x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Under 19 Cricket World Cup is perfect international stepping stone

Senior players like Pakistan's Mushtaq Ahmed and South Africa's Quinton de Kock look back on their coming-of-age experience while the world was watching, writes Osman Samiuddin.

Before he joined the South Africa senior side, Quinton de Kock exploded onto the international cricket scene during the 2012 ICC Under 19 World Cup in Australia, where he was the team’s leading batsman. Ian Hitchcock / Getty Images
Before he joined the South Africa senior side, Quinton de Kock exploded onto the international cricket scene during the 2012 ICC Under 19 World Cup in Australia, where he was the team’s leading batsman. Ian Hitchcock / Getty Images

A discernible evolution in just how far Under 19 cricket has come from 1988 to now – and its growing importance – is clear from the recollections of Mushtaq Ahmed. The former Pakistan leg-spinner, currently a member of England’s small country-sized backroom staff, was part of the first Youth World Cup (as it was first known) in Australia in 1988.

Pakistan did well, finishing runners-up, and Mushtaq was a star, joint-highest wicket-taker with 19 wickets in nine matches. But more than what he did on the pitch, Mushtaq remembers the experience of life away from it, at a world tournament, in a foreign country.

The Pakistan squad was split into pairs and put up to stay with a local family. Mushtaq and Inzamam-ul-Haq stayed with the Tipping family just outside Adelaide.

Neither, as Mushtaq confesses, could speak a word of English and Mushtaq, in particular, was terrified at the idea of being in a foreign land without being able to communicate.

“Naturally, they served us English-style food and gave us knives and forks,” Mushtaq recalled in his autobiography. “We were used to sitting on a mat and using our hands to eat ... I did not even know how to hold a knife and fork.”

The pair found their food portions a little less than generous but were too shy to ask for more, so would gleefully raid the fridge at night. But eventually they developed quite a bond, the two future stars treating the Tippings like their parents.

“It meant a lot to us that they were concerned for our well-being, and for the rest of our time with them they did everything they could to help us adjust to this different way of life.”

Mushtaq’s memories of the entire experience, of being away at an organised, world-class sporting event, can be read as the coming of age of a boy, not just a cricketer. The cricket, in fact, was almost incidental.

That has changed now, of course. Twenty-six years and eight tournaments later, it is difficult to imagine too many of the cricketers in the UAE will be as wide-eyed. U19 players from most member nations are now better travelled, better rewarded, better scrutinised and better prepared.

Watch, for example, India captain Vijay Zol’s interview on ESPNcricinfo ahead of his side’s arrival here. He speaks in the globalised language of the professional athlete, mutterings that say much but reveal little (on facing Zaheer Khan in a domestic match, Zol “focused on the ball, not the bowler”).

But if not as much a tool for learning and maturing in Mushtaq’s time, the U19 World Cup remains useful dress rehearsal for the big time.

Last season, Quinton de Kock fairly burst onto international cricket; a first ODI hundred in the UAE against Pakistan was swiftly followed by three successive centuries against India, becoming only the fifth man to achieve the feat.

De Kock was South Africa’s leading batsman at the 2012 U19 World Cup in Australia, scoring nearly 300 runs and collecting 18 dismissals behind the stumps.

“Going to the U19 World Cup was the major career highlight that all the cricketers my age were striving for,” he said. “It was a great event. It was my first taste of what international cricket could be like.

“The tournament was well-organised and there was a lot of media interest, which was new to me. It’s the perfect stepping stone for young cricketers, and competing against international opposition gives you a good gauge as to where your cricket-skills are.

“As an aspiring young cricketer, you never really play under the hectic pressures of international cricket. I think this event is important because it gives you a taste of what is to come in international cricket. You get the full package, including lots of media attention, the honour and pride of playing for your country and the pressure to win.”

As much as the bigger picture, the tournament allows players to work out their own games as well, and how they shape up against contemporaries from around the world. Ross Taylor played in the third edition, in 2002, as captain of New Zealand.

He did not do well and neither did his side, but playing against a variety of opposition broadened his game awareness.

“Playing against a lot of different opposition – playing against countries that probably play against a little bit more spin and faster bowlers – that was the biggest thing. I think the pressures that come with playing in high-pressure situations did help me when I started my international career.”

Tamim Iqbal, Bangladesh’s opening batsman, was part of a golden young generation at the 2006 edition, a team that would produce eight senior internationals.

Tamim had a miserable run, scoring just 66 runs in his five matches, but it helped shape the template for how he would bat through the rest of his career.

“I was told to dominate and play aggressively in the first 15 overs. The tournament matches actually gave me a clearer idea about the importance of planning an innings, as a lot depended on equations and situations.

“The intensity, too, was at a different level in the event, and it had plenty of similarities to the major ICC competitions. When I played the World Cup in the following year (2007), it became easier for me to adapt, as I had played in the U19.”

There was a collective knock-on effect as well. The confidence and exposure Bangladesh derived from the tournament helped them to feel they stood on the field as equals to any opponent when they played for the senior team: one part of Bangladesh’s problems before this generation was the palpable lack of belief their teams suffered.

Afghanistan may lack for many things, but confidence and self-belief is not one of them. But how, after their sensational upset of Australia in Abu Dhabi on Monday, can there not be a massive ripple effect on these players, this side and the fortunes of the game in their country itself?

Five memorable Under 19 World Cup matches

India beat England by two wickets, 1988, Australia

Mike Atherton and Mark Ramprakash set up England with a 93-run stand before a side containing eight future internationals collapsed to 172.

In reply, England struck at regular intervals and at 137 for eight, India looked dead. But Janardhanan Ramdas and Venkatapathy Raju put on 36 for the ninth-wicket to see India home, with two balls to spare.

Nepal beat South Africa by one wicket, 2004, Bangladesh

One of the biggest shocks at an U19 World Cup. A strong South Africa side, featuring Vernon Philander and Roelof van der Merwe, were rolled over for 156, Manjeet Shrestha taking 4-15.

Nepal’s middle order imploded in the chase, despite the presence of current internationals such as Paras Khadka. They fell to 138-9 before Shakti Gauchan dragged them home with Sashi Kesari.

Bangladesh beat India by two wickets, 2002, New Zealand

The sort of low-scoring thriller of often seen at U19 tournaments. Only two batsmen made it to double figures after being asked to bat by Bangladesh.

Their 77 should not have been a tough chase, but Bangladesh fell from 34-1 to 64-8. Ultimately, however, Ali Arman and Ashiqur Rahman, who had taken three wickets, saw them through.

Pakistan beat India by 38 runs, 2006, Colombo

The final of this tournament, between arch-rivals and played while the senior men were also playing in Pakistan, remains one of the most memorable matches.

Piyush Chawla and Ravindra Jadeja set India on their way, bowling out Pakistan for 109. Anwar Ali, however, took three wickets in his first over, reduced India to 23-7 and ended with 5-35 as Pakistan defended their title.

Nepal beat New Zealand by one wicket, 2006, Colombo

The Plate Championship final was as engrossing as the final proper in 2006. New Zealand, including Martin Guptill and Tim Southee, won the toss and batted, but only Todd Astle went on to a substantial score as they struggled to 204.

In reply, Nepal fell to 75 for six but fought back through Basant Regmi’s 66. As wickets fell late, it was left to the last pair of Ratan Rauniyar and Raj Shrestha to sneak them home, with two balls to spare.

osamiuddin@thenational.ae

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