Dhoni
Dhoni
AFP

The public and expert focus may have been loaded towards superstars Virat Kohli, M S Dhoni and Rohit Sharma, as is inevitable, but the flavor of this IPL season yet has been India’s cricket’s `youngistan’: players in the 19-25 age group aspiring for higher honours.

A plethora of them have made a huge impact already. I dare say, by the time the tournament ends, a few will be not just household names, but also compelling the attention of selectors, captain, and chief coach for places in the national team(s). Most of these players have come from the under-19 teams of the past few years, and some of them have already won the India cap.

Among these are Prithvi Shaw, Rishabh Pant, Shubhman Gill, Sanju Samson, Ishan Kishan and Shreyas Iyer to name a few. Then there is the other group of under-19 cricketers from the past 2-3 years striving to make the big breakthrough. This includes Shivam Mavi, Kamlesh Nagarkoti, Priyam Garg, Abhishek Sharma, Rahul Chahar, Ravi Bishnoi, Kartik Tyagi, Riyan Parag.

I’m not creating an exhaustive list, only to illustrate a trend, so there will be some names missing here.

Interestingly, there is also a third category of youngsters. These haven’t come from the under-19 ranks but have made a mark nonetheless this season. Among them are RCB’s stylish left-hand opener Devdutt Padikkal and KKR’s `mystery’ spinner Varun Chakravarthy, to name just two. Both have been very impressive and add an important dimension to how young talent is emerging in the country.

The value of under-19 cricket has been in evidence from the turn of the millennium when stars like Yuvraj Singh, Mohamed Kaif and Irfan Pathan arrived on the national consciousness by winning the junior World Cup.

Since then, the national under-19 World Cup teams have been the most important feeder line to the Indian team. Virtually the who’s who of Indian cricket in the last 15-20 years has come through this route, Rohit Sharma, Ajikya Rahane, Virat Kohli, Kuldeep Yadav and Ravinder Jadeja being the most prominent among several.

This resounds to the credit of the BCCI, which made up ground lost when the Vizzy Trophy – for Universities cricket – was discontinued. Players like Bedi, Gavaskar, Vishwanath, Gaekwad, Brijesh Patel, Dilip Vengsarkar --- among countless others – had come through Universities cricket to play for India.

With that pipeline shut, it appeared that young Indian cricket talent would suffer from a lack of systemic support. After a while, under-19 cricket was given due emphasis, the structure made more robust, and the flow of high talent has been a torrent. But it is not only this under-19 World Cup which has thrown up star Indian cricketers in the past two decades.

Sehwag, Zaheer Khan, M S Dhoni, R Ashwin, Gautam Gambhir, Mohamed Shami, Yuzvendra Chahal – all accomplished players at the international level – earned recognition through performances in domestic first-class cricket. What this highlights is widespread the gospel of cricket has been spread in India, for which against the BCCI deserves plaudits. Cricket not just penetrates at every level in the country – city, town, mofussil and rural – but obviously, the talent spotting and supporting system are working well too.

Where does the IPL come in all this?

The enormous appeal of the league makes for a wonderful platform to showcase young talent. What would otherwise have taken a few years of grunt work in domestic cricket can now be achieved in one productive season, which can fast-track a player into the national team.

The other and perhaps more pertinent aspect in the development of young talent is that these players get the opportunity to rub shoulders with the best players in the world.

Look at how much KKR’s young fast bowlers Nagarkoti and Mavi can gain from picking Pat Cummins mind, Padikkal watching and questioning Kohli and A B de Villiers, Shaw and Pant from coach Ponting’s insights!

That said, playing in the IPL in itself is not a guarantee of success at the highest level.

Many young players have failed after one good season because they were either not talented enough, or didn’t learn swiftly to progress to the next level. While the IPL offers a huge bounty to players and is also a terrific platform to exhibit talent, it is a highly competitive environment demanding discipline, dedication, intelligence and commitment. Lots of players get instant fame, but only the fittest survive.

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