In the history of cricket, there have been 97 players who played their first Test match before their 19th birthday. One of them, Sachin Tendulkar, went on to play 200 Tests—the most ever by any player in the history of the game. But for another 10 of these young debutants catapulted into the sternest examination in cricket, that first Test match would be the only one they played.
Do the young starters in Test cricket play long?
In the glow of the deserving plaudits that has followed Prithvi Shaw, all of 18 years and 329 days on debut, there’s a reminder of the heights and the depths that an arena of competition throws up. Especially for the very young.
Among the 12 Test-playing nations, South Asian countries have been the most prolific in giving early debuts. As many as 72 of the 97 players who debuted below the age of 19 years are from the five South Asian Test-playing nations.
Of these five, Pakistan leads the way, with 34 debutants under the age of 19. It’s followed by Bangladesh (17) and India (13). At the other end of the spectrum, Australia and England, the two countries with the longest Test record, have just four instances of players debuting in their youth (chart 1).
A young debut indicates that selectors thought these players were ready for the big league. That promise didn’t always play out.
From this set of 97 players, we looked at the record of players who debuted before October 2013, effectively giving them a five-year window to perform and establish themselves. Of the 91 players that made this cut, 47 have played less than 20 Tests (chart 2).
Most of them could not cement their spot.
A case in point is wiry Indian leg-spinner Laxman Sivaramakrishnan, who had 19 wickets after three Tests.
Over the following 13 months, his next six Tests yielded seven wickets. He was 20-years-old when he played his ninth, and last, Test.
Some were derailed by injury, like current Australian pace bowler Pat Cummins, who has 66 wickets from 14 Tests, spanning seven years.
At the other end, a handful of these young debutants compiled careers that were notable not just for their numbers but also their impact on the game. Leading the top 10 list of young debutants who finished with the maximum number of Tests is Tendulkar, who defined cricket for a generation in India.
The Pakistani troika of Imran Khan, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis provided new shape to the art of fast bowling. Arjuna Ranatunga and Aravinda de Silva shepherded Sri Lanka from participation to contention. And there was West Indian Garfield Sobers, arguably the most exciting all-rounder Test cricket has seen (chart 3).
Of the 12 young Indian debutants before Prithvi Shaw, four have played less than 10 Tests. Above them, there’s a bunch of talent that sparkled but could not sustain, like left-arm spinner Maninder Singh. Further above them are players like Ravi Shastri and Ishant Sharma who crafted competent careers. And towering above them all is Tendulkar. Interestingly, of the 13 young Indian debutants, eight were principally bowlers (chart 4).
Pakistan has been the most prolific in sending young talent into the Test match arena from the very beginning. In the 1950s, it had seven debutants below 19. Pakistan’s tendency to debut Test cricketers young peaked in the 1990s, when it had 10 young debutants who collectively averaged 15 Tests over their careers. This was also the period around which churn became endemic to this brilliant and dysfunctional team. In this decade, Pakistan has had only one young debutant.
Over the decades, the first decade of this century saw the maximum number of young debutants: 31, of which 15 were from Bangladesh (which was coming into Test cricket) and six from Zimbabwe (where political turmoil had a cascading effect on its cricketing set-up). This decade has seen eight, with Prithvi Shaw being the latest. He has started brilliantly. Now, can he go on and on?