The fourth edition of the Under-19 World Cup was held in Bangladesh in 2004, and I had the good fortune of being deputed by my newspaper to report on it. I say that I was fortunate, because not all Indian newspapers take the Under-19 World Cup seriously – there is excitement if India do well, of course, but that's about it. It was one of my more memorable cricket ‘tours', not least because of my family's roots in Bangladesh, and the many friends we still have there.
In the three editions prior to that one – the inaugural one was in 1988, but the second and third ones followed only in 1998 and 2000 – players of the calibre of Brian Lara, Inzamam-ul-Haq, Sanath Jayasuriya, Chris Gayle, Virender Sehwag and Yuvraj Singh had made headlines, which suggested that the top performers in 2004 would also go on to great things. However, that wasn't quite the case with the class of 2004, though in Alastair Cook, Eoin Morgan (he represented Ireland), Angelo Mathews, Suresh Raina and Brendan Taylor, we had five future international captains in action.
Pakistan won the tournament. Only six of that team – Khalid Latif, Mansoor Amjad, Fawad Alam, Zulqarnain Haider, Wahab Riaz and Riaz Afridi – went on to represent their country at the senior level. The star of the tournament, though his team finished third overall after losing to Pakistan in the semifinal, was Shikhar Dhawan. He hit 505 runs, including three centuries.
That Indian team also had Raina, Robin Uthappa, RP Singh and Dinesh Karthik. Interestingly, the Australian side included Moises Henriques and, at the time, as now, he created quite a stir just by being there. A Portuguese-origin cricketer... that was a new one!
With the goings-on in Indian cricket as my template for the way things worked in general, I was quite surprised to learn that Henriques's performance at the World Cup might not really mean much in terms of an international career. Brian Freedman, the manager of the team, explained to me why so many Australian cricketers made their international debuts well into their late 20s or even early 30s. "This is only high school," he said. "The first step in the ladder. Performing well here means we (Cricket Australia) will keep an eye on the player and help him develop. Playing for Australia will come after he crosses many more hurdles."
This was in stark contrast with India. Yuvraj and Mohammad Kaif, as well as Virender Sehwag and Harbhajan Singh, or even Laxmi Ratan Shukla, had all been fast-tracked into the Indian team after their Under-19 success – as Irfan Pathan, Virat Kohli and others would be later. Part of my job as an Indian cricket journalist, obviously, was to spot future stars. Needless to say, with his headline-grabbing performances, Dhawan topped that list.
With Henriques then, going by what Freedman had told me, a delayed debut was only to be expected; with Dhawan, not so.
Of course, as an opening batsman, with Sehwag, Aakash Chopra, Wasim Jaffer, and later Gautam Gambhir around, there was the sort of wait that middle-order batsmen have had to endure for over a decade as the Dravid-Tendulkar-Ganguly-Laxman combine held firm. But Dhawan's wait was not only because of the lack of vacancies; it was also because, mentally, he just wasn't where he needed to be. That's why, although he might have been good enough in terms of talent and ball-hitting ability, others slipped past him in the waiting list.
Dhawan was a boy in a hurry. The early stardom made him, not arrogant, but over-confident, bordering on complacent. He had the shots; he thought he could play them every ball. He had a bit of the Caribbean flair in the way he went about hitting the ball, which he overdid sometimes. I'm glad he retains some of it, though, for he is certainly the more attractive for it.
He saw Raina and Uthappa reach the top, and knew he could too, but couldn't figure out what held him back. And so it is that he went from being an Under-19 star to the verge of non-entity-dom to the level-headed 27-year-old who realised he was throwing it all away, the mature player who bounced back.
I was glad to see the reaction of his mates in the Indian dressing room when he got close to his spectacular debut century in Mohali, and then when he got there. I was glad to see Vijay, his partner, show genuine emotion despite being put in the shade – outscored the way a Gayle or a Sehwag usually outscore their partners. Dhawan himself talked about Sachin Tendulkar telling him before the match, "We'd like to see your gutsy nature and shots over here." All of it suggested that everyone in the Indian team wanted, and backed, Dhawan to do well.
Dhawan has arrived. As has Vijay. The changes at the top of Indian Test batting order could, and possibly should, have come earlier, but thankfully, they have come now. Vijay is two years older than Dhawan and, like his new opening partner, almost wasted his great talent too. Now, if they can prove that the changes in their temperament are permanent, great times could be in store for fans of Indian cricket. Yes, they haven't performed abroad – in Australia, England or South Africa – yet. That will happen too, I'm sure, with time.