VVS Laxman believes IPL has helped youngsters improve their game © AFP
VVS Laxman believes IPL has helped youngsters improve their game © AFP

Season 10 of the IPL is just about slipping into its third week and, as is the norm, we have already had some spectacular individual performances and several close finishes. For nearly two months in April-May for the last 10 years most television sets in the country are tuned to the IPL action from 8 PM — and from 4 PM on double-header days — and it has been no different this time around either.

One of the standout features of this tournament thus far is the number of young Indian players standing up and asking to be counted. Sanju Samson is a bit of an IPL veteran who is now into his fifth season, but he still is a very young man. At 22, he joined the list of centurions in the tournament, something that I always felt was bound to happen given how immensely talented he is. Almost as impressive as Samson have been Rishabh Pant, only 19, a fearless Nitish Rana who seems to have made the No. 3 spot in Mumbai Indians his own and Manan Vohra, another young man with an abundance of fearless skills.

The IPL serves many huge purposes, but one of its main contributions to Indian cricket has been the rapid progress made by youngsters willing to cash in on the wonderful opportunities that come their way. There was a time when cricketers were singularly unprepared for the challenges of international cricket which are completely different from domestic cricket. It is in that regard as much as anything else that IPL serves as the bridge. It is not quite international cricket, but it exposes the young Indian cricketer to all the trappings of the international stage so that by the time he graduates to the next level, he is ready for the pressures and demands of the global stage.

When we were taking baby strides towards an India cap, our only really exposure beyond domestic cricket was through Under-19 tours where we played against players from other countries who were pretty much of the same level standard-wise as us. For all the preparation, there is nothing like the real thing, and that is where the current generation of cricketers are extremely lucky. Not only does the IPL allow them to watch and observe and learn, but also to hone their skills under the guidance of top players from around the world, who are happy to share their knowledge and expertise within their respective dressing-rooms.

The young Indians have a glorious chance to watch how the top players prepare for a match —from skills and fitness perspective as well as from a mental point of view. International stars all know that they are encompassed by massive expectations, and they do their utmost to fulfil those expectations. For that, you need to perform within your bubbles at times. To be able to be exposed to such methods during their formative days in competitive cricket is a great boon that many of the emerging Indian players have already put to good use.

To be surrounded by greatness in the dressing-room, and to be able to bat against some of the best bowlers in the world or to bowl to some of the best batsmen in the globe in your practice sessions, is an invaluable experience for the likes of Pant, Rana and Vohra, as well as a Siddarth Kaul or a Basin Thampi. In domestic cricket the standard of the bowling or the batting is not consistently threatening or incisive; by playing against the big guns, both in nets and in matches, these players are in the perfect space to see where they stand as cricketers, what areas they need to work on, and what it takes to succeed at the highest level.

The other aspect IPL addresses is the issue of big-match atmosphere and the attendant big-match pressure. Almost every game is a pivotal game in the larger picture which means there is no scope to relax mentally. All matches are played in front of packed crowds at the venue and millions more watching on television. While that is a wonderful experience, it all means that as and when you graduate to the next stage, you are not overawed by the occasion. You have already played in front of huge crowds, under lights, with every ball an event and every victory a celebration. It is the perfect schooling ground as you look to move up the ranks.

One of the fallouts of being successful in IPL is that you become a household name in a very short span of time. One may score runs by the thousands or take a bushel of wickets in First-Class cricket, but if you have a half-decent IPL season, then you will leave the domestic performer way behind in the visibility stakes. That is a truism that one must both understand and accept; but along with visibility and fame comes the need to be equanimous, humble and balanced, and that is a challenge that, I will be delighted to see increasingly from the young guns.

In front of them are examples of such outstanding cricketers as Yuvraj Singh and Virat Kohli, who were carried away by the materialistic trappings that come with success and name, with fame and riches. For a while, Yuvraj and Virat seemed to go off the boil, but they realised in time that everything that came their way was only because of cricket, only because they played the game well. In them, there are great role models for the youngsters, who must realise that it is cricket, and cricket alone, that will keep them in the limelight.

A prime example of a beneficiary of this line of thought is KL Rahul. In the matter of one season he went from a potentially good batsman to a very good all-format batsman. Rahul’s 2016 stint with Royal Challengers Bangalore saw him spend a lot of time with Virat in a closeted, close environment. Just by spending time with Virat, by watching the diligence and commitment with which he pursued the sport, Rahul picked up tips that no amount of classroom-coaching will ever teach. I will attribute his growth as a fantastic performer in all versions entirely to his time with RCB, and his innate desire to learn the right things.

IPL has taught young Indians to be intrepid, fearless and creative without being reckless or facetious. Fitness and fielding standards have improved out of sight, and there is a constant push to get better so that they stay on the radar of the selectors and in the consciousness of the cricket-following populace.

Having said that, it is important to keep delivering in domestic cricket so that you are not merely labelled as an IPL specialist. There have been instances in the past of people doing brilliantly in IPLs but precious little in between, in domestic tournaments. It is important for these youngsters to remember that for them to nudge closer to an India cap they need to perform consistently across formats in domestic competitions. There will be greater weight to performances in IPL because of the factors we have discussed earlier — the quality of competition, the scale of the event, the pressures of playing in front of big crowds and under lights. But if you do not want to be just an IPL-to-IPL star, then there is no alternative to regular domestic performances.

IPL has ensured that players get perhaps more money than they do playing domestic cricket. I am not against players being rewarded financially, but it is also essential that these players are counselled on how to handle the financial windfall. Again, it is refreshingly heartening to see several of these younger kids being so smart about managing their money. The growing realisation that no amount of money can compensate for the standing and recognition that performances at the international level brings with it would be one of the biggest gains from the IPL, essentially a domestic tournament with a vast international flavour.