The week that went by showcased a brilliant performance by the emerging cricketers of India, who won the 12th edition of the ICC Under-19 World Cup in style, defeating Australia by a margin of eight wickets in the final. The victory was followed by the regular round of celebrations, with the boys being congratulated by all the important persons in the country. This is the fourth time that India has won this trophy, the most by any team, but what made this win more significant was the emphatic manner in which they dominated the entire championship.
India started in style, trouncing the fancied Australia by a margin of 100 runs. This was followed by wins over Papua New Guinea and Zimbabwe, two teams considered to be minnows, by identical margin of 10 wickets. In the quarterfinals, Bangladesh were defeated by 131 runs, while, in the last four stage, Pakistan were made to eat humble pie, being thrashed by 203 runs. Australia did not stand a chance when India met them again, in the final, and went down tamely.
There was no doubt in the minds of those who watched the matches that India was definitely the superior side in all departments of the game. Within a short span of two weeks, members of this side has been catapulted from being virtually unknown entities outside their immediate circle, to the category of emerging superstars of the game with the largest following in the country. In this context, it is interesting to know the composition of the side and the key players involved. The side was led by Prithvi Shaw, a right-hand opening batsman who made his Ranji Trophy debut for his home side of Mumbai last season. He has five first class centuries to his credit and averages a very healthy 56.52 in domestic cricket, which indicates a huge appetite for runs. He became the youngest batsman to score a century on debut in Duleep Trophy championship last year, breaking the record held by the legendary Sachin Tendulkar. His 94 in the opening match against Australia set the trend of Indian batsmen dominating the bowling during the tournament and he followed this with good contributions in the matches that followed as well. As captain, he possesses a cool head on his shoulders, which he showed by leading the side with poise and composure throughout the championship.
The opening partner of skipper Shaw was the left-handed Manjot Kalra, who won the man-of-the-match award in the final for his unbeaten century. Manjot hails from Delhi and has not yet made his first class debut. He provided the ideal foil for Shaw as could be seen from the fact that seldom could opposing bowlers get a quick early wicket against India. At one-down position came the dashing Shubman Gill, who bagged the man-of-the-tournament award for his consistent performances with the willow, which included a brilliant unbeaten century against Pakistan in the semifinal. He represents Punjab in Ranji Trophy and has already notched up a century and a fifty in the two matches he has played so far. He was in terrific form through the tournament as could be witnessed from the fact that he never scored less than a half-century every time he ventured to the wicket, except in the final!
Abhishek Sharma, his teammate from Punjab, was the bulwark of the middle order coming up with useful contributions whenever the need arose. He often came in to bat when there was hardly any time for settling down but scoreboard was required to kept ticking, a task he managed with aplomb, seldom letting the side down.
Splendid bowling attack
When one looks back, it can be seen that India owed their convincing victories in all matches to the strength and variety of their bowling department. This was clearly evident in the final when the Aussies, who seemed to be going great guns, were stopped in their tracks and dismissed for a moderate total of 216, with wickets being shared by both the pace bowlers and the spinners. The paceers were led by Kamlesh Nagarkoti, a right-arm fast bowler from Rajasthan, capable of bowling at speeds in the range of 140-145 kmph consistently. It would not be an exaggeration to state that this was the first time one was witnessing an Indian pace bowler creating an impact in an international championship solely by virtue of the pace that he could generate. His partner with the new ball was Shivam Mavi, another quick bowler who could match Nagarkoti in the speed department. Supplementing their efforts was Ishan Porel, the accurate medium-pacer from Bengal,who came back after an injury in the first match to run through the Pakistan side in the semifinals, returning figures of four wickets for a mere 17 runs. The spin department was led by left-arm spinner Anukul Roy, who took five wickets against Papua New Guinea and four against Zimbabwe. Roy hails from Samastipur in Jharkhand and is an all-rounder in the Ravindra Jadeja mold.
Superb fielding unit
Success of any side in limited overs cricket hinges on its fielding and in this department the Indian youngsters proved that they are the best in the world. Fielding within the ring was sharp and there were no easy runs or singles available for opposition batsmen. Further, the fielders threw down the stumps with such an amazing regularity that batsmen started getting wary of attempting even genuine runs! One could see that sufficient time and effort have been invested in this area where earlier Indian sides have generally tended to lag behind others. Special mention should also be made about the performance of Harvik Desai, the wicketkeeper from Saurashtra, for his tidy work behind the stumps.
Dravid's crucial role
The entire credit for any victory on the cricket field rightfully belongs to the players. However, in the present instance, one should make special mention about the person who offered his services to coach these boys and mold them into a champion side. Rahul Dravid does not require any introduction to the followers of the game. While his achievements on the field have elevated him to the category of the legends of the game, his exemplary behavior on and off the field has earned for him the reputation of being a perfect gentleman. After hanging up his playing boots, Dravid could have turned to the more lucrative arena of commentating on television, which would have ensured that he remained in the public eye as well. However, he volunteered to work as the coach-cum-mentor of the national under-19 squad, a more demanding and less glamorous charge when compared with other similar assignments in the country. That his efforts have borne fruit could be seen from the commitment of these talented youngsters, the way in which they played as a team and the manner in which they elevated their game at critical situations during the championship. This victory is as much a tribute to coach Dravid, who worked tirelessly behind the scenes, as it is to Shaw and his team of young champions.
The impact of these standout performances was felt during the auction of players for the Indian Premier League (IPL), which took place last week. Many of the players who were part of the winning side were bought by the IPL franchisees paying huge sums, with Kolkata Knight Riders bidding for the fast bowling duo of Nagarkoti and Mavi at amounts of Rs 3.2 and 3 crore respectively, while the batsmen Gill and skipper Shaw fetched prices of Rs 1.8 and 1.2 crore respectively. Three more members of the squad were also bought by the various franchisees at good rates and they can all be justifiably proud to have clinched deals that can change the course of their lives and career.
Word of caution
Before closing the article one would like to add a note of caution. India won the U-19 World Cup in 2000 under the leadership of Mohammad Kaif. From the squad that lifted the Cup, only Kaif and Yuvraj Singh could make the grade to the national squad while Reetinder Sodhi, Y Venugopal Rao and Ajay Ratra made only occasional appearances. Similarly, only two players from the Virat Kohli-led squad that won the Cup in 2008 (Kohli and Ravindra Jadeja) have represented the country on a regular basis till date. However, none of the players who were part of the side that won the 2012 edition of championship have donned the national colors yet. This shows that very few of the players who were part of championship-winning sides were able to sustain the high levels of performance required to secure a place in the national squad.
Their success at international level in the age-group championship not withstanding, these youngsters have miles to go before they can aspire to play cricket at the highest level. It is absolutely essential they do not allow this success to go into their head and lose their focus and balance, which would be a surefire recipe for disaster and also destroy their cricketing dreams. While congratulating Dravid and his wards on their outstanding performance, one hopes that the guiding influence of the coach would be available to these cricketers to enable them to make a smooth transition to the senior level.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)