The U-19 event is no longer “just another junior tournament”, as it grabs serious number of eyeballs. Young exciting talent always has takers. It's a window to bigger, better things with so many domestic leagues, army of talent scouts and managers on the prowl.
Prithvi Shaw, Shubman Gill, Himanshu Rana, Ishan Porel and Abhishek Sharma—what's common between them? Apart from being part of the Indian team for the 12th edition of the ICC Under-19 World Cup set to start on January 13, they have already graduated to first-class cricket. Yet, a stern test awaits them as the three-time U-19 champions begin their campaign in the tournament hosted by New Zealand.
The U-19 event is no longer “just another junior tournament”, as it grabs serious number of eyeballs. Young exciting talent always has takers. It's a window to bigger, better things with so many domestic leagues, army of talent scouts and managers on the prowl. Well aware of the weight of expectations on present day cricketers, the junior team coach and former India legend Rahul Dravid said, “The Indian U-19 team is very keen to showcase its talent to the world. We know you will be watching us.”
But, be rest assured, almost all eyes will be on India U-19 skipper Shaw, who is being tipped as the next best thing to come out of Mumbai cricket after Sachin Tendulkar. However, for Dravid, who is more of a mentor to the young guns, the focus is not on individuals. “We don’t like to focus too much on the individuals. We believe we have got a very good squad together and the opportunities for us to play well as a team are there,” he told icc.com, the official website of the ICC.
The team appears well balanced. Shaw goes into the tournament with an impressive first-class season for Mumbai—five centuries in seven matches—behind him. While all eyes will be on Shaw, his deputy, Gill, has centuries to his name at every level of cricket. Yashpal Sharma, former India player and chairman of Punjab senior selection committee, describes the Punjab lad as a “natural talent”.
The U-19 World Cup is one of the important steps towards bigger things in present day cricket. After all, it has produced the likes of Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ravindra Jadeja, Shikhar Dhawan and others who went on to don the coveted Team India jersey. Even international stalwarts like Brian Lara, Graeme Smith, Mitchell Johnson, Hashim Amla and Chris Gayle have used the tournament as the stepping stone to greatness.
The U-19 World Cup is being held in New Zealand for the third time. Apart from India, who won in 2000, 2008 and 2012, Australia have won the tournament thrice. Pakistan have won it twice and West Indies, South Africa and England have won it once. India reached the final in 2016 in Bangladesh, but lost to West Indies.
The 16-team event has been divided in groups of four each, with top two sides from each group advancing to the Super League while the remaining eight teams will feature in the Plate Championship. The tournament starts on January 13 and the final will be played at Bay Oval in Tauranga on February 3. The matches will be played at four venues—Christchurch, Tauranga, Queenstown and Whangarei.
India is placed in Group B alongside Australia, Papua New Guinea and Zimbabwe. It has a fantastic win-loss ratio, having won 52 of the 71 matches it has played so far in the World Cup, with one match ending in no result.
India's first group match is the toughest—against Australia on January 14. The biggest challenge for the team will be to get used to the conditions. The fact that Dravid, who has had an exemplary record in New Zealand as a player, is the coach, will come in handy for the youngsters.
Many Team India players, both past and present, made their mark in the U-19 World Cups. India opener Dhawan top scored in the 2004 edition in Bangladesh with 505 runs, including a 155*. India's batting mainstay in Tests, Cheteshwar Pujara, scored the most runs—309—in the 2006 edition in Sri Lanka. Former Indian opener Virender Sehwag and off-spinner Harbhajan Singh featured in the 1998 edition played in South Africa, Rohit Sharma and Ravindra Jadeja in 2006, opener K.L. Rahul in the 2010 edition in Australia and chinaman bowler Kuldeep Yadav in the 2014 edition. Rishabh Pant attained recognition in last year's edition.
But Dravid is not one to look too much into the past and the rich history. Speaking to icc.com, Dravid said, “We started the process (of preparing) almost a year ago in terms of identifying a core group of 35-40 kids that we wanted to give exposure to. We have had a few series, a couple of Asia Cups where we have had the opportunity to see a large group of talent, and in the build up to this tournament as well, they have been playing a lot of domestic under-19 cricket as well.”