India’s Under-19 cricket team is in the final of the World Cup for the third successive time. A few days back they beat Pakistan by a whopping margin of 10 wickets. The semi-final was looked forward to with much anticipation, but ended up being a dud.
India’s win was comprehensive and intimidating. In batting, bowling and fielding, the Indian lads appeared far ahead of their opponents. While the prospect of playing the archrivals had pumped up the Pakistani youngsters too, mere zeal could not compensate for the wide gap in ability.
Before this match, India had got the better of strong Australia in the quarterfinal. It was a tense affair, but every time the Indian team was under pressure, some player －batsman or bowler – stood up to clinch the moment.
This is how the teams excel in any sport. Overt dependence on one or a couple of players can be perilous. Injury, bad luck or temporary loss of form can play havoc with a team’s prospects if there are only few players who can deliver the goods. The best teams have multiple matchwinners.
Happily for India, the team currently playing in South Africa is strong in both batting and bowling, well balanced and does not owe its passage into the final to only one or two players. It’s been a splendid combined effort so far, though obviously some players have shone.
Those who merit special mention for performances (thus far) are Yashasvi Jaiswal, Atharva Ankolekar, Divyansh Saxena (with bat) and Kartik Tyagi, Ravi Bishnoi and Akash Singh (with ball). The stellar among these, of course, is opener Jaiswal. Not only for the commanding century he made against Pakistan, but for how he became a cricketer.
Jaiswal comes from a humble background. Before he took to cricket seriously, he used to sell paani puri and sleep in a tent in a Mumbai maidan. Last December, he was among the most ‘in-demand’ young players in the IPL auction, fetching Rs 2.40 crore from Rajasthan Royals.
A couple of months later, he is leading India’s charge for a fifth U-19 World Cup title, aspiring to emulate past players in this age group who went on to make a stellar mark at the international level: Starting with Yuvraj Singh, Mohamed Kaif, Irfan Pathan, Shikhar Dhawan, Ajinkya Rahane, Cheteshwar Pujara through to current major domos Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma.
Indeed, the composition of the Indian team currently in New Zealand highlights how important U-19 World Cuppers are to Indian cricket: Apart from Kohli and Sharma, others U-19 World Cuppers are Shreyas Iyer, Manish Pandey, Ravindra Jadeja, Rishabh Pant, Sanju Samson, Kuldeep Yadav, Washington Sundar, Mayank Agarwal and Prithvi Shaw.
What this establishes is that regimented, streamlined systems at the junior level have been able to channelise the best young talent into the senior team. For all other issues and endeavours that come under criticism, this redounds to the credit of the BCCI.
The administration has been able to spread the gospel of cricket far and wide, create interest among youngsters and followed it up with aggressive talent spotting and nurturing of players who show ability into the U-19 fold.
The big benefit for players in this age group is that the BCCI provides many competitive matches for them to showcase their skills, and then, of course, comes the World Cup at the pinnacle. Those who make a mark there, get fast-tracked into the senior levels.
I’ve mentioned earlier several U-19 players who have gone on to become marquee names in Indian cricket, but the argument remains incomplete without highlighting the impact they had made in the junior ranks itself. This comes through in India’s domination of the U-19 World Cup.
In 11 tournaments before the current one, India have won the title four times, the most by any country, and finished runners-up twice. Australia with three titles come next best, Pakistan have won twice, West Indies and South Africa once each.
It is significant that in this edition, India have beaten both Australia and Pakistan. It is also an important statistic that Australia have not been able to get the better of India at this level since 2012, and have in fact lost nine matches in succession.
This doesn’t in any way undermine the contribution of those who haven’t represented India in the U-19 World Cup. M S Dhoni, Ravi Ashwin, Mohamed Shami and Jasprit Bumrah are four of the most formidable names in contemporary Indian cricket who didn’t play in this tournament, but have an enviable body of work to their credit.
Playing the U-19 World Cup is not a ‘super speciality’ in itself: the follow up to this is the more pertinent. Those who excel at this level, must prove their worth at the next level, otherwise they too are like countless thousands who try to make a career in the sport.
Whether the India Under-19 team can successfully defend the title depends on how the players cope with the pressures of playing the final on Sunday. But irrespective of the result, there is little doubt that nurturing U-19 cricket has been a big boon for Indian cricket.
The writer is a senior journalist who has been writing on the sport for over 40 years.