Talented and triumphant

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The Indian U-19 team returns home with the Cricket World Cup trophy to many, many accolades… and one brickbat! By RITAM MITRA

It was still winter down under, but in late August India won the Under-19 Cricket World Cup, beating Australia in a tense final in Townsville, Queensland. The match was underlined by a stunning century by the Indian skipper, Unmukt Chand, and certainly exposed some exciting talents to the international cricket community.

U-19 tourney gaining glory

The ICC Under-19 Cricket World Cup has taken place every two years since 1998, having initially been staged as a one-off event that year. While it does not carry with it the prestige of the senior version, the pedigree of the players that take part in it makes up much of the attraction – players such as Saqlain Mushtaq, Brian Lara and Sanath Jayasuriya featured in the earliest edition; the 2008 tournament included James Pattinson, Darren Bravo and India’s Virat Kohli, who led the side to the trophy, and currently sits as the second-best ODI batsman in the game. The hype that has surrounded the tournament in recent years, then, is not without reason – it really has become a breeding ground for future champions.


Mental preparation is key

While the senior Indian team was at the same time busy thrashing a hapless New Zealand outfit by an innings and 115 runs at home in Hyderabad, the U-19 side proved just how much more mental preparation goes into young Indian players today. The side lost their very first match against a talented West Indian outfit, but comprehensively thrashed minnows Zimbabwe and Papua New Guinea. They then scraped through a ridiculously tense quarter-final against Pakistan, winning by just one wicket – and then backed the performance up with another narrow win in the semi-final by just 9 runs against New Zealand.

After such an emotional rollercoaster, the side, which featured players as young as 17, might have been forgiven for an average display in the final. Instead, India got off to a great start, picking up four early wickets against an Australian batting line up that had not yet failed to deliver. Led by a steady unbeaten 87* by captain William Bosisto (who was dismissed only once in 6 innings – and that too, run-out), the Aussies recovered and posted an impressive 225/8 off their 50 overs.

Ian Chappell, the former Australian captain, had remarked about this tournament that it was notable how much more advanced the fast bowlers were in their development than the batsmen – and this explains the low-scoring affairs throughout the competition. The top team score in the semi-finals was 209; in the quarter-finals, 244. For India, chasing 225 in a final, with cloud cover and a strong home bowling attack, was not an easy task.


A determined win

While Australia were 4/38 early in their innings, India had moved steadily to 1/75, largely due to the sparkling strokeplay of Baba Aparajith – who is definitely one to watch out for in the shorter format of the game. Australia’s Gurinder Sandhu, however, who spoke to Indian Link ahead of the tournament, broke the Chand-Aparajith partnership, and a flurry of wickets followed.

At 4/97, with vice-captain Akshdeep Nath woefully out of form, India moved their enterprising and confident wicketkeeper, Smit Patel, up the order. By now, Australia were rampant – runs were extremely difficult to come by, and the pressure on Chand was immense.

Joel Paris, the Australian left-armer, was regularly clocking up speeds above 140km/h. The part-timers were stifling and the fields intuitive. The Aussies had their tails up, and they let the Indians know it, too. It was no place for the faint-hearted.

Some unbelievably beautiful batting then turned the match on its head.

Chand began hitting pure cricket strokes – drives over extra cover, lofted straight drives down the ground – to not only reach the boundary, but to clear it comfortably. Chand, who was especially brutal on Sandhu, hit 7 fours and 6 sixes in all, including a perfectly-timed drive over the cover region which both brought up his century and all but sealed the trophy. It was Chand’s 5th century at the U-19 level, but more tellingly, his third in tournament finals – Bosisto, the Australian captain, later remarked that that it was “not the first time he has terrorised us”.

Patel’s contribution, too, was crucial; his 62* in a partnership of 130 – the highest in any U-19 World Cup final – was enterprising, and similarly risky. But it paid off.


