Like most teenagers, Anmolpreet Singh keeps an eye on the latest trends. Even with regard to his favourite players. “Aaj kal toh India mein Virat Kohli chal raha hai,” he replied casually when asked to name a cricketer whom he follows. “Starting mein it was Sachin Tendulkar. I grew up watching him.”
Anmolpreet himself was a trend on Tuesday — on social media. His mature 72-run knock against Sri Lanka at the Sher-e-Bangla Stadium laid the foundation of a 97-run victory, which sent India into their fifth Under-19 World Cup final. It was a crucial knock, coming as it did after his team were reduced to 27 for two in the 10th over. Put in to bat under overcast conditions, India lost both the openers, Ishan Kishan and Rishabh Pant, to some serious pace inquisition by Sri Lankan pacers Asitha Fernando and Lahiru Kumara. A crisis was brewing when Sarfaraz Khan joined Anmolpreet out there in the middle. At the Under-19 level, Sarfaraz has built a reputation for digging the team out of hole, but what about his partner. What stuff was he made of?
After warming the bench for three matches in the group stage, Anmolpreet had an extended batting session in the nets ahead of the quarterfinal. It was evident that the team management was planning to replace Ricky Bhui with him. Bhui is one of the senior players of this junior team, having also played in the 2014 edition. However, he had just 47 runs in three matches. Picked ahead of him for the match against Namibia, then, Anmolpreet made a run-a-ball 41 before miscuing a pull shot to cut short a promising innings. Later he also took 3/27 with his handy off-spin to press his claim for retention. But if he was persisted with, it likely wasn’t for any fringe benefits, but for his prodigal talent with the bat and voracious appetite for runs.
‘Lamba khelna hai’
Anmolpreet comes from what he calls a “sports family”. His father Satvinder Pal Singh played handball for India in the late 80s and early 90s. “Sabki apni-apni choice hoti hai, sir,” he said when asked why he didn’t take up handball.
“My cousins used to play cricket and watching them, I also started playing it.”
He took to it like a duck to water. Anmolpreet’s cricket coaching began at nine, and three years later he was in Punjab’s Under-16 team. In his debut Under-16 Vijay Merchant match, against Haryana, Anmolpreet gave a glimpse of both his talent and temperament. With a responsible 98-run effort that belied his age, he rescued the team after they were reduced to 127/8. And have a look at the next five innings: 54, 115, 27*, 107, 70*. For a 12-year-old, these are phenomenal numbers.
Age 15, he was drafted in Punjab’s Under-19 team, and responded with 119 and 216 in the first two innings. “Koshish ye hi rehti hai ke lamba le ke jaana hai,” he said. At 16, Anmolpreet made a triple century against Jammu and Kashmir in the Under-19 Cooch Behar trophy and followed it up with 264 against Orissa. He racked up 1154 runs at an average of 144 in the 2014/15 edition, becoming the first after Vijay Zol in 2011/12 to cross 1000 runs in one Cooch Behar season. For this feat, he was named the BCCI’s U-19 Player of the Year.
“It all started with the Cooch Behar 322, and then I made 264. It gave me confidence. Then, the selection matches happened and I performed,” Anmolpreet said. “(In the warm-up matches and the group stage) everyone was delivering as per the team’s requirement, so I did not get a chance. After that, when Ricky did not score, sir (Rahul Dravid) gave me chance, and I did well.”
Here he was, with Sarfaraz, as India faced their biggest test in the tournament. It helped that the sun peeked out from behind the clouds and Sri Lanka’s pacers began to tire out. Soon Charith Asalanka handed the ball to his spinners, but there wasn’t much turn on offer. Initially, Anmolpreet and Sarfaraz kept the score ticking with singles and twos.
“The wicket was tough, and the ball was doing a bit. So, my discussion with Sarfaraz was to rotate the strike. Lamba leke jaana hai (We have to take it deep) then we can hit boundaries,” he said.
Anmolpreet was more circumspect, playing second fiddle, but the Mumbai lad brought up his half-century with a series of sweeps to the boundary and a six over long off. It was Sarfaraz’s fourth fifty of the tournament, but the ton that he has been looking for in the U-19 World Cup would remain elusive.
As Asalanka brought the pacers back, Sarfaraz top-edged a pull and was caught at mid-on. It was a crucial time, as India were 123 for three in the 31st over. Anmolpreet and Washington Sundar needed to preserve their wickets while also stepping on the gas a bit. Anmolpreet took charge and lofted Asalanka, who was troubling Sundar with his off-spin, for a six. A flick past midwicket off Lahiru Kumara brought up his half-century. However, the best shot of the day was his sweetly-timed pull off Kumara, who had been bowling some vicious short balls. The 17-year-old Anmolpreet moved into position early and swiveled with grace, dispatching the ball towards square-leg boundary.
“The pull he hit was really nice because at times you can’t trust the bounce of the wicket. Even then, he pulled their main pace bowler who had a fielder at square leg,” said captain Ishan after the match.
Anmolpreet was unfortunate to be given out caught behind as he tried to scoop Thilan Nimesh over the wicketkeeper but missed and the ball flicked off his shoulder. As he walked back, the entire India dug-out, including Dravid, was up on their feet and clapping.
With six wickets left and more than seven overs to go, India who were 193, needed a push to take the total past 250. Arman Jaