The first 10 days of IPL 2021 has seen some tight matches, close finishes, terrific performances from several stalwarts and old League hands, as is only to be expected. The more notable feature, however, has been the emergence of a new line of Indian players making an impact.
Harshal Patel, Chetan Sakariya, Shahbaz Ahmed, Avesh Khan, Shah Rukh Khan – to name a few – have caught the eye with their skills. Some already look like they are integral to their team’s plans (Harshal, for instance), several others look like they are at least equipped to handling the challenges of ultra-competitive cricket.
Going by how the past few domestic seasons – particularly the IPL -- have panned, this should not really be surprising. Every tournament has thrown up new faces, some of whom have gone on to don India colours, and have either secured their places or are among the frontrunners viz Ishan Kishan, Deepak Chahar, Suryakumar Yadav, Mohammed Siraj, Navdeep Saini, Prasidh Krishna, Devdutt Padikkal etc. Young Indian talent, ambitious of making it to the top, is now a flood.
The 2020-21 season has been even remarkable for India in many ways: snatching an improbable Test series win in Australia, hammering England in the Test rubber at home after losing the first Test and making it to the final of the inaugural World Test Championship have been stellar achievements in the five-day format.
Successes in white-ball cricket too have been profuse: one out of two series’s won in Australia, both against England won, albeit in tight finishes. The successful hosting of two IPL seasons during the Covid pandemic (hopefully the current one will finish without a glitch) has been the icing on the cake, as it were.
A constant feature in these successes throughout the preceding six-month period has been the emergence of youngsters with meagre experience and fringe players, becoming match-winners on arrival.
Because of the pandemic, India’s squads for the red and white ball series in Australia had to be overloaded with players. Usually, the squad for each series are restricted to 15, 16 or 17. Since travel is not easy in these times, and quarantine rules in most countries are hard, replacements were almost impossible.
That the BCCI can afford to send more players is one part of the story. The other is how some youngsters rose to eminence as the injury-hit Test squad tried to fight off annihilation in the Test series after being dismissed for an ignominious, potentially soul scarring 36 in the first Test.
Rishabh Pant became the toast of the cricket world, showing panache and spunk with the bat though he was not the first choice wicket-keeper batsman in the series. He not only salvaged his place in the Indian team but has become arguably the biggest threat to opponents.
Mohammed Siraj, after making his debut in Australia, was forced to be the spearhead of the pace attack as injuries claimed Shami, Bumrah, Umesh Yadav. Yes, he did have the benefit of playing several India A matches, but playing for the national team makes a far greater demand on skills and temperament. Siraj took on the onus like a veteran.
Even fringe players to the Test squad made their presence count. Washington Sundar and Shardul Thakur went to Australia for the white-ball matches. T Natarajan went only as a net bowler and was forced into the Test side because the tour selection committee ran out of players.
All three made significant contributions to India’s unexpected and extraordinary triumph. Back home, Axar Patel, who has been around for some years, got the opportunity to play Tests against England since Ravindra Jadeja was still injured, and turned in a spectacular debut series performance, matching R Ashwin almost wicket-for-wicket.
The role of the IPL in expanding India’s cricketing talent pool as well as making young players more robust for competition at an early age is now well known. Every franchise (there are eight of them, like to go up to 10 next year), recruits about a score of Indian players each, of varying experience.
Scouts for these franchises are always looking out for fresh talent, which they divert into the pipeline. Some of them are early successes (e.g. Bumrah, Pandya brothers), some take a few years to make an impact before making the cut for the national team (e.g Suryakumar Yadav), some remain in the running by being consistent performers (Unadkat, Harshal).
Of course, the mortality rate can be high too. Paul Valthaty was a one-season wonder and a second season casualty. But where the IPL has been hugely beneficial to Indian cricket is in exposing young talent to some of the best in the world in a competitive environment.
This facilitates speed learning. Where players (barring the most gifted) used to take 5-6 years in a domestic tournament to get to a level of excellence, this can now happen in a season or two in the IPL. It’s not just about enhancing skills, but also temperament, the ability to absorb and handle pressure, the capacity to understand game situations.
This came through tellingly in the high-octane, high-pressure Test series against Australia where a largely young and inexperienced bunch of players turned the tables on the home team. They had not only seen and played alongside or against many of the Aussies to know their strengths and weaknesses but had also steeled themselves to tackle tense, tough situations through their IPL experience.
The IPL is a huge factor in the rise of cricketing excellence in India, but not the only one. As the footprint of the sport has expanded, with more and more players being tapped from the remotest parts of the country, it has also made competition to survive among Indian players more and more intense.
Till 30-35 years back, cricket was a passage to a job and securing livelihood for most players. Today, cricket itself is the livelihood, jobs are only perfunctory or decorative, and financially ill-rewarding unless one is extremely good at cricket. This means Indian players have to be on their toes, if not constantly improving to keep their noses ahead of the competition.
In the list of contracted players released by the BCCI last week, only three – Kohli, Rohit and Bumrah – feature in the A+ category. Perhaps a case could have been made for Rishabh Pant, who has made a quantum jump in performances, and Ravindra Jadeja, who is the only other one assured of a place in all three formats for India.
The more interesting is Category A, B and C. Apart from Cheteshwar Pujara and Ravichandran Ashwin who would be a certainty, and to a large extent even Ajinkya Rahane, all the others in that list have serious competition. Not just one, but perhaps twice over.
This has heightened insecurity for players, compelling them to continuously improve their skills and performances, which in turn has enhanced the quality and strength of Indian cricket.