At the Shere Bangla National Stadium on Sunday, emotions ran high as the West Indies U-19 scripted one a beautiful chapter in cricket's history books. Meanwhile, the Indian players were left heartbroken after a tremendous journey which saw them put in a dominant performance in every game except for the finals where they went down fighting. Pacer Avesh Khan was in tears as captain Ishan Kishan consoled him in the middle. Only a cold-hearted fan cannot have felt for the young kids who had worked so hard for the dream of lifting the coveted trophy.
Before the start of the tournament, India U-19 coach Rahul Dravid had stressed on the fact that the biggest challenge for him was to select 15 out of the 30 players because of the depth of the talent pool. And that showed in the World Cup, as the likes of Avesh Khan, Sarfaraz Khan, Mahipal Lomror, Mayank Dagar, and Rishab Pant performing admirably.
But their biggest challenge now is to make this talent count. It will take some time to recuperate from the loss but they need to realise that the real test starts now.
The U-19 World Cup was just a stepping stone towards the long journey. That was the consistent message across the board from from some of their predecessors, who spoke to Firstpost.
"To play for India should be the ambition. Nothing's bigger than that. This is just a journey not a destination," Reetinder Singh Sodhi, who was the vice-captain of U-19 World Cup winning team in 2000, told Firstpost. "It's not a problem that they missed out on winning the title but the important thing was they did well. Reaching the World Cup Final is not easy. They have made a name through this stage but now they have to work doubly hard. Now the actual journey starts."
"They are now known names. People know now who is Sarfaraz, who is Armaan [Jaffer], who is Dagar. So very important for them to keep working hard, not let this go into their heads. They have the IPL contract too. Now that you have made a name, keep performing. Don't leave it here. Me, Yuvi [Yuvraj Singh] and [Mohammad] Kaif did just that," Sodhi added.
Sodhi was the man of the match in that 2000 U-19 World Cup final where India beat Sri Lanka under the leadership of Kaif. Yuvraj Singh caught everyone's eye with a 25-ball 58 in the semifinal against Australia. Sodhi went on to played 18 ODIs for India before incessant injuries marred his career.
"Because of the win there was a lot of hype. [For me, Yuvi, Kaif] the win had a great impact. After that we were picked up for challenger and slowly for India A and then most of us went on to play for India," he adds.
It's was Mohammad Kaif's young colts that set the precedent 16 years ago when they brought home the U-19 title for the first time and since then India have won three more titles, losing in the finals twice. However playing in the U-19 World Cup doesn't guarantee an easy route to the senior team and only a few have gone on to have prominent international careers. From the last two World Cup teams, only Sandeep Sharma and Sanju Samson have made it the international stage so far.
"You've seen lots of people play for U-19 India in the World Cup and all but then they get lost apart from from a few names like Kohli, Yuvraj and probably myself. Most of the guys play till Ranji and then disappear," Mohammad Kaif, who played two U-19 World cups told Firstpost.
So why exactly do they disappear?
"Competition, there is so much competition. It's not easy to play for India, a country of billion people where everyone aspires to be a cricketers," says Kaif.
"Your talent and sheer hard work matters. These next few years will be very important for them. Sometimes you react late or understand the game a little late so these next one-two year period will be very crucial for them. If they make a mark in this phase ,then people will recognise their talent," adds Kaif.
Cheteshwar Pujara, who was a part of the U-19 team which reached the finals of the 2006 U-19 World Cup and ended up as the Man of the Series, says that one of the reasons for disappearing into oblivion might be the lack of space in the Indian team but with sheer hard work, opportunities will surely knock the door.
"It depends on what kind of vacancies are there in the Indian team. When I was in the fringe of the Indian test team, we had likes of [Rahul] Dravid, [Sachin] Tendulkar, [Virender] Sehwag, [VVS] Laxman, [Gautam] Gambhir - all of them were performing well. Even if you are doing well at the first class level, you might not make it to the next level. That can be a reason for your opportunity to get delayed," Pujara told Firstpost.
"But if you keep working hard, and perform exceptionally well at the domestic level, you'll get your chance. With so much rotation going on in the ODI and T20 team, you never know, the opportunity will come sooner rather than later. When I was playing there was no IPL, immediately after Under-19. Now, these guys will have opportunities," Pujara added.
The arrival of Indian Premier League has given the youngsters the stage to showcase their talent and bring them into limelight. The likes of Sarfaraz Khan, Rishabh Pant, Ishan Kishan, Mahipal Lomror, Khaleel Ahmed, Ricky Bhui and Armaan Jaffer already have an IPL contract. All three - Sodhi, Pujara and Kaif - reckon that IPL does have an impact but domestic cricket especially first-class cricket is one of the most important stepping stones on en-route to international success.
"Since you are young, you are not very mature, it's a very tricky thing. The selectors shouldn't rush into taking decisions especially watching them play for India U-19 and at the same time the youngsters must understand that they are not ready for India as yet. They are nearly there but not a finished product yet," says Kaif.
"Bottom line is the four-day matches. You should be able to play well in the longer format and spend couple of years for your state team. You get to understand the game, the fitness level you require and the mental part of your game. Being really street-smart is also required at that level. The best example is Dhoni - Why is he surviving and doing really well this long? It's because he is street-smart. Galiyo aur mohalle me khelte hai na, wo wala cricketer hai wo."
