The inaugural edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL), in 2008, was held within months of Virat Kohli’s side lifting the Under-19 World Cup in Kuala Lumpur. Several members of that squad, picked by the eight franchises through a draft, featured in various playing elevens with only reasonable success.
Many Indian youngsters outside of the World Cup-winning team too populated the IPL landscape, most notably for Rajasthan Royals under Shane Warne. Tightly drawn purse-strings necessitated them to think out of the box; Warne’s wondrous man-management skills brought the best out of players like Swapnil Asnodkar, Ravindra Jadeja, and Yusuf Pathan as Rajasthan threw pre-competition predictions out of the window on their way to the title.
Since those early days when rules mandated that they pick budding youngsters, franchises have been conservative while investing in untapped Indian talent. Admittedly, the likes of Jasprit Bumrah and Hardik Pandya broke through, but they were the exceptions. Until Season 13, that is.
The United Arab Emirates has thrown up a kaleidoscopic explosion of exceptional Indian influence. By definition, the IPL is driven by indigenous capabilities, what with no more than four overseas players allowed in an eleven. But hitherto dependent on established Indian superstars, franchises have been rewarded this time around for placing their faith in lesser-known domestic players who have responded to the show of confidence in stirring fashion.
Let’s sample this collection. Devdutt Padikkal. Priyam Garg. Abhishek Sharma. Abdul Samad. Shivam Mavi. Kamlesh Nagarkoti. Varun Chakravarthy. Ravi Bishnoi. Riyan Parag. Rahul Tewatia. Mahipal Lomror. A few had played the odd game previously but were not persisted with for four or five matches at a stretch. Now, allowed by their teams to express themselves and show the world what they are capable of, they have taken wing, rapidly moving towards making themselves household names.
One of the reasons these names were able to start is the tournament was the long hiatus in cricketing activity owing to the coronavirus pandemic. When teams assembled in the UAE to dust off the rust and kick-start their preparations, the youngsters took less time to get back into the fitness and skills scheme of things than more battle-hardened, and battle-weary, players for whom the route back was just that little more arduous. The first tick in the box earned somewhat fortuitously, they have subsequently made their own luck, unleashing one impact performance after another to firmly train the spotlight on themselves.
It has helped, too, that the tournament is being staged outside India, and in front of empty stands. For a 19- and 20-year-old to walk into a cauldron like the Chinnaswamy Stadium or Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium, with 30,000-plus fans creating an electrifying atmosphere of unceasing din and crackling energy, can be a daunting proposition. Accustomed only to playing in front of the proverbial two men and a dog, nerves have come in the way of meaningful displays in the past. Insulated from that pressure and therefore not intimidated by the noise, colour and weight of instant success, they have been able to ease into the competition, left solely to focus on their skills and on how to outsmart the best in the opposition ranks.
What has been most notable is the composure and poise these kids have shown. No longer nervous wrecks sharing a dressing-room with Kohli, David Warner or Steve Smith, or being coached by legends like Anil Kumble, VVS Laxman, Ricky Ponting and Mahela Jayawardene, their immense self-belief has been a thing of beauty. They look the part, like they belong on the largest non-international stage in the cricketing stratosphere. Confident without being cocky, assured but not arrogant, they have struck the right chord with their more illustrious teammates who have readily and willingly shared their expertise and wisdom. The synergy between the young and those not overly so, as well as between the proven and the ambitious, has been a standout feature of IPL 2020, possibly a template around which franchises will construct their campaigns going forward.
In their success too is a ringing endorsement of the robust grassroots structure prevalent in Indian cricket. Like Kohli and Jadeja, like Kings XI lynchpins KL Rahul and Mayank Agarwal, many of these players have come through the ranks, and are therefore steeped in orthodoxy and strong basics. Because they play so much competitive cricket when still in their teens, they are comfortably match-ready by the time they graduate out of the junior ranks, the sense of being overawed weaned away in the last five years by Rahul Dravid primarily.
The former India skipper took over as coach of the India ‘A’ and India Under-19 teams in 2015 and continued in that role for four years. Under him, a majority of these newcomers, as well as the likes of the other Rahul, Agarwal, Prithvi Shaw, Shreyas Iyer and Rishabh Pant, learnt the nuances not just of run-making, but also the keys to handling pressure, to confronting the twin impostors that failure and success are. The germination of the seeds of triumph hasn’t transpired overnight; through unrelenting adherence to the basic principles of focus, an uncompromising work ethic and a desire to be the best versions of themselves, these precocious young Turks are rapidly making their presence felt. Without ever giving the impression that an eye-catching display is a mere flash in the pan.
Padikkal has held his own in a Royal Challengers Bangalore batting line-up also containing Kohli, AB de Villiers and Aaron Finch, with three fifties in his first four innings. Sunrisers Hyderabad’s Garg, India’s skipper at this year’s Under-19 World Cup in South Africa in February, batted with the fluency of a virtuoso in registering a half-century on Friday, while Kings XI Punjab leg-spinner Bishnoi, also 20 like Padikkal, has showcased a strength of character that must make the fighter in coach Kumble proud. The sweeping winds of change may not be here yet, but you can sense that they are near. Very, very near.