The Indian cricket team was a favourite to win the ICC Cricket World Cup in 2019. Their Under-19 counterparts, too, were the favourites to win the Cricket World Cup in 2020. Both the teams were a class apart in the quadrennial and biennial event, but the eventual winners were the better side on the big day. As fate would've had it, both the men and boys in blue returned home empty-handed and heavy-hearted.
For a team that had five players selected to play in the Indian Premier League (IPL) for the 2020 edition, spurred on by the guidance of Rahul Dravid and with four previous titles in their belt, expectations were high.
India went through the tournament unbeaten till the final. Opening batsman Yashasvi Jaiswal scored runs at will while leg-spinner Ravi Bishnoi did the same with the ball. But the final belonged to Bangladesh, who scripted history by winning their first-ever Under-19 World Cup.
“Everyone was very disappointed. And it will happen, you know. We lost a World Cup,” said Paras Mhambrey, former India bowler now turned head coach of the U19 team. “The journey was not just about the tournament but the amount of effort these guys put in for a year and a half and it all boiled down to one day.”
Paras can take solace in knowing that India were perhaps the best team in the tournament, and had just one bad day. And that bad day wasn’t too bad, considering the opposition were 85-5 at one stage and facing a collapse.
“We have to be proud of the way we played. Even though we lost, what matters is that each and every individual in the team put in their best and have returned home with heads held high,” Paras acknowledged.
Even after losing the final, India won two prestigious awards. Bishnoi was awarded for being the highest wicket-taker, while Yashasvi won the award for being the highest run-scorer. The latter, in particular, grabbed a bigger portion of the headlines for the adversity-filled journey he had to undertake to become a professional cricketer. But Paras propounds that the story of every child in the team is told.
“Honestly I feel every individual has a story to tell. It’s not just a couple of guys. Everyone has made sacrifices. Not only them but the people around them – family, friends. If you have a chat with them they will have a lot to tell you.”
Paras further says that he wouldn’t like to choose only a few among them as future stars, and that each of them are special in their own way.
“It will not be fair for me to pick any one individual. I thought all of them put in their best. Every individual has potential and talent, which is why they are a part of this team.
What we really want from them is that they go ahead and do better, play for their respective states and perform well in First-Class cricket.
Then maybe three to four years down the line we will see some of these guys making it to the national team and I think that will be really good to see.”
On a wet Potchefstroom wicket, India made a good start till the first 10 overs, after which wickets fell like a pack of cards. At one point, the boys lost seven wickets for just 21 runs. On a day when India’s famed batting line-up didn’t quite click, the bowlers put up a fight, but perhaps it wasn’t enough in the end as their opponents won by three wickets via the DLS method.
While most assumed that the pressure of a big game got the better of the Indian colts, Paras feels that losing the toss was a major factor in determining the winner.
“To be fair I thought the wicket wasn't that easy. Let's be honest. It had rained overnight and unfortunately the groundsmen couldn't cover the ground then so in the morning there was moisture on the wicket. To a certain extent the toss was important.
But in that sense I feel we still played well. The first 10 overs we didn't lose any wicket. But then things got difficult. But one thing I feel right now is that we still had a lot of opportunities even though the wicket wasn't easy.
We had guys who got starts but weren't able to convert them. Had they converted those starts we would have got 40 odd runs more and that would have made the difference.”
No story on the junior Indian team is complete without the mention of Dravid, who was the head coach of the U19 and India ‘A’ teams until last year. In August 2019, the former India batsman was appointed the head of cricket at the National Cricket Academy in Bangalore, which led to the termination of his role as a coach. It was then, that Paras was appointed as the new head coach.
But the new coach reckons that Dravid’s guidance, even after the termination of his coaching contract, has helped the boys a lot.
Rahul’s involvement has been throughout. He was there (in South Africa) prior to the World Cup in the bilateral series and also in the quadrangular series. He spent a lot of time with the kids chatting about how they should approach this tournament and sharing his knowledge. It was a great opportunity for the kids. He had a chat with us before the final as well, wishing everyone luck. It felt nice.”
From here on, Paras, 47, has just one goal – to see his boys work harder and reach the pinnacle of success.
“I'm proud of the way every individual performed. They gave their best and that's what you expect as a coach. Coming on the field, trying their best to be whatever they can and in that sense I am extremely satisfied with the role they played.
I just want them to challenge themselves now. The next step is going to be difficult. First-Class level is going to be difficult. We know that not everyone will play for the country, that's the reality. But to see them trying their best will be satisfying.”