All the world loves a young champion. Who can forget a 16-year-old Sachin Tendulkar taking Pakistan's spin maestro Abdul Qadir to the cleaners, or Boris Becker smashing his way to a maiden Wimbledon men’s title. Significantly Becker was younger than the boys’ champion that year.
But often a particular branch of a sport treats its young purveyors harshly.
Washington Sundar, the 18-year-old all-rounder, was inducted into the Indian team for the second One-Day International (ODI) against Sri Lanka in Mohali on Wednesday. He had the cushion of 392 runs to bowl with, and they youngster did reasonably well in his debut match. A final analysis of 10-0-65-1 was pretty encouraging, particularly as he looked at ease in the middle.
Cricket, though, is a peculiar game; it bestows favours on young batsmen and fast bowlers but not spinners, particularly the ones who have not put in sufficient miles in training, matches and tough situations.
L Sivaramakrishnan, 17, for instance, was the youngest Indian to make his Test debut, till Tendulkar came along. The leg-spin sensation later bagged 12 wickets and bowled India to victory over England in the Mumbai Test. Siva also excelled in the Asia Cup in Sharjah and World Championship of Cricket in Australia in 1985.
Yet, the very next year, by the age of 21, he had played his last Test. A year later he was out of ODI cricket too. By 22 his best cricket was behind him.
Left-arm spinner Maninder Singh was 17 years and 6 months when he made his India debut. He was hailed as successor to spin bowling legend Bishen Singh Bedi and did pretty well in a couple of series.
But then things went awry after he lost his bowling rhythm. He had just 88 wickets to show from 35 Tests. He made two comebacks only because a few believed he could regain his action. By the time he was 27 years of age, selectors ran out of patience.
Narendra Hirwani bagged 16 wickets on his Test debut against West Indies. He was just 19 years of age. He lasted all of eight years before being dumped. His record of 66 wickets from 17 Tests was better than Maninder’s, but still below-average.
Another spinner who made his debut when still in his teens was Ravi Shastri. He was 18 when he was summoned to New Zealand. Shastri though, was one smart cookie. He became a batsman and scored 11 Test centuries, with spin-bowling as a secondary skill.
Interestingly, young batsmen have had better luck. There is a huge list of Indian batsmen who enjoyed longevity and great success. The list includes Tendulkar, Sunil Gavaskar, Rahul Dravid, GR Vishwanath, Dilip Vengsarkar, among others.
The logic is that young batsmen have arrogance on their side and are hence unperturbed by reputation of rival bowlers. In fact, they look forward to denting a few egos. By the time the consequences of their feat sink in, a couple of years would have gone by. By then, either the batsman would have made a name for himself, or fallen by the wayside. And in India, there is so much competition and talent that selectors don’t care if they let go of some talent en route.
So why is it different with spinners? Why do they come a cropper all too soon?
The reasons are not difficult to fathom. Young spinners would not have done sufficient groundwork during their formative years. An aspiring spinner would need to bowl 500 overs-a-year at all levels and forms of the game — college, club, other representative matches — and been in different situations to understand the challenges of his art.
This could include bowling on turning tracks, flat tracks, with new ball, old ball, to sloggers, defensive players, ones using their feet, right-handers, left-handers, etc. This would include bowling in tight situations or with the luxury of huge totals where the spinner could afford to buy wickets.
A few seasons thus would toughen him and prepare him better to face the harsh reality of international cricket.
India’s latest spinner, Washington Sundar, for instance, has played just 12 first-class matches and bowled a mere 290 overs. Fifteen of his 30 wickets have come in just two matches. How could he be expected to rise to the occasion and bowl in challenging situations when he simply has no experience to fall back on?
In an old interview, spin legend Bishan Singh Bedi was quoted as saying, “I keep hearing about pitching it in the right areas. The right areas is between your ears, in your mind. Cricket ability and cricket sense are two different things.
“A young spinner has to bowl and bowl and bowl. I would feel good only when I had bowled sufficient hours to get the confidence first in the nets which then I could take into the match. It took me a long, long time to learn good bowling. I would bowl at least seven to eight hours every day. I was obsessed.”
It is not just Bedi who believes that spinners have to toil long and hard before they learn the art. Others hold that spinners ought to be kept away from limited-overs cricket till they are 21 years of age. They believe Maninder Singh’s deterioration was due to the limited-overs cricket he played in north India during summers.
Pointedly, Indian Premier League (IPL) has no place for spinners below the age of 17.
Spinners tend to push the ball flat rather than impart more revolutions to it when they seek to curtail scoring. This gradually wrecks a young spinner’s faith in his art. Once he starts doubting his ability, his confidence and bowling would fall apart.
International cricket is a harsh place to be in if a bowler is short of confidence. Mike Gatting took it on himself to destroy Sivaramakrishnan’s confidence. Other batsmen in Indian first-class cricket did the rest.
Likewise, Maninder Singh was swept out of the game by Graham Gooch.
Hirwani, after he became a coach, said every young spinner has to bowl 90 to 100 overs a day in the nets. He believed in muscle memory.
Hopefully, Washington Sundar will buck the trend. He has not put in enough hours at this stage of his career. However the selectors have thrown him into the deep end and hope he'd come out well. The sooner he learns from the mistakes of others the better for him and Indian cricket.