There are times when you are defined by a number.
For Vijay Zol, India’s Under-19 skipper, that number is 451. It’s even part of his email address. In the recent ODI series against Australia Down Under, Zol won the player of the series award. He was also part of the team that won the U19 World Cup last year but it was a remarkable knock of 451 that set him on his way.
It came in December 2011 – he was batting for Maharashtra Under-19s against the Assam Under-19s in the league match of the Cooch Behar Trophy in Nasik. Zol, who is left-handed and opens the innings, batted for nearly 11 hours, faced 467 deliveries, and hit 53 fours along with two sixes in that innings.
The innings got the attention of the national selectors and he hasn’t looked back since. Now 18, Zol believes that the innings is where it all began for him.
“You don’t really expect to play that kind of innings but that’s where it all started to come together for me. It allowed me to dream big,” Zol told Firstpost on the phone.
Former national selector Surendra Bhave, who is now coach of Maharashtra, recalls meeting Zol last year and what struck him most about the youngster was his attitude.
“He is a gritty customer,” said Bhave. “He’s got that going for him. He never gives up and always wants to stay in the middle. I met him when he was picked to represent Maharashtra in the Vijay Hazare trophy and the Mushtaq Ali T20 tournament and a knock of 109 against Mumbai in the T20 tournament stood out. He had all the shots and took us past 200.”
“The only thing I told him then was that he was a pure batsman. No bowling for him. So he had to work on his fielding. The way things are coaches are always looking players who can add value to the team with just their presence on the field. And now when I look at him, he certainly has taken a step up in that department too.”
Zol hails from Jalna, a district in Maharashtra. A quick trip to Wikipedia will tell you that the district is part of Aurangabad division. The district occupies an area of 7718 km. It has total 970 villages. Simply put, it is in the interiors – not Pune or Mumbai.
He started playing cricket at the age of 7 but it was only when he started attending the summer camp at the Kane Cricket Academy (the only academy in the district then) at the age of 10 that he decided on seriously pursuing cricket. A few good knocks for the district team at the under-14 level got the attention of the Maharashtra junior selectors.
“I like to play my shots,” said Zol. “But I also like to play big innings. A lot like Virender Sehwag.”
For any under-19 cricketer, the big challenge is bridging the gulf between the junior and senior levels and doing it with missing a step. It isn’t as easy as Virat Kohli made it look. Unmukt Chand impressed one and all with his brilliant batting at the 2012 under-19 World Cup in Australia but he still hasn’t quite found his range in domestic cricket (21 matches, 1296 runs at an average of 39.27).
“Well, that is why the innings against Mumbai in the T20 tournament was big for me. I wasn’t scared or nervous about batting against the seniors. But it was my first T20 tournament and there were still a few questions I wanted to answer. The knock against Mumbai, who are our biggest rivals, allowed me to answer that question. I was asking myself whether I will be able to do it and the knock was a good answer,” said Zol.
The Indian team has won three Under-19 World Cups. In 2000, they won it under the captaincy of Mohammad Kaif and in 2008, they won it under Virat Kohli's leadership and in 2012 under the captaincy of Unmukt Chand. Of the current team, Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma, Ravindra Jadeja and Kohli have all come up through the junior ranks. This is an important step in the life of a young cricketer.
Bhave reckons that the under-19 cricketers now train differently and being part of the under-19 set-up gives you the opportunity to get better quickly. It's like being on the fast track to stardom. You get access to better facilities and coaches early.
“In our day, we would train for five hours. We would bat and bat until we couldn’t stand. But the world has changed now. Now, it makes more sense to bat for two hours and work on your weakness,” said Bhave. “These under-19 players go to Australia and play against the short ball with confidence. They can do that because they are aware of their weaknesses. At this stage of his career, Zol needs to learn as much as he can, as fast as he can. He should have nothing else on his mind -- not India, not Maharashtra, not money.”
The under-19 teams have 45-day long camps at the NCA where every aspect of the game analysed over and over again. And then the players work on that very aspect till they are confident of pulling if off in an actual match situation. But mental strength is something that some are born with.
“Even in Australia, I just kept telling everyone in the team that we are world champions” said Zol. “We have to play like that. This is a new team. There are only four players who were part of the team that won the under-19 World Cup in this squad. It was important to let them realise that we are the champions.”
“The champions have a responsibility to go out and win. I needed to lead by example and winning all our matches in Australia was a great way to do it,” said Zol.
Zol’s attitude shows that not for a minute does he believe that he’s arrived at the big stage. Rather, it shows a hunger to get better with every passing day and that’s something no one can teach you.