x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Under 19 World Cup: When boys can just be boys

Starting on Friday, this ICC tournament is one of a few events players compete in for love of game, writes Paul Radley.

India are the defending champions, having won the competition in 2012. The boys in blue have won the title three times in total. Matt Roberts / Getty Images
India are the defending champions, having won the competition in 2012. The boys in blue have won the title three times in total. Matt Roberts / Getty Images

Cricket could do with a tournament like this right about now.

One chock-full of youthful naivete, where sets of mates express their shared national identity through cricket.

It all seems quite quaint. There is not much of that sort of thing floating around the sport elsewhere at present.

Like last week, for instance. When a player who had initially transferred his allegiance for financial reasons was sacked by his adopted country for insurrection. Then, after days of legal wrangling, he was gagged by a confidentiality agreement.

Kevin Pietersen once played for South Africa Under 19. Life was probably a lot simpler then.

Now he is essentially a stateless soldier of fortune, having been summarily jettisoned by England, his employers.

And while all that was unfolding, the game’s three most affluent national boards were greasing each other’s palms and cutting deals to revamp the sport in their favour.

Then, on Wednesday, vulgar sums of money were bandied about on deracinated commodities whose loyalty is to the marketplace rather than the lands of their birth. Pertinently, the newly freelance Pietersen pocketed a cool 90 million rupees (Dh5.5m) after being bought by Delhi Daredevils at the Indian Premier League auction.

Cricket, it is fair to say, is a long way from cucumber sandwiches on the village green these days. Is it better for it? Sometimes it is difficult to think so.

And then you get reminders of why you fell for the sport in the first place.

If the two other age-grade competitions that have been played in the UAE this winter were anything to go by, this U19 World Cup will convey the idea that sport is played for fun, not greed.

Those two events shared two salient points: excellent standards of performance, and a spirit which lifted morale.

First there was the U17 World Cup of football, played across the emirates in October and November.

It was won by a Nigeria side who seemed to have one lone aim: to put a smile on people’s faces.

The same went last month, when the continent’s leading teenaged cricketers made their first trip to these shores, for a dress-rehearsal for this World Cup known as the U19 Asia Cup. That competition was won by a set of players for whom it genuinely felt like playing for India was a privilege rather than just any old day at the office.

They clinched the final, against their ancient rivals Pakistan, thanks to twin centuries by two players seemingly well set on the path towards cricket’s millions – Vijay Zol and Sanju Samson.

When the final ball was bowled, India’s fielders were totally unconcerned for their personal safety, as they crowded Pakistan’s final batsman.

Not, as you might think, to give themselves the best chance to save a run, but because they wanted to be first in the queue for a souvenir stump.

Take the testimony of Ravindra Jadeja, the Indian all-rounder who has gone on to be an IPL millionaire, about his experience as a champion of this tournament in 2008. “I was standing on a Jeep and people were walking with me,” Jadeja has said of his triumphal return home back then.

“They were shouting my name. It was amazing, the first time I had experienced something like that.”

Age-group sport may be short of recognisable players, but it is a joy to watch because it is unfettered by the cynicism of professionalism.

This is the last point where the game is played purely for enjoyment.

After this, the realities of earning a crust take over. It is not just the players who should enjoy it while it lasts. We should, too.