"[Virat] Kohli himself has said that if I am able to play longer format well, the performances in ODIs and T20s will follow. Kohli knows it very well. All these youngsters whenever they get a chance, must try and spend some time with Kohli and learn how it helps to have the Test approach. Playing with and against the likes of Kohli, Chris Gayle, AB de Villiers, is the best thing that can ever happen to a young guy. But the IPL is not where you want to make your mark or shine, this is a great platform but if you want to become a complete player, then four-day cricket very crucial," Kaif adds.
While Pujara says that the aim of the youngsters should be to do well in whatever chances they get and learn as much as possible, he also stressed on the importance he gave to first-class cricket.
"After the World Cup I got into the first class team, I didn't get into it before actually," says Pujara. "I got an opportunity to be in Deodhar Trophy squad, then the Ranji team. First-class cricket is a learning experience, we are competing against more-experienced cricketers. In Duleep Trophy, Deodhar Trophy I got the chance to play with Zaheer Khan, Ajit Agarkar, and even Sachin paaji. I wanted to learn as much as possible from them," he adds.
For instance, right after the success of 2000 World Cup, Kaif was fast-tracked into the Indian Test team against South Africa in Bangalore. Kaif, by his own admission says he wasn't ready for it at all.
"I made my Test debut against South Africa in 2000 and I wasn't ready, there was no IPL (then). I was used to playing on low bounce wickets then suddenly you are picked for Tests, I was 20-21 and then suddenly I was facing [Allan] Donald, [Shaun] Pollock, [Nantie] Hayward, [Lance] Klusener, [Jacques] Kallis. You must be joking (I told myself)," says Kaif.
"Don't compare the young players to Sachin (Tendulkar), he was exception, a one in generation, player. I had come from a small town in Kanpur and suddenly I was playing Donald in Test matches. I was not ready. I was dropped also and with that experience I came back. I understood that if you have to survive at the level, you need to be working on your game. I didn't have the ability and skill to sustain at that level then."
Kaif says that it was only after playing Tests that he got an in-depth learning on cricket, especially watching how hard Tendulkar and Dravid trained.
"Times have changed now and cricket has come a long way. You play 2-3 years of Ranji Trophy competiting with the likes of Shreyas Iyer, Manoj Tiwary, Robin Uthappa, the top batsmen around India then you are comparing yourself to them like - 'Boss, they are scoring 1000 runs in the season, I will have to score atleast 900.' When this hunger creeps in, a player realises that he needs perfection in every area - technique, temperament, fitness level and mental aspect. That comes if you play 2-3 years of domestic cricket. The best example is Bhuvneshwar Kumar, he played under me and he played for 4-5 years in domestic arena before he played for India. He had played in almost every situation - on green top or paata [flat] wicket and as soon as he got a chance to play for the national team, he was ready and just grabbed the chance," Kaif adds.
One of the key part of these young kids' lives has been Rahul Dravid who has achieved success with these kids in such a short time. Kaif, Pujara and Sodhi were full of praise for the India legend. With Rahul Dravid, India's cricket future is in safe hands.
"[Dravid] is the perfect guy. I would love to have him around as a coach and a guardian. These guys are very lucky to spend 4-5 months with him. Dravid knows it all, he had worked hard, he wasn't probably that talented compared to players like Sachin. But I've seen him practising, I've played with him, he was a sheer hard-worker. You might have that talent but to learn how you grow in life this is the right guy," Kaif added.
Sodhi concurs too. "The best thing to happen to Indian cricket is Dravid has taken up the responsibility to mentor these guys in junior cricket," he says. "A legend spending his time with the youngsters is a huge learning. If guys like Sarfaraz, Armaan, Anmolpreet [Singh] have a one-to-one session with Dravid, that really makes a big difference. Traveling with him 24 hrs a day, talking to him continuously makes them more matured," he adds.
While reaching the World Cup final was an achievement in itself, the way they did it was even more impressive. Even in the final, they put up a brave fight. However, the important thing now is not to get too depressed with the final failure or too carried away with overall success.
"They've got a headstart. How they use it to their advantage depends on their hard work. It shouldn't be like 'Maine U-19 WC ka final khel liya, acha kar diya aab ghar aake baith jaoo," says Sodhi.
Kaif also spoke about the challenges that come with the modern times for these cricketers who, lest we forget, are still in their teens. "During my time there were not many distractions but in today's world there are distractions in form of social media, then you are constantly in limelight while playing the IPL. Social media has its advantages as you hear and get to follow so many knowledgeable people from whom you can learn a lot. But it's all about how you utilise for your own benefit."
It was one helluva ride for the youngsters that had come together just four months ago and had an impressive World Cup campaign. There were some flashes of brilliance, some disappointments and plenty of spark.
Before the start of the tournament Dravid has said, “Winning the Under-19 World Cups is honestly not the be all and end all of anything. In the end I will be happier if some of these guys go on and play for India. That should be their aim and real aspiration."
And these lines from The Wall himself, along with what these former cricketers have shared, should reverberate in their ears every time they step on the field to perform.