Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Charm of the U-19 World Cup

16 days, 16 teams, 4 venues, 11 televised games, 240 squad players.

The U-19 World Cup has been one of the most enjoyable underrated ICC events. It's come around again, the 10th edition is upon us with UAE making their debut in hosting an ICC event (outside qualification tournaments for associates) this month. 

The competition has been held every alternate year since 1998 in order to give maximum chance for young cricketers flourishing through the ranks to play in the event during their ages of U-19 eligibility. It has clearly been a fast launching pad for some of the biggest names in the international game. Endless cricketers have gone on to play for their countries by initially participating or performing in the Youth World Cup. This will inevitably continue in the foreseeable future. 

Virat Kohli skippered the 2008 Indian winning team in the U-19 World Cup in Malaysia that year and not long after was a permanent member of the Indian national side in the coloured uniform, as the most famous contemporary example. Michael Clarke played in the 2000 edition of the tournament as did Shane Watson and soon after made the transition to the top level. Yuvraj Singh was a leading name of the Indian team in the same tournament. Hashim Amla captained the South African side in the 2002 edition. Alastair Cook captained the England side in the 2004 edition and was awarded a Test cap 2 years later. Pujara and Rohit Sharma both featured in the Indian team in 2006 as did Ravi Jadeja. More recently, Ben Stokes and Joe Root represented England in the 2010 edition. Quinton De Kock was a graduate from the 2012 edition in Australia as was Ashton Agar.

Current international players have hailed the significant impact the championship had on their careers. Yuvraj Singh commented “Doing well at ICC U19 CWC gave me the confidence to shine at senior ICC events” when looking back on the experience. Even those who did not get an opportunity to participate have acknowledged the quality of the competition. Kumar Sangakkara stated "The competition has gone on to produce cricketers of exceptional quality and this time will be no different" when previewing the upcoming edition.

What Makes the U-19 World Cup Unique From Other ICC Events?

Many teams, yet still a short tournament with minimal venues utilised. This is what makes this event appealing, even if many of the players are unknown to you as a result of virtually any U-19 international coverage being shown outside this. But, on the plus side of that, quantity brings quality. The fact that we only get to see U-19 teams play after 2 years creates greater interest. It's a well thought out attractive tournament format in helping maintain the interest levels throughout despite 16 teams being involved which other ICC events could take a leaf out of. 

Additionally, the vast majority of the players are playing in front of the cameras for the first time and how they handle the challenges and pressures that come with it is intriguing viewing. Illustrious names are present in the commentary box, too. Wasim Akram has commentated in the 2010 and 2012 edition. This can only be an incentive to perform for the players in the knowledge that big names are following them and will potentially sing their praises. It's most fascinating in assessing players we see for the first time and how far they may go in terms of a potential international career right up to Test level by first impressions judgement. This is a unique experience for the viewer or indeed the commentator. 

Alternatively, many of the players will not make it to international cricket or even a stable career plying their trade within domestic scenes and the U-19 World Cup will be the biggest stage they will play on in terms of national representation. The 2 week tournament might be the most memorable of their lives. Tariq Mahmood was being touted as ‘the next big thing’ in Pakistan’s spin bowling department after winning the 2004 U-19 World Cup in Bangladesh, but for a variety of reasons his career did not materialise as an unorthodox off spinner. Therefore, it is the biggest platform they will reach in some cases and that gives the tournament added significance for the players. It means a lot to the players and that’s most evident with Unmukt Chand recently writing a book on his journey to U-19 World Cup glory in Townsville.

Minnows also have their chance at this level. Nepal instrumentally managed to finish the 2006 tournament as 3rd place winners. Bangladesh finished in 7th position in the 2012 edition, ahead of Pakistan. The fact that 5th place and 9th place encounters take place once a side has been eliminated much like Hockey tournaments give it greater opportunity for the less well known sides to make their mark. They have more to play for as opposed to just filling the numbers. Minnows are also strengthened with the fact that age limit is extended to 20 years of age for non ICC full members. We consequently saw George Dockrell lead the Irish side in Australia 2012.

Another charm which this multinational carnival brings is low scoring games and low scoring thrillers. Purists tend to prefer games where ball has dominance over bat. Seeing 180 all out play 140 all out as opposed to 320 being chased with 4 overs to spare. Seeing 220 chased in the final over rather than a team racking up 280 and the chasing side falling 10 short. Bowlers are not seen as servants and not anyone can make runs for fun. Why are the games low scoring at U-19? 50 overs of batting is an art and a long time at this level for first generation T20 cricketers. 

