Rishabh Pant moved around from city to city in his early teens to make a name for himself. He moved from Roorkee-Delhi-Rajasthan-Delhi, switched schools, moved bases in the hunt for a coach and was even thrown out of an academy once. A few years down the road, he opened the batting for India in the Under-19 World Cup in Bangladesh, smashed a record-breaking fifty against Nepal and followed it up with a ton against Namibia to help India qualify for the semi-finals. Incidentally, his century came on the same day when he was bought by Delhi Daredevils for INR 1.9 crores from a base price of Rs 10 lakhs. The 18-year-old also made his first-class debut for Delhi in October 2015, where he made a fifty in the second innings.
Despite being a teenager, Sanju Samson has emerged as a prime contender to be the flag-bearer of cricket for the state of Kerala, one of the few regions in India where football’s popularity and following outdoes that of cricket. Samson shifted to Thiruvananthapuram in his early teens after taking his first cricket lessons in Delhi, where his father worked as a police constable. In Thiruvananthapuram, Samson started creating waves in junior circuit with his bat. His impressive technique combined with an ability to time the ball first earned him a place in Kerala’s U-19 team and a consistent outing in the Cooch Behar Trophy (domestic U-19 championship) elevated him into India’s team for the U-19 Asia Cup in 2012.
However, the Asia Cup outing turned out to be a huge disappointment for Samson as he returned from Kuala Lumpur with a tally of 14 runs from three innings. That meant he wasn’t selected for India’s U-19 World Cup sojourn. However, Samson, who had made his first-class debut the previous season, made up for it with consistent performances with the bat and with the wicketkeeping gloves. He started the Ranji Trophy season with a century against Himachal Pradesh in seamer-friendly conditions and then added another before the season was over.
The next big stop was the Indian Premier League, where Samson contributed almost every time he came out to bat for Rajasthan Royals. His 41-ball 63 against Royal Challengers Bangalore confirmed him as one of the finds of the 2013 tournament. Rahul Dravid, his captain at Royals, has emphasised more than once that Samson is one to watch out for. He followed that up with another bright IPL season in 2014, and an impressive showing – temperament-wise, most of all – for India A in Australia. That catapulted him into the reckoning for India, and the call-up came sooner rather than later, as he was picked in India’s limited-overs squad for the tour to England in August-September.
An attacking wicketkeeper-batsman, Nikhil Naik was a product of age-group cricket in Maharashtra. Naik’s journey to cricket, though, was far from easy. He lost his mother to paralysis in 2010, when still a teenager, and his father, a fish vendor, used to borrow money from his friends to pay for Naik’s kits.
After having led the Under-16 and Under-19 state sides to national titles, Naik made his List-A debut at 19 for Maharashtra, against Gujarat in the 2014 Vijay Hazare Trophy. He was one of the finds of the tournament, scoring 234 runs in four matches at 58.50.
His big hitting caught the eyes of Mumbai Indians with whom he trialled, but an IPL contract did not materialise. It did the following year when Kings XI Punjab bought him for INR 30 lakh. He was retained by the franchise in 2015 ahead of the 20-over Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy in which he scored 196 runs in five matches at 39.20.
Quinton de Kock’s fearless striking and handy glovework have earned him comparisons to greats of the game like Adam Gilchrist and Mark Boucher, early in his career. By 21, de Kock shared the record for the most successive ODI centuries – three – before it was bettered by Kumar Sangakkara. A year later, he had established himself in all three formats.
De Kock grew up as a baseball player and even considered a move to the United States, but his father convinced him to pursue cricket instead. He attended King Edward VII High School, the alma mater of Graeme Smith and Neil McKenzie, and was picked for the South African Under-19 side, which he captained briefly. The leadership mantle was taken away ahead of the 2012 World Cup in Australia in order for him to concentrate on his batting. It paid off as topped South Africa’s batting charts with 284 runs from six matches at 47.33 and a best of 126.
De Kock was contracted to the Lions in 2012-13 and caught the national selectors’ eyes when he starred in a match-winning partnership with Neil McKenzie in the Champions League T20 against Mumbai Indians. He also finished fourth on the first-class rankings, despite playing only six of the 10 matches that summer.
He was selected for South Africa’s T20I series against New Zealand in 2012-13 to keep wickets in place of AB de Villiers, who asked to be rested. But he did not make much of a first impression on the international stage. After a lean series in Sri Lanka in July 2013, he was dropped.
De Kock returned in November that year and scored his first ODI century against Pakistan. A month later, he reeled off three in a row against India. Early in 2014, de Kock made his Test debut after Alviro Petersen took ill, but was only given a permanent place later that year, on a tour to Sri Lanka. He scored two half-centuries in his next three Tests, but then tore ankle ligaments during warm-up in a Test against West Indies in December.
The injury put de Kock at risk of missing the 2015 World Cup, but he recovered quickly. However, he struggled to find his old form and struggled through that tournament and a series against Bangladesh. Subsequently, he was dropped again and sent to the South African A side to find his touch. He did well for them in India and returned to the senior side, scoring two hundred in a five-match series against India and two more against England at home to reclaim his place.
