Column | Chin up, Boys in Blue

Aussies reign supreme
Australia proved too good for India in the final. Photo: X@ICCC

India’s 79-run defeat at the hands of Australia in the final of the International Cricket Council (ICC) Under-19 World Cup came as a big disappointment to the followers of the game in the country. There was a general belief, not based on any facts, that the youngsters would avenge the loss suffered by the seniors at the hands of the Aussies at Ahmedabad in November in the final of the ICC World Cup. The performance of the side in the run up to the final, especially the manner in which they survived a tough semifinal clash with South Africa, instilled the fans with hope and optimism. Skipper Uday Saharan and Sachin Dhas, the heroes of the win against South Africa, had become household names as had the likes of Arshin Kulkarni, Raj Limbani and Musheer Khan. But, in the all-important final, Australia managed to elevate their game by a notch and thus emerged easy winners. 

Cricket fans in India have followed the U-19 World Cup  with great enthusiasm ever since the national junior side, under the leadership of Mohammmad Kaif ,clinched the title in Sri Lanka in 2000. This side had, in addition to skipper Kaif, star performers such as Yuvraj Singh, Y Venugopal Rao and wicketkeeper Ajay Ratra, all of who went on to play for the national senior team. Amongst them, Yuvraj soon made the transition to the senior team and impressed one and all with his standout performance in the Champions Trophy in 2000. He went on to attain the status of a legend by playing a leading hand in India’s title triumphs in the ICC T20 World Cup of 2007, where he smashed Stuart Broad for six sixers in an over, and in the ICC World Cup of 2011, where he was selected as player-of-the-tournament. Kaif too was an integral part of the national squad till 2006 and was an exceptionally good fielder in any position. The duo of Kaif and Yuvraj made history by piloting India to a win in the final of NatWest Trophy in England in 2002, retrieving the side from a near hopeless position. It was this victory and the subsequent chest exposing antics of skipper Sourav Ganguly that sent a strong message from India to the cricketing world that the national side was no longer pushovers or “softies”, but a set of hardened professionals who played to win.

Yuvraj Singh
Yuvraj Singh shot into limelight in the 2000 edition of the ICC U-19 World Cup. File photo: AFP

The romance of India’s cricket loving public with U-19 World Cup has continued ever since without a break. India lost in the semifinals against South Africa in 2002 despite the side having in its ranks Irfan Pathan and Parthiv Patel, both of who served the national squad for years with distinction. India sent a strong side comprising Shikhar Dhawan, Robin Uthappa, Suresh Raina, Dinesh Karthik, Ambati Rayudu and R P Singh to the 2004 edition of the championship. But, despite the presence of so many talented youngsters,  the side failed to move beyond the last four stage, where they lost to Pakistan, the ultimate winners.

Pakistan won the title again in 2006, this time beating India in a low-scoring final at Colombo. Chasing a target of 111, India crumbled for a paltry total of 71 in just 18.5 overs, thus disappointing their supporters. Looking back, this appears all the more surprising as the squad boasted of such worthies as Rohit Sharma, who leads the national squad at present, Cheteshwar Pujara, one of the most prolific batsmen in red-ball cricket, Ravindra Jadeja, a successful all-rounder in all formats of the game and  Piyush Chawla, the leg-spinner who was member of national squad during its title wins in the T20 World Cup in 2007 and ICC World Cup of 2011.  Incidentally, Anwar Ali, the Pakistani medium-pacer, who wrecked India in the final by picking up five wickets, had a truncated career in international cricket, with little returns to show both in ODIs and T20 Internationals.

It was only in 2008 that India could repeat the magic of 2000 by winning the championship. The side led by Virat Kohli, who later evolved into one of the best batsmen in contemporary cricket, won all matches convincingly. Though the finals was affected by rain and Duckworth-Lewis method was brought into operation, India was clearly the better side and no-one grudged the end result. However, India disappointed in the next edition of the tournament, held in New Zealand in 2010, when they lost in the quarterfinals. The only player from that squad who could make it to the national senior squad was K L Rahul.