Key Players in 2014

Sami Aslam - Captain of Pakistan

There are many impressive performers in the Pakistan team worth highlighting let it be Zia ul Haq or Zafar Gohar but if you had to single out one; tough to look beyond the leader of the ship. Sami has the highest number of runs and centuries in U-19 one day internationals. He is an experienced member in the camp having already played a handful of first class games with impressive success. He was also a member of the 2012 U-19 World Cup team. The standout feature about Sami is his ability to deliver in the big games. He was player of the tournament during his first tour with the Pakistan U-19s in South Africa 2012. Later that year he was joint player of the final and player of the tournament at the U-19 Asia Cup. Last summer during his first tour of England he was player of the U-19 tri nations final at Trent Bridge. At the beginning of last month, Sami was named batsman of the tournament at the U-19 Asia Cup. Countless awards to his credit at the youth level. 

As a captain, he has led Pakistan to two tri nation competition wins and also led them to the final of the U-19 Asia Cup last month. He is not the most talkative type, but has a mature head on his shoulders, has performed outstandingly and with his experience, you can understand why the PCB heads opted to have him as captain. He's an attacking left handed opening batsman who has an appetite for big runs. He manages to command the respect of his team as captain by leading from the front and thriving with responsibility. Having scored productively in England and South Africa; never an easy proposition for a sub continental player and commenced his first class career with impressive numbers; the Pakistan Captain will be one to keep a close eye on. There is every chance he will join his countrymen Khalid Latif and Safraz Ahmed as U-19 World Cup winning captains. 

Ben Duckett - England

Like Sami, Ben also has previous U-19 World Cup experience which will come in handy, having been part of the 2012 edition in Queensland, Australia. In a recent interview, the Northamptonshire prospect mentioned how he was advising other members of the team about his experiences of playing in an U-19 World Cup such as playing in front of the cameras. Duckett is an innovative and inventive left handed batsman who is not the easiest to set a field against. There is a touch of Eoin Morgan to his play with his ability to score all around the field and hit the ball in unusual areas. He can also fulfill the wicket keeping duties. 

Ben was part of the Northants side which triumphed as underdogs on the Friends Life Twenty20 finals day at Edgbaston last year. Recently, Ben lost captaincy of the England U-19 side having led them last summer and was dropped from the team for the recent tour of the UAE on fitness grounds. Nonetheless, he mentioned how this made him more determined and it was perhaps just the wake up call he needed in his work ethic. Given the recent events surrounding him, Ben will have a point or two to prove in the Emirates.

Sanju Samson - India

Sanju is well known to followers of the IPL. He certainly proved his credentials and showcased his talent during the Champions League, especially in the final where he played thrillingly against the Mumbai Indians for an explosive 60 from 33 deliveries. More recently, he notched up a century in the final of the U-19 Asia Cup in a closely contested neighbourhood rivalry. Given his experience of playing against big players in well watched tournaments and his performances in those; Samson will undoubtedly be a pivotal member of the Indian side as they look to defend their world title. 

Samson has played first class cricket and registered 4 centuries to his credit. He comes across as someone who can adapt to the demands of the 3 different formats. Yet another precociously gifted top class batter from India? Who's to put it past him? 

Group of Death

Group D, appropriately for "group of death" is a killer group and one to follow closely. England, New Zealand, the hosts and Sri Lanka form it. There will be two very disappointed teams eliminated. No game will be a walkover or straightforward formality. New Zealand reached the semi final in the last U-19 World Cup, England's recent form has been worrisome, UAE as hosts should reach the quarter finals and Sri Lanka failed to make the quarter finals in the last U-19 World Cup but given the strength of their school cricket system and conditions more to their liking; you wouldn't expect a repeat of the 2012 shambles. 

Favourites?

The tournament historically has been played 4 times in Asian conditions before with Pakistan and India sharing two titles each during the 4 held in Asia. Both of these sides have what it takes to go the distance and both can deservedly hold the tag of favourites going into the 10th edition of the biggest teen sporting event or under age sporting event. Their form guide and familiarity with conditions make them the powerhouses. Pakistan have won 19 of their last 21 U-19 fixtures including defeating their England counterparts in all eight games they contested in 2013 and played a tri nations tournament and U-19 Asia Cup in these UAE conditions in the not too distant past. India are the defending champions, have the joint highest tally of title wins at the U-19 World Cup and recently triumphed in the U-19 Asia Cup. There is not much to choose between them and luckily for fans they lock horns on the second day of the competition in a televised fixture in what promises to be a mouth watering contest. 

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