India's young hopes

Print edition : August 17, 2002

The infusion of talented young players to support the old warriors is expected to give India the right blend to ascend once again the heights of cricketing glory.

THE magic of youth, with its uninhibited flair, energy, dash and exuberance, has the power to obliterate everything else from sight. Therein lies the danger for Indian cricket.

The triumphant chase of 326 at Lord's on July 13, when India so sensationally lifted the NatWest Trophy, was both stirring and soul-lifting. The hectic 'race to the tape' was orchestrated by youngsters Yuveraj Singh and Mohammed Kaif from a 'Death or Glory' situation.

Mohammed Kaif.-N. SRIDHARAN

It is wonderful that India has found some talented young batsmen in Yuveraj, Kaif, and Virender Sehwag. Now, at least in batting, India has an ideal blend of youth and experience, which is a healthy sign for the big battles ahead.

Over the years, most successful sides have possessed the right blend of young turks and old warriors, complementing each other in a 'team' effort. With these bright new players coming in, India now has an opportunity to accomplish just that. Kaif & Co. can provide the side the much-needed thrust, with their fast running between the wickets and swiftness on the field, not to speak of their skills with the willow.

The 21-year-old Kaif is a particular favourite with coach John Wright for his work ethics. He works hard on his cricket and fitness, and his commitment to the game and his team is total.

During a recent chat show in Chennai, Aussie Test captain Steve Waugh threw light on 'mental toughness,' the hallmark of his game, and the most essential attribute for an international cricketer. According to Steve, mental toughness was not only about walking out in a pressure situation and taking on the quicks. It was also about getting simple things right, such as "batting or bowling at the nets as you do in a match, doing the things you know best time and again at the nets before it becomes a habit, and never taking easy options by skipping a session."

Steve was driving home the point that practice makes perfect, providing a cricketer with the necessary self-belief and eventually mental toughness. Kaif is a prime example. Easily, the fittest Indian cricketer today, the Allahabad lad is a product of the system, gradually rising from the ranks. Kaif was a member of the Indian Under-15 and Under-19 World Cup winnings sides, and excelled for India 'A'. In other words, he was not rushed into 'big time' cricket.

A friendly, likable person with a ready smile, Kaif is respectful towards his seniors and is a willing listener. Said Wright about Kaif late last year: "His passion for the game is bound to take him far."

Wright is right. From the dusty lanes of Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh to celebrity status, Kaif's rise has not been without its share of disappointments, but he has displayed the strength of mind to tide over them.

A wristy player with a penchant to coax the ball into the empty spaces, Kaif does bring the oriental elegance into play, whether driving the ball through the covers, flicking in the arc between mid-wicket and square-leg, or cutting and sweeping. His subtle touch also enables him to rotate the strike, an asset in any form of cricket. And his razor-sharp mind is always alert to the possibility of a 'pinched' single.

In recent times, he has worked on the pull stroke as well, with his keen eye and reflexes enabling him to pull in front of square. Something that he did to good effect during that dramatic run chase at Lord's staying until the end and scoring 87 off 75 balls amidst excruciating tension.

Apart from his back-foot play and his hare-like running between the wickets, what shone through Kaif's game was his equanimity in a crisis situation. He has a cool head, is seldom ruffled or intimidated, and could, in the years to come, develop into a fine Test batsman in the middle-order.

It is in the Tests that Kaif will be itching to improve his record. He is still in search of his first 50, despite playing four Tests - one against South Africa at home and three against Sri Lanka, all in 2000.

A simple devout Muslim, Kaif has received great support from his family; his father Mohammed Tarif played the Ranji Trophy for Uttar Pradesh, while brother Saif, a pace-bowling all-rounder, was in the national reckoning during the mid-1990s. Each time Kaif walks into the field wearing the India cap, he carries with him their hopes.

Virender Sehwag.-GEMUNU AMARASINGHE/AP

YUVERAJ too is living his father Yograj's unfulfilled cricketing dreams. Yograj, a fast medium bowler from Haryana, represented India in just one Test during the early 1980s, but Yuveraj's career promises to be a more fulfilling one.

A flamboyant left-hander, 20-year-old Yuveraj, has already gone through a whole gamut of emotions in the rollercoaster ride that international cricket is. A smashing start in the ICC Knock-out tournament in Kenya in 2000, where he destroyed the powerful Australian and South African attacks, was followed by a barren, frustrating phase where he was found wanting in both temperament and footwork against spinners. His earlier adulation now a distant memory, Yuveraj found himself out in the cold. Was he just a shooting star?