Unmukt Chand became a national hero when he successfully piloted a chase in the final of the 2012 championship against hosts Australia. The unbeaten 111 struck by Chand raised hopes that he would soon join the ranks of Kohli, Jadeja and Rohit in the national squad. However, despite the enormous talent that he was blessed with and the exemplary temperament that he demonstrated in this championship, Chand could not make a successful transition to the senior level. He was a regular member of India 'A' side for years, without making any substantial impact and finally fell by the wayside, without making even a single appearance at the international level. Hanuma Vihari, a middle-order batsman, is the only player from that title winning squad to play Test cricket.

After 2012, India reached the finals on all occasions that this championship was held, except in 2014. They won the title in  2018 and 2022, but ended up losing to the West Indies in 2016 and to Bangladesh in 2020. The hero of the victory in 2018 was Manjit Kalra, the lef- handed opening batsman, who struck a polished century to help India overcome the Aussies in the final. In 2022, India outplayed England by four wickets, with all-rounder Raj Bawa emerging as the player-of-the-final. These editions also saw the arrival of new talent in Sanju Samson, Deepak Hooda, Shreyas Iyer and Kuldeep Yadav (2014), Rishabh Pant, Ishan Kishen and Washington Sundar (2016), Shubhman Gill and Prithvi Shaw (2018) and Yashasvi Jaiswal (2020),  all of who made the transition to the senior side. The only exception is the title winning squad of 2022 from which no player has emerged, as yet, who can command a place in the national side. 

Hence it was not surprising that fans of the game started following the fortunes of the national junior side when the present edition of the championship kicked off in South Africa on January 19. India won all their three group stage matches and the two matches in the Super Six stage with ease, to set up a clash with the hosts in the last four stage. Though the semifinal went all the way to the wire, India held their nerve to emerge winners by two wickets. The Aussies were also similarly tested by Pakistan, who came very close to pulling off an upset win but the former managed to scrape through with a one-wicket win. But, in the final, the Indian top order could not handle the pace of Callum Vidler and Mahli Beardman  and succumbed meekly.

Australian players celebrate their triumph. Photo: X@ICC

One of the main reasons for India doing well in the U-19 World Cups is the existence of an excellent system of junior cricket in our country. The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) conducts inter association (mostly inter-state) tournaments in U-16, U-19 and U-25 categories. Hence all state associations also conduct games within themselves to select squads for these matches and extend coaching facilities to the up and coming players in these categories. This helps to unearth talent at a very early age and they are provided access to better training facilities and infrastructure, which, in turn, help to sharpen their skills. The national junior selection committee and the selectors from individual associations and constituent formations perform the yeomen task of observing the young players and picking the best among them.This is hard  work, most of which is unglamorous and goes unnoticed, but the love for the game and a deep sense of commitment from involved keeps this going at the ground level. It is due to all these factors that India have been able to do consistently well in this championship since the turn of this century. The administrators, selectors and other stakeholders who have contributed handsomely to make India a top power in international junior cricket, deserve a big round of applause at this juncture. 

Before concluding, it merits being pointed out that the most difficult stage in the evolution of a cricketer is the transition from junior to senior level. One finds that many a talented youngster who performed incredibly well in age-category cricket found success difficult to come by when confronted with the challenges at the first class-and List A levels. These young cricketers should realise this is only a stepping stone and much sterner tests await them in the months ahead. There is no time to rest on the laurels of taking part and performing creditably in the U-19 World Cup as the more important battles are around the corner.  The careers of Chand and Kalra, two batsmen who possessed enough skillsets and temperament to score centuries in the finals of U-19 World Cup but could not progress to higher levels should serve as poignant examples. As should the case of Shaw, whose international career has not reached anywhere till date despite an impressive beginning. 

The loss in the final will rankle the youngsters who are part of the squad. But they should take heart from the fact that they got an invaluable exposure which will stand them in good stead in their future careers. Let us hope that this experience instils in them more confidence and greater courage for taking on the more challenging tasks that lie ahead of them in the years ahead.

(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)

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