The first thing that strikes you about the ICC Under-19 World Cup is the young fast bowlers are well ahead of the batsmen in their development. There’s one striking exception; the tantilising talents of Indian left-arm orthodox spinner Harmeet Singh. He bowls like Bishan Bedi with that same natural flight and guile that would place him right now as the best spin bowler in any Test side bar England. Harmeet has all the skills to be a successful spinner, given he has the necessary temperament to handle the tough environment that is international cricket and a sympathetic skipper.
And that leads to the question; is the Under-19 competition the right career path to the top level? That question requires a double-barrel answer. It is for the bulk of the players, a few of whom will make it to international cricket, while the majority will fade away to life as an obscure trivial pursuit question. However, it’s not the right thoroughfare for exceptional talents like Harmeet and one or two other players on show in Townsville. The very best players need to be constantly challenged from a young age and that means regularly being upgraded when they have success at a lower level.
I recall an exasperated Rod Marsh when he was head coach at the Australian Academy blurting out; “Thank heavens for Tasmania.” When I asked why, he replied; “They pick young players on ability not age.” Their selectorial wisdom resulted in the fast tracking of David Boon and Ricky Ponting. That’s why the big money needs to be spent on finding the right selectors rather than lavished on a small town population of coaches who often make decisions to justify their existence rather than in the best interests of the players.
A cricketer like Harmeet will stagnate if he’s left for too long at a lower level and that leads to sloppy habits. Harmeet’s well and truly ready for the challenge from Virat Kohli and company with a view to inclusion in the national side.
The other U-19 player in that category is the Indian captain Unmukt Chand. He’s a very talented batsman and should also be consistently plying his trade at a higher level. Both Harmeet and Chand have played first-class cricket but it isn’t doing their games any good to include them in an Under-19 World Cup even if it does help India win the trophy. There’s always a temptation to win another trophy but it mustn’t be done at the cost of a young player’s development. Rodney was right; players must be chosen on their skill level not their age.
India is the envy of the other major nations. Their best young batsmen (in Townsville and at home) are technically better than most of their counterparts from the other Test playing nations. All the Indian players need is regular exposure to bouncy surfaces against strong opposition and the national team’s recent travails in England and Australia will soon be a thing of the past.
Australia on the other hand seems to be going through a period of producing solid but unspectacular batsmanship. It’s unclear at the top level where the next dominant young Ponting or Michael Clarke is coming from and that picture becomes no clearer after watching the Under 19’s play.
Cricket needs artistic and dominant batsmen of varying styles but the future in that regard is not looking so rosy. The question needs to be asked; are the methods being used to develop young batsmen the right ones?
I’d like to see an alternative option provided where young batsmen get the opportunity to develop along the lines of Sachin Tendulkar and other successful international batsmen. That way they play a lot of pick up matches either on a maidan, in a backyard or on a street and develop naturally so they don’t look like they’ve dropped off the end of a coaching conveyor belt.
Young batsmen who have to face the likes of Harmeet Singh are going to need sharp footwork and an agile brain. I don’t see the current method whereby a young player has to endure hours of structured net sessions and endless deliveries from a bowling machine producing batsmen with those capabilities.