"IPL contract dilao, sir," a 16-year-old Sarfaraz Khan pestered the Indian team manager at the 2014 Under-19 World Cup in the United Arab Emirates. A few of his team-mates had been picked up in the auctions for the premier Twenty20 tournament, and Sarfaraz too had benefitted from Sanju Samson's Rajasthan Royals experience during a match-defining partnership against Pakistan.
Sarfaraz, keen to get on the bandwagon, was not yet eligible for the IPL, as he had not represented Mumbai's senior team then. His turn eventually came through Royal Challengers Bangalore in the 2015 Pepsi Indian Premier League, and his cheeky 21-ball 45 against Rajasthan in a rain-curtailed game immediately put him under the spotlight. By then, Rajasthan's Deepak Hooda had already gained in stature with two match-winning performances and Shreyas Iyer had successfully carried his Ranji Trophy form into the Delhi Daredevils camp.
Samson and Kuldeep Yadav apart, Sarfaraz, Hooda and Shreyas Iyer are the other three from that 2014 U-19 batch to have adapted well to franchise cricket so far. All special talents with a willingness to learn, they were earmarked for higher honours early. However, it is the beginning of a potentially long and arduous journey for them, where there will be more lows than highs. The cameos from Sarfaraz and Hooda were followed by a trough, and indicate a trend youngsters need to be wary of.
"When you first come into T20, a lot of people don't know you. They don't know your strengths and weaknesses, especially young players. So you can have a good 20-30 balls in a game. But as you start playing more, teams strategise better," Rahul Dravid had cautioned during the course of this IPL. And that seemed prophetic when it came to Sarfaraz and Hooda too.
The opposition immediately worked out their strong zones, set fields accordingly and dried up the scoring areas. Exposed on the big stage, the principal challenge for Sarfaraz, Hooda and Iyer, among others, is to guard against stagnation, continuously expand their range and persistently be ahead of the opposition's video analyst. If not, the focus will soon shift to the next 'future star', like it happened with Swapnil Asnodkar at the start of the IPL curve.
Inducted as an opener in Rajasthan's fourth match in 2008, Asnodkar, asked by his captain to enjoy his time at the crease, sent the first ball he faced to the boundary. His blistering 34-ball 60 on debut against an international Kolkata Knight Riders attack prompted Shane Warne to nickname him 'Goa Cannon'. He rode on that confidence and contributed in their title win in the inaugural season. The stay at the top, however, was brief.
An injury followed by a poor run allowed Asnodkar only 12 matches for Rajasthan in the next three seasons, before he faded away from the circuit.
Swapnil Asnodkar rode on confidence and contributed in Rajasthan Royals winning the inaugural season. His stay at the top, however, was brief.
Swapnil Asnodkar rode on confidence and contributed in Rajasthan Royals winning the inaugural season. His stay at the top, however, was brief. ©
"I could not give my 100% because of the injury, and by the fourth edition, I did not get enough opportunities for a comeback," Asnodkar tells Wisden India. "Cricket is so competitive now that if you are not there, someone else will take the chance."
Asnodkar, 27 when he played his last IPL game in 2011, was the second-highest run-getter in the 2013-14 Syed Mushtaq Ali T20 Trophy. But he knows he has to be consistently prolific for Goa to have a fair chance of regaining an IPL contract. And the IPL-shaped vacuum has remained.
"IPL gave me identity, and it was a good feeling. I miss that today," he explains. "I watch IPL on TV and feel I should have continued to be a part of it."
Happy to at least own an IPL winner's medal, he remains optimistic of the tide turning in his favour.
It is not difficult to imagine how emotionally perplexing it would have been for Asnodkar to go from sharing a toast with Warne and the crease with Graeme Smith one moment, to suddenly dealing with the loneliness, far separated from the luxuries of the world's richest cricket league.
Whether Asnodkar possessed the necessary skills to replicate the first season's success over a longer period does not shadow the larger canvas of IPL's slipperiness. Asnodkar's story could be Paul Valthaty's too. Valthaty won a car on scoring a century for Kings XI Punjab against Chennai Super Kings in 2011, but played just seven matches in the next two seasons. They represent the many who have found it challenging to cope with renewed expectations and made frustrating exits from the league after a few sparkling performances. Their narratives have been as moving as the emergence of hidden talents in the league's eight-year history.
Asnodkar says he was prepared to handle IPL's celebrity culture, but he does not belong to a generation for whom the T20 format is the primary gateway to an enriched lifestyle. The surfeit of reality television shows and social media over the last decade has given more currency to the lure of instant gratification, and IPL is a mean to that end.
It is psychologically draining for an ambitious young sportsperson to look through this maze with clarity and recognise the pros and cons of the IPL. In that, access to the experience basket of former cricketers - employed by franchises as coaches, mentors and managers - has been a big positive. It has given the youngsters a better chance to recognise the thin line between perception and reality, identify the different variables of pressure, understand that success is driven by one's priorities, be aware of the risks involved, dissect fame's many layers in a detached fashion, insulate themselves from the white noise, and remain balanced under any circumstance.
Ray Jennings, for example, streamlined a callow Virat Kohli just when he was starting to flirt with danger, and Dravid put IPL in perspective for youngsters by constantly championing the need to integrate the multicultural experience back into the domestic circuit.
"Express yourself. Be yourself," is Asnodkar's simple advice to the youngsters. "Don't get carried away. Just enjoy your game, and remember that sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't."
To absorb so many nuances at a physical and emotional level within the two-month whirlwind IPL window is what differentiates an Asnodkar from a Kohli, and could potentially shape the future of Sarfaraz, Hooda and Iyer.