Under-19 World Cups are supposed to be a platform for the best young cricketers from the top cricket nations.
This Indian team, just like the Indian teams in prior editions of this World Cup, is stacked with some real cricketing talent. Arshin Kulkarni, Sachin Dhas, Uday Saharan, Avanish Arvaelly, Musheer Khan, Saumy Pandey etc., have already made a name for themselves.
Until the Super Six stages, it was all yellow for the team in blue, as they batted first, batted big and choked the opposition with their spinners. Things were going exactly as expected, and the Indians were marching towards their sixth Under-19 World Cup title.
But they batted second for the first time against South Africa in the semifinal on a spicy deck in Benoni and found themselves at 32/4 against the fiery pace, bounce and movement of Kwena Maphaka and Tristan Luus. If not for skipper Saharan and Dhas’ 171-run partnership, India would have, in all likelihood, lost that game.
Today, in the final, the same pattern was repeated, albeit it wasn’t exactly the bounce that troubled the Indian batters. It was their own approach with the bat and team selection that allowed the opposition to dominate them.
Australia came with quite different strategies from the Indians and made the most of them by near-perfect execution on a day where very little went wrong for them.
For skipper Hugh Weibgen and coach Anthony Clark, the strategy seemed quite clear. They wanted to complete the job that South Africa began but couldn’t finish. The Proteas lost a bit of steam against Dhas and Saharan after Maphaka and Luus were done with their first spells and capitalised on the remaining bowlers. Australia’s selection made sure that their attack was relentless.
To begin with, they saw the seam friendly conditions at Benoni and decided to employ all their four pacers in the game. Charlie Anderson is tall, and he swings the ball quite nicely. Mahli Beardman is quick, accurate and quite lethal for a first-change seamer. Callum Vidler’s swinging menace and Tom Straker’s hit-the-deck accuracy rounds up the attack quite well.
The four call themselves a cartel, and they defended their total like one, bowling one thunderbolt after the other.
Kulkarni fell in Vidler’s trap of a perfect outswinger as he meekly poked at the delivery and edged it to Ryan Hicks, the keeper. Musheer Khan looked to survive and was circumspect. But Beardman, the Player of the Match, came into the attack after Anderson and Vidler were done with their spells and bowled a ball into the stumps that hardly bounced. Only the bottom edge of Musheer’s bat could meet the ball, and the stumps were shattered.
A few overs later, skipper Saharan did something he hadn’t done in the entire tournament - get out for a single-digit score. Dhas went out trying to play a front-foot defence against the off-spinner Raf MacMillan and gave an easy catch to Hicks behind the wicket.
India’s hope of winning the World Cup was crushed within the first 20 overs of their chase itself, with them reduced to 74/4. After that, it was more about how much they could delay the inevitable. What would hurt India in hindsight would be off-spinner MacMillan running away with three wickets for 43, while the Indian spinners went for 141 runs in 31 overs and picked up only two wickets.
Not only did Australia’s pace attack prove to be the difference in the game in terms of the penetration of their attack, but they were also quite economical. Anderson was the most expensive amongst the four, but even he gave runs at only 4.66 runs/over. All in all, the four pacers combined to bowl 33.5 overs, gave only 124 runs and picked up seven Indian wickets.
At this point, it’s only natural that one asks why didn’t the Indian management play the extra pacers, Dhanush Gowda and Aaradhya Shukla, who were warming the bench? Why wasn’t Kulkarni bowled more on a track that was helpful for the seamers?
India's team suffered due to this selection strategy. They failed to move away from the team combination that had worked throughout the tournament despite the conditions asking them to. Yes, Australian batters were struggling against spin in the tournament, as Pakistan's Arafat Minhas showed in the semifinal. But playing an extra spinner in seam-friendly conditions isn't justified.
Australia’s approach, in contrast, was refreshing, to say the least, as despite playing four pacers on a seaming track under overcast skies, they decided to bat first in the big final, believing that the scoreboard pressure would push the Indian batters into their defensive cocoons.
That is exactly what happened, as a few early wickets forced Indian batters to defend even the bad balls, and when the pressure became too much, they were dismissed, making silly mistakes like poking at the ball in front of their body.
The Under-19 World Cup has always been a great stage for India’s teenage cricketing sensations to shine. Even this time, Saharan, Musheer, Saumy Pandey and Sachin Dhas made quite a name for themselves.
But these young guns were defeated by an Australian team who forgot what happened in the past, looked at the conditions, selected the right team for it, and then backed them to the hilt to perform. Maybe that’s why Harjas Singh could come and score a 55 in the final after scoring just 49 runs in six innings in the tournament.
The Indians stuck to what had worked for them throughout the tournament and ended up losing the game due to their approach as much as they did to the Aussie pacers.
A few years from now, cricket fans will utter many of these names in the same breath as Virat Kohli, Pat Cummins, Jasprit Bumrah, and Steve Smith.
Some of these players are just too talented not to take the cricketing world by the scruff of its neck. That’s enough hope to live on, even for the Indian side. But will the system help them become the most fearless, flexible, and skilful version of themselves? Can it help them reach the zenith of their talent? The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind.
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