In the quietest corner of the cricket world, at sleepy grounds used more for running, walking and rugby, the only signs of a World Cup are the jarring advertising hoardings of the International Cricket Council’s principal sponsors. The under-19 World Cup has become the number one destination to spot talent, and this edition in New Zealand promises to be no different.
While the challenge at any major cricket event that India is involved in, is controlling the hype, the opposite is true of this event. For the team, led by Ashok Meenaria, the tournament is a chance to glimpse the world of the men they most admire, the India senior team.
“This is the first time I’ll be playing in a match that’ll be telecast,” says Mandeep Singh, the attacking batsman who is already a star of sorts, having won the best young player award in the under-15, under-17 and under-19 categories. “People at home are excited that I will be on TV.”
The tournament also gives these boys their first taste of life on the road. They’ve played in Australia, and warmed up for this event with a series in South Africa, and by the time they return — with a trophy, they hope — it would have been 40 days away from home. “We have to adjust to different things. In terms of cricket, the wind plays a big role here. This affects you whether you’re batting, bowling or fielding. The ball seams a bit more off the pitches. There are many small things.” What Mandeep does not stress on, is the other things — the different food, weather, the order and abundance of space — all things that can throw a young man off balance. “I speak to my family for at least 15 minutes each day,” he says, with a grin.
Teammates are fast becoming the first family, as is so often the case with cricketers. “When we are together like this for long periods, we have to be good friends. We need to get on well, occasionally laugh at each other, keep things light, so that we stay relaxed and don’t miss home.”
The team has sessions where one boy tries his hand at mimicry or another demonstrates the stances of prominent international batsmen.
But when it comes to cricket, there’s a serious approach. Wednesday’s practice session had a distinct fielding focus to it, with the team having lost a rain-shortened warm-up match against Sri Lanka where fielding lapses hurt them.
Coach Chandrakant Pandit, known for his sharp reading of the game, set up a drill where the batsmen hit to the outfield and scrambled two runs, while the fielders attacked the ball. Without their realizing it, the boys got a lesson not only in aggressive fielding, but in judging how to place the ball and pick up twos.
The learning phase is on, but when it comes to match day, India’s under-19 boys, with their ultra-confident outlook, hope to show the world what they are capable of.
As Mandeep puts it, “We are not thinking about what will happen after, whether we get picked for the senior team or some IPL team shows interest, we just want to win.”