In reaching the final of the Word Cup (to be played on Saturday versus England) India’s under-19 team has upstaged all else that has been happening in Indian cricket recently.
As a reminder, there’s actually a heck of a lot going on! The ODIs and T20 rubbers against West Indies start on Sunday, and both are important contests for Indian cricket going ahead. While the Windies are stragglers in the five-day format, in the shorter versions they are quite formidable so it won’t be easy pickings for India even if playing at home.
West Indies’ early ouster in the T20 World Cup a few months back was an aberration. They have won the WC twice and just before travelling to India, won a hard-fought 3-2 series win over no.1 ranked England.
While the ODI record isn’t as impressive, West Indies are flush with impact players like Kieron Pollard, Jason Holder, Nicholas Pooran, Rovman Powell, Akeal Hosein. Moreover, most West Indies players who will play the two series have been part of the IPL and have good knowledge of Indian conditions and their players.
From India’s point of view, the next few weeks are crucial to recover from the harrowing defeat in South Africa as well as find the right balance and combination for the T20 WC, which will be played this year, and the ODI WC in 2023. So time is in short supply, for experimentation and regaining momentum.
ICC U19 World Cup, India vs England: Head to Head Meetings
The importance of the next few weeks for new captain Rohit Sharma (he’s led earlier, but only when Virat Kohli was absent) can’t be overstated. The Indian captaincy has been mired in extraordinary developments and some controversy in recent weeks. Sharma had no role to play in these, but willy-nilly has to cope with whatever the fallout in the dressing room.
There is a huge anticipation and expectation from Sharma as captain and batter. He has been the country’s premier batter for a couple of years now, and as captain, has notched up excellent credentials. As India look to reboot for the many challenges ahead, his form, leadership and fitness will all be critical.
Also coming up next week is the IPL mega auction, and I dare say the attention of the entire cricketing world will be on this event. The IPL is the 5th or 6th largest sports property globally, and getting bigger with the addition of two new franchises, for Lucknow and Ahmedabad which fetched the BCCI a whopping 12000-plus crores!
How the IPL unfolds post the addition of two teams and the mega auction has been a big-ticket story for the past few months starting with retention drama for the eight original franchises and pre-auction acquisitions permitted for the new ones.
While some big players have been appropriated in this exercise, there are several stars – Indian and overseas – up for grabs. For reasons of business or cricket tactics or vicarious delight in knowing which player has fetched how much, IPL auctions have been major eyeball grabbers since inception, and this time it promises to get even bigger.
It was difficult to imagine anything could take attention away from these events, but for the moment, the India under-19 has achieved this solely on the basis of cricketing excellence. The passage into the final has had its hiccups and obstacles, most worryingly when a clutch of players including skipper Yash Dhull and vice-captain Shaik Rasheed were hit by Covid and their participation in the tournament became doubtful.
Both recovered in time and put on a match-winning partnership in the semi-final against Australia – Dhull scoring a century, Rasheed missing his by 6 runs – to help India to a massive 96 runs win. In the quarter-final against Bangladesh, it was swing bowler Ravi Kumar and left-arm spinner Vicky Ostwal who had shone in bundling out the defending champions for a paltry 111 which India overhauled with five wickets to spare.
While these four players have been in the limelight in the past week, it is the collective effort of all players that has made the passage into the final possible. Some of them are already spoken of as potential big earners in the impending IPL auction. Whether this happens remains to be seen, but in the wider context, what is pertinent is how under-19 teams have become an excellent feeder system for Indian cricket.
The fact that this is the fourth consecutive final for India in u-19 WCs tells its own story. It shows the high quality of players emerging from this age group, for which the BCCI must be given credit. Structures and systems that enable young talent to be spotted and nurtured have been put in place, and across the length and breadth of the country, as the places of origin of these young players reveal.
These players are also beneficiaries of top-class coaching, supported by excellent nutrition and sports medicine expertise. There is also a grooming process – developing mental toughness, recognizing and avoiding pitfalls and temptations that can come with star status – which is in place. Obviously these are subjective issues, but at least the effort is being made to ensure young players don’t get easily sidetracked into surrendering their careers prematurely.
Ever since Mohammad Kaif’s team won the u-19 WC in 2000 (the team included Yuvraj Singh and Reetinder Singh Sodhi among others), youngsters from this age group have enriched Indian cricket, with their numbers growing after each tournament. Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit, Ajinkya Rahane, Kohli, Ravindra Jadeja, K L Rahul, Mayank Agarwal, Hanuma Vihari, Kuldeep Yadav, Shreyas Iyer, Sanju Samson, Prithvi Shaw, Rishabh Pant, Ishan Kishan, Shubman Gill have been sparkling talents over the last 10-12 years. And the list is not exhaustive.
This is not to say that every player from the under-19 ranks will have a successful career at the first-class and international levels. But if the talent pool is large, the probability of great excellence and consistency at the higher level is more likely. This shows up in India’s by and large strong performances in the past decade. There have been defeats and setbacks, but the recovery too has been swift because fresh talent is readily available.