He worked on his footwork, piled up runs in domestic cricket, and forced the selectors to pick him again. He made a 'headline-grabbing' comeback in the Hyderabad one-day international against the Zimbabweans this year, scripting a victory from a precarious situation, along with Kaif. An effortless striker of the ball with the ability to clear the ground with ease, Yuveraj is a rare match-winner. There may be days when he fails, but on the occasions that he comes good, he provides his side victory or takes it within striking distance, as he did with his 63-ball 69 on that momentous day at Lord's.

His innings-building skills have improved, an aspect visible even in the all-action world of one-day cricket. He builds up the tempo gradually, and is a more mature player these days. What stands out in Yuveraj's batting is the speed with which he is able to pick the length and launch into an aggressive stroke against the pacemen. At least in the ODIs, he has looked a much better player of spin.

Yuveraj's left-arm spin has proved handy in the ODIs, but it is his razor-sharp fielding that really enhances his value to the side. The quickness with which he is ready for a throw after flinging himself to stop the speeding ball is astonishing. Prowling at the 'most likely' areas, he also has the habit of hitting the stumps.

Kaif too is a gifted fielder with his anticipation and speed, always striving to convert half-chances, and it goes without saying that Kaif and Yuveraj have lifted the standard of Indian fielding.

THERE is also Virender Sehwag, whose explosive strokeplay can change the course of a match in a hurry, with shots of awesome power. The Delhi batsman's 'thrill-a-minute' 70-ball effort against New Zealand in a crucial final league game of the triangular ODI series in Sri Lanka in 2001 thrust him into the forefront. Runs flowed in a cascade from his blade that day, and soon a Sri Lankan journalist tapped this writer's shoulder asking "Doesn't he remind you of Sachin Tendulkar?"

While comparisons at this stage are far-fetched, Sehwag has miles to go before he can match Sachin. He is a quiet, no-nonsense cricketer, who has consolidated on the chances that have come his way.

A stroke-filled century against South Africa in Bloemfontein last year was an ideal start to his Test career; he does have the temperament to match his stroke-play. When the role of a Test opener was thrust on him during the recent India-England match, he responded with a typically hard-hitting 84.

However, it is in the ODIs that he has made his mark with his booming strokes. His footwork is adequate, and he hits through the line more often than not.

Injuries have haunted 23-year-old Sehwag, but the setbacks were temporary. Throw in his handy off-spin and above-average fielding, and you have a useful performer for India.

Yuveraj Singh.-MAX NASH/AP

Punjab's Dinesh Mongia may lack Sehwag's dazzling stroke-play, but he is a steady, dependable middle-order batsman, who knows the art of building and pacing an innings. Mongia excelled in the opening slot during the ODIs against the Zimbabweans, and has been unlucky to be pushed up and down the order. Given his appetite for runs and hard work, an opportunity might come his way sooner rather than later. Mumbai's Wasim Jaffer, a young opener with sound back-foot play, has the temperament and the ability for a long-distance 'ride' in Tests.

On the bowling front, the Indian pace quartet in England - Ashish Nehra, Zaheer Khan, Ajit Agarkar and Tinu Yohannan - is a young bunch, and in this pack, left-armers Nehra and Zaheer, do hold out promise. They displayed a stomach for battle during the Caribbean campaign, operating at a brisk pace and moving the ball tellingly on occasion. However, the two, along with the erratic Agarkar, will have to work on their consistency, a factor that made Kapil such a great bowler. As for Yohannan, the Kerala youngster has the right build for a paceman, bowls a mean off-stump line, and if he adds a yard of pace, might have a definite future for India. With Javagal Srinath no longer available for Test cricket, the relatively inexperienced pace attack will have to respond to the huge challenge in the days to come.

Among the spinners, 22-year-old Harbhajan Singh already has 100 Test scalps despite the ups and downs, and should clearly be the leader of the Indian spin attack in the years to come. He could be supported by left-arm spinner Murali Kartik, a competent young bowler, rather shabbily treated by the selectors so far.

On the wicket-keeping front, the pugnacious Ajay Ratra is only 21, and his understudy, Parthiv Patel, just 17. It is evident that youth has now found a firm place in Indian cricket.

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