U-19 World Cup India’s perfect finishing school
India’s quarter-final win against Australia in the under-19 World Cup was a tense affair. Four players stood out for India: Yashasvi Jaiswal and Atharva Ankolekar (with the bat) and Kartik Tyagi and Akash Singh (with the ball).
There is tremendous delight in watching players in this age group unveil their skills on the big stage. Some of them perform with that extra zing that grabs attention. Selectors and talent scouts for IPL teams will soon train their sights on Jaiswal, Ankolekar, Tyagi and Akash.
However, individual brilliance in one match is not germane to the issue under discussion. What was more commendable is the aggressive and ambitious approach of the entire team in the matches played in this tournament so far.
In a large way, this explains where Indian cricket’s current strength is sourced from. Even a cursory glance at how the U-19 World Cup has panned out after its revival in 1998 (there was a one-off World Youth Cup in 1988) highlights this.
In 11 editions before the current tournament, India have won the title four times, the most by any country, and finished runners-up twice. Australia are next best with three titles followed by Pakistan (2), West Indies and South Africa (one each). Australia have not beaten India at the U-19 level since 2012, losing nine matches in succession.
Whether India can successfully defend their title remains to be seen. But irrespective of what happens from here, the heft of talent Indian cricket has received from the U-19 ranks comes through tellingly when juxtaposed with the performances of the senior side.
Not the least in Virat Kohli’s team winning the T20I match on Wednesday in a Super Over. This is the first time India have beaten New Zealand in New Zealand in this format, so one more obstacle has been overcome.
What is pertinent is six of the 11 who took the field in the third game—Rohit, Rahul, Virat, Iyer, Manish Pandey and Jadeja—have played in the U-19 World Cup. Four of the five on the bench—Rishabh Pant, Sanju Samson, Washington Sundar and Kuldeep Yadav—are also U-19 World Cuppers. Add to these Shikhar Dhawan, Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane and the influence of U-19 World Cuppers shows up as even more significant across formats. This is clearly now the pipeline to provide the most, and arguably the best, players in Indian cricket.
Making U-19 cricket robust necessitated a regimentation of effort by the country’s cricket administration after universities cricket, which had performed a similar function in the 1960s through 1980s, became uncompetitive and withered away.
Think of the talent that has come through the U-19 World Cup route starting from the 2000 batch that included Irfan Pathan, Yuvraj Singh and Mohamed Kaif. The number to play for India has grown consistently since.
It redounds to the credit of BCCI for spreading the gospel of cricket far and wide in the country in the past two decades. Better money for first-class players started drawing more youngsters into the sport than ever before.
A hub and spoke model helped players from even remote areas to come to cities where facilities and coaches were available. Youngsters from the most humble or underprivileged backgrounds were discovered and got succour; for example Kartik Tyagi and Atharva Ankolekar in the current team.
However, it is not just U-19 World Cup cricket alone that has made the difference to how Indian cricket has evolved. This has been accentuated by the high frequency of competitive matches BCCI affords players in this age group.
The cash-rich IPL has played a major role. The league offers moolah, fame and a platform for instance recognition of talent that didn’t exist earlier. More importantly, it has given young players an opportunity to rub shoulders with, and learn from, some of the world’s best talent.
The benefit of all these is evident in the skill and confidence of India’s junior teams in recent years, which transfers swiftly to the international level when these players make the jump to the senior ranks. This doesn’t mean players who are not junior World Cuppers don’t matter. Dhoni, Ashwin, Bumrah and Shami are not from this pool but have made huge contributions in making India formidable. It only means that if systems identifying and supporting young talent are kept robust, the likelihood of slumps gets that much rarer and peaks that much better.