sourav Ganguly).
Do such comments put pressure on a young cricketer?
Sodhi smiles. "I don't think so. . . If you are growing up in an Indian structure you know that pressure will be part-andparcel of your daily fare. I never felt bogged down by comparisons or expectations, I only tried to get better, " he says.
He played only 18 matches in his short ODI career, but that he attributes to an injury that he suffered in South Africa in 2001. "That was a terrible back injury and I lost two years in the process. . . By the time I came back again to fullfledged cricket, it was no longer easy for me. "
Now, a 32-year-old, Sodhi, an Indian Cricket League veteran, at least feels happy that he has played for India. Many of the U-19 s fail to keep it going when they are pushed to the top league, some even fail to make it to first-class cricket.
Sodhi, though, doesn't feel that it's about success going to the heads of the players a little too early in life. "I don't think that happens. . . On the contrary, a good performance at the U-19 level gives you the confidence that you can compete. But yes, the next level is definitely higher and only those survive who are really cut out for that level, " he said, adding that it's true for every sport.
Former Australia captain Ian Chappell has already said that India should put Unmukt Chand and Harmeet Singh into international cricket, even going to the extent of saying that the Mumbai left-armer is the second best spinner in the game after Graeme Swann. Sodhi, though, believes that these players "are all talented but they need some time in first-class cricket".
"I am telling you from experience, if a player is talented, he will do well. . . There's no harm in talented guys going through the grind of first-class cricket, at least for a year. "
There's another school of thought that believes that these talented players should be kept away from the lure of the Indian Premier League and should be allowed to hone their skills. But Sodhi disagrees. "IPL is a fantastic platform where young players get a feel of international cricket. . . And in today's structure, to be successful, you have to be equally adept in all the forms of the game. In fact, as I look back, I feel that if there was an IPL in 2000, it wouldn't have done us any harm. "
Penpix of India's under-19 World Cup-winning team.
Led the team by example. In the final, against hosts and defending champions Australia, he displayed exemplary class and returned with an unbeaten 111 to guide India home. In doing that, he followed his illustrious Delhi counterpart Virat Kohli, who also led India to victory in the 2008 edition in Kuala Lumpur. His attacking style of play has also earned him a contract with the Delhi Daredevils in the IPL.
Though he didn't have the kind of World Cup his skipper Unmukt enjoyed, Akshdeep certainly has the talent to go the distance. The 19-year-old from Lucknow made his list A debut against Vidarbha in February last year. He was picked in India's squad because of sterling performances at the junior level and a few notable first class performances. Watch out for him.
He shone both with bat and ball. If there was someone as consistent as skipper Unmukt, it had to be Aparajith. He scored three half centuries and struck with the ball at vital times. The 18-year-old from Chennai has the talent to go a long way.
He comes from Himachal Pradesh and made his Ranji debut against Punjab in February last year. He was picked in India's U-19 squad purely on his batting abilities. The right-hander chipped in with valuable contributions, including a 52 in the semis against New Zealand.
The Bengal lad didn't feature in many matches. In the only match he played against Sri Lanka, he could score just 4. Das still has to make his Ranji Trophy debut.
People in Mumbai feel that this leftarm-spinner should have already been playing in the Ranji Trophy. He bowls with a still head and has a deceptive loop. Captained the Mumbai Under-22 team to victory in the Cooch Behar Trophy last year
Just 17, Akhil already has many fans. He has been a heavy scorer at the junior level and earned a call up to Mumbai's Ranji Trophy squad last year, though he didn't get to play.
For the Rajkot boy, this was a last chance to impress at the junior level. But he didn't get picked apart from the practice matches, where he scored 21 against Lanka.
At just over 19, this medium pacer from Amritsar has not yet made his first class debut. But at the junior level, he has been an economical and successful bowler. In Australia, Passi was a revelation, picking up 10 wickets, including a best of 6-23 against Zimbabwe. For the lad nicknamed Pistol, a Ranji berth should be the next goal.
The gloveman from Ahmedabad accounted for 14 dismissals and made vital contributions with the bat, none more crucial than the unbeaten 62 he scored in the final. He also scored a fighting half-century in a losing cause against West Indies in the first match. He will be a man marked by the selectors as his keeping is clean and he has a terrier-like spirit.
Like Passi, this Bengal pacer too is yet to play in the Ranji Trophy. His performances Down Under, though, served plenty of notice about his talent. Singh returned with a 12-wicket haul including a terrorising spell of 5/21 against Papua New Guinea.
The swing and seam hero. In the final against Australia, Sharma's 4-54 was largely responsible in restricting Australia to 225. Apart from being an intelligent bowler, Sharma can also wield the willow effectively.
The 18-year-old right hand batsman from Kakinada, Andhra Pradesh could have had a better World Cup. Barring the 64 against Sri Lanka in the warmup game and the 31 against Zimbabwe, he had nothing more to offer. But while playing for Hyderabad, Vihari has proved he has the ability to shine.
In the three matches that the left-arm-spinner played in Australia, he managed to pick two wickets. His best bowling performance was against Papua New Guinea where he picked up 1/33. He has already made it to Delhi's Ranji squad.
This Jalna boy made it to the headlines after scoring an unbeaten 451 for Maharashtra Under-19 against Assam. His feat was unique because he became the batsman to garner the highest score in the history of the Cooch Behar trophy. In Australia, Zol scored two half centuries.
-Compiled by Sudheendra Tripathi
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