Pick the talent

There were also notable performances by seamer Sandeep Sharma – who finished with 12 wickets at 15.75, including 4-54 in the final, as well as tweaker Harmeet Singh, who Ian Chappell has stated categorically as the best left-arm spinner in the world, and the second-best overall behind Graeme Swann. But you can only compare apples with apples – and it’s plaudits like these which can often send young athletes down the wrong road.

Greats such as Tendulkar and Ponting never played in an Under-19 World Cup. India’s Rohit Sharma and Australia’s Moises Henriques both shone in the 2006 edition, yet both have found international cricket thoroughly miserable. Lara, Jayasuriya, Kohli – none of these names were the top run-scorers in their respective tournaments.  There was some brilliant cricket played in Townsville, and no doubt there was an abundance of talent on display – but part of the fascination of the U-19 World Cup is seeing how they develop from here. There’s still one more step to go – who will put their hand up?


Euphoria back home

Back home, a hero’s welcome awaited the U-19s as they triumphantly carried home the World Cup. Winning against Australia has become almost as prestigious as a win against hereditary arch-rivals Pakistan, and cricket-loving Indians were quick to shower appreciation on these young stars.

The triumphant U-19 Indian cricket team arrived home to a euphoric reception in Mumbai.
As Delhi boy and skipper Unmukt Chand came out of the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport terminal holding the trophy, celebrations broke out.
Mumbaiite Harmeet Singh’s relatives and friends also turned up in large numbers and carried a huge cutout of the spinner.
“I am very happy. We played well in Australia and won it. It’s a proud feeling,” said Chand, who is the third captain after Mohammed Kaif and Virat Kohli to lead the country to the under-19 World Cup title.
In Kolkata, a host of Cricket Association of Bengal (CAB) officials and a large number of East Bengal fan club members waited at the NSC Bose International Airport here to greet Ravikant Singh and Sandipan Das, the two cricketers from Bengal who were in the winning squad. With 12 wickets, Ravikant finished as the most successful Indian bowler in the tournament played in Australia.

In the melee of fans eager to greet the young cricketers, their families were pushed to the sidelines and security personnel had to intervene, getting the cricketers into their cars in a hurry, thus cutting the celebrations short. However, the glory of the win was overwhelming, as Ravikant stated. “We were over the moon. Never in my life was I so happy,” he said adding, “I owe a lot to captain Unmukt (Chand). I came into the team as a replacement but he showed faith in me and gave me confidence. Unmukt is a batsman, but he is a bowlers’ captain.”

Unmukt is now richer not just in experience, but also financially as the state of Uttarakhand announced a cash reward of Rs.11 lakh for the young cricketing star who hit a match-winning unbeaten century in the final.

Although Unmukt plays for Delhi in domestic cricket, he hails from Khudku Bhalya village in Uttarakhand’s Pithoragarh district. Officials said the state was also considering felicitating the entire U-19 cricket team.

And while accolades have been pouring in, the International Cricket Council (ICC) president Alan Isaac also congratulated the Indian team for winning the U-19 World Cup for the third time. “It has been an incredible performance by India. The way the team bounced back after losing the tournament opener reflects the talent and self-confidence of the side. And with captain Unmukt Chand leading the side from the front with a century in the final, it just sums up three great weeks for them in Townsville,” said Issac.


Ironic loss over win

And in what can only be termed as a bizarrely typical situation, Unmukt Chand was disallowed by St Stephen’s College in Delhi to sit for his annual exam because his class attendance was poor. Unmukt was forced to approach the Delhi High Court petitioning that he was unable to attend classes because of cricket matches, including the Indian Premier League. He requested the High Court to ask his college to allow him to sit for the annual exam. Fortunately, the Association of Old Stephanians are backing up the talented cricketer, and have appealed to St Stephen’s College and Delhi University “to take necessary steps to ensure that promising sportspersons are encouraged to perform better and bring laurels to the country”. It’s the old familiar argument between academics and sports. So who will be the winner?