De Kock also hit his stride in the shortest format, and scored his maiden half-century in the 2016 World T20. Along with two contributions in the 40s, he was South Africa’s most successful batsman and was named in the ICC’s team of the tournament.
A tall, elegant right-hand batsman who can keep wicket in a crisis, KL Rahul is among the most highly rated opening batsmen in India’s next generation. Rahul was a part of India’s squad in the 2010 Under-19 World Cup and made his first-class debut later that year. Having taken a while to establish himself as a first-class cricketer, he enjoyed a breakthrough 2013-14 season, laying the foundation for Karnataka’s Ranji Trophy victory with 1033 runs, which included three centuries, three nineties, and a Man-of-the-Match performance in the final. Rahul attracted plenty of attention at the subsequent IPL auction, and finally went to Sunrisers Hyderabad for Rs. 1 crore (US$ 166,000 approx.). He was a regular member of their side in the 2014 season, mostly as wicketkeeper-batsman, but his contributions with the bat were steady rather than spectacular. In the long format, however, his technique and application have impressed some of Indian cricket’s most respected names. These include Rahul Dravid, with whom Rahul shares not just a name but also a strong rapport, regularly seeking him out for technical and mental advice. Rahul had a middling tour of Australia with the India A team in July-August 2014, getting starts each time he batted in the unofficial Tests but only managing a top score of 52. But his appetite for runs was back to normal by the time the 2014-15 domestic season began, and twin centuries in the Duleep Trophy final earned him a place in India’s Test squad on their tour of Australia.
He played five ODIs and two T20s without making fifty but he fitted the design of a more high-energy England side. He also featured in one of the quirkier stories of the summer when his Kent teammate Joe Denly tweeted a picture of a supposed lookalike stricken by sunburn when Billings was on England duty and The Sun swallowed the story without a second thought.
Billings follows a long line of illustrious Kent wicketkeepers including Les Ames, ‘Hopper’ Levett, Godfrey Evans, Alan Knott and Geraint Jones. His passion for cricket has communicated itself to the Kent crowd in a manner that suggests he might one day stand confidently alongside such exalted company. He is consumed by sport: an all-round games player who turned down a football trial with Tottenham Hotspur to go on a cricket tour at county level, woke up in an infirmary after being spear tackled in a rugby union game, achieved county junior level in tennis, and is highly adept at squash and racquets – his cousin Tom Billings is high in the racquet world rankings. No wonder then that he is so fleet footed around a cricket field.
His growing reputation was illustrated when he called into England’s 30-man provisional squad for the 2015 World Cup when Craig Kieswetter withdraw with eye problems. That Billings had become a player to be reckoned with was apparent from the moment he blitzed an unbeaten 135 from 58 balls against Somerset in a 50-over tie at Canterbury. Marcus Trescothick, Somerset’s former England captain, identified Billings as a potential rival for Jos Buttler, quite an accolade considering Buttler’s Somerset roots, and said: “Billings absolutely annihilated us.”
Billings, 23, replaced the former England gloveman Jones behind the stumps at the start of Kent’s 2014 Championship season and emphasised his 50-over potential in the Royal London One-Day Cup, becoming the leading run-scorer in the competition, Only his T20 performances disappointed.
An innings of 143 off 113 balls against Derbyshire at Canterbury – the highest one-day total by a Kent batsman at the St Lawrence Ground – was the highlight of a promising 2012 season. Billings had also scored a century, for Loughborough MCCU, on his first-class debut, against Northants in 2011. Having been the county’s leading run-maker in T20 as well as CB40 in 2012, he went on an ECB scholarship to Australia over the winter of 2012-13. His burgeoning expertise behind the stumps gave an appealing extra dimension to his game.
Hailing from Bhavnagar in Gujarat, Sheldon Jackson played junior cricket in Mumbai. He was first spotted at Kolkata Knight Riders’ selection trials by Joydeep Mukherjee, the former Bengal player, and was signed by the franchise in 2009. After being on the fringes of selection for his state team Saurashtra for three years, he made his debut in December 2011.
In the 2012-13 Ranji Trophy season, he made four fifties and three hundreds, including back-to-back tons in the quarter-final and semi-final against Karnataka and Punjab respectively, to help Saurashtra qualify for the final for the first time. The same year, he broke into the India A team for the series against West Indies A at home in October 2013.In 2015-16, he was part of Saurashtra’s second charge towards a Ranji Trophy title. In the Irani Cup that followed, his unbeaten 59 helped Rest of India pull off the third-highest successful chase in Indian first-class cricket.
Jackson is multidimensional: Apart from being a reliable batsman and an excellent fielder, he also keeps wickets for Saurashtra in the limited-overs competitions. In the longer format, however, the presence of Sagar Jogiyani has freed up that responsibility. During the off season, Jackson is a regular in Chennai’s club cricket scene, turning up for Chemplast in the first-division league.