“Getting selected to play for the state, from club cricket, is a jump. But the chasm between first-class cricket and Test cricket is huge. It requires an extra-long jump to reach there,” was what the legendary opener, Vijay Merchant used to say in his radio commentary in the 1960s.
That gap hasn’t narrowed in the last 50 odd years. If at all, it has widened.
The widening of the chasm between first-class cricket and Tests is a bit intriguing, though. Despite so many opportunities for players to show off their talent, in junior cricket, T20 matches, one-day matches and three or four-day first-class matches, getting into Test sides has become all the more difficult.
One plausible explanation for this is the option of playing for the country, in the shorter versions, without having to go through the tough grind, and the grit, that Test cricket demands.
Purists maintain that performing in limited-over matches – with the white ball – isn’t the same as doing well in a Test match. Test cricket, they believe, puts a player’s technique and strength of mind on trial, besides his will to survive five days of intense pressure; something that they call temperament.
Last week, after the India Under-19 squad trounced Australia to win the World Cup for a record fourth time, coach and mentor, Rahul Dravid had a word of advice for his young wards. He said that their quality would be known only after they played the Ranji Trophy back home, and fought for a place in India’s Test squad.
That for him was the real test of class!
It wasn’t surprising that five Indian players made it to the ICC Under-19 World Cup team, after their domination in the entire tournament. Mumbai’s prodigy, Prithvi Shaw, batting sensations, Manjot Kalra and Shubman Gill, left-arm spinner, Anukul Roy and pacer, Kamlesh Nagarkoti were selected to the prestigious squad for their outstanding contribution to India’s resounding win.
These players, and a few others, have shown that they have the mettle to succeed at the highest levels in cricket. It is how they perform, hereon, at the first-class level for their state teams and probably for the India ‘A’ team that will determine their future in the game.
Dravid, speaking about Virat Kohli’s rise in all forms of the game, had said a few months ago, that he had grown in stature on a day-to-day basis. “He has constantly evolved and reinvented himself. The intensity is there for everybody to see,” the legendary batsman had stated.
“When I saw Kohli after he led India to the Under-19 World Cup win in 2008, he wasn’t that good,” Dravid had confessed. But he believes that the India captain, thereon, worked relentlessly on his technique, his fitness and his attitude. “Every time I have seen him since then, he has only been an improved version of himself.”
The Under-19 players of 2018 have so many role models to look up to, in Kohli, Sachin Tendulkar, their mentor Dravid and a few others. One quality they can imbibe from these legends is the need to be better today than they were yesterday; to grow on a daily basis.
India has played the World Cup Under-19 final on six occasions since 2000, winning it four times. How many players from these six teams have played regularly for India in Tests? Only Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara, and to a lesser extent, Yuvraj Singh, Rohit Sharma and Ravindra Jadeja. Players like Mohammad Kaif, Ajay Ratra, Abhinav Mukund and Piyush Chawla have been in and out of the team, though they have done fairly well in the limited-over format.
Therefore out of a possible 85 players (making allowance for overlaps) who have played the finals of the Under-19 World Cup since 2000, only nine players have been good enough to play for India on a regular basis, either in Tests or ODIs.
The problem was that the others who played Under-19 cricket for India over the last 18 years – around 75 of them — did not really ‘grow up’. They never really made an effort to re-invent themselves.
The India Under-19 stars of 2018, therefore, now need to go back to the drawing board. This includes Prithvi Shaw who did fairly well at the first-class level last season. Each one of them has to put away their World Cup medals, in a safe place, forget about past glories and reset their goals.
They will need to work individually on their technical aspects and their fitness, perhaps with the advice of a good coach, trainer or mentor. An in-depth analysis of strengths and weaknesses would help them set their targets, for improvements, on a weekly, monthly and quarterly basis.
Shivam Mavi and Nagarkoti are excellent pace prospects for the country. They can work up good pace – in the 140-145 kph range – regularly. Not being big built, however, could cause them a few injuries, especially on slow, heartless Indian tracks. Therefore, working hard on their fitness and preserving themselves would be in India’s interests.
At a coaching seminar a few years ago, a former Mumbai batsman, who had played a few Tests and was by then a respected coach, was asked by a trainee the difference between batting at the club level, the first-class level and in Tests. His reply was: “In inter-club matches, you get three bad deliveries every over. In first-class games, you get one bad ball in six. In Tests, you get a bad delivery every five overs. It’s a different ball game; you have to change your mindset accordingly.”
It is a different ball game, and the earlier our Under-19 cricketers realise this the better it will be for them.
As much as they work on their skills, their fitness and their attitudes from now on, they would also do well to spend an hour everyday on toughening up mentally.
Exercises to stay in the moment, focusing, switching from narrow focus to intense focus every delivery, learning to get into the alpha-level at will etc. shall help them progress faster towards their desired goals. Cricket is a mind game as much as it is a technical and physical game. Who would know this better than their mentor, ‘The Wall’ himself?
Bob Willis was a tall, gangly fast bowler with a longish run up when he was called up, midway through an Ashes series Down Under, as replacement for Alan Ward. Greg Chappell at that time had said in an interview that if anyone plays Willis out in his first spell, he can be taken for runs in his second spell.
Willis then realised that he had to work on his endurance and fitness if he had to survive at the highest level. For the rest of his career, day in and day out, he would run for 30 minutes every morning. He did this even when he was playing a Test match. It was a change in mindset.
When he retired, Willis was considered to be one of the greatest fast bowlers to have played for England. He picked 325 wickets @ 25.20 in 90 Tests. What’s more, he won an Ashes Test on his own in 1981, at Headingley. With Australia requiring only 129 runs to win, on the final day, Willis picked 8-43 and helped England win by an improbable 18 runs!
Our Under-19 champs need a mindset change if they have to be India’s future Test stars.
The author is a caricaturist and sports writer. A former fast bowler and coach, he is now a sought after mental toughness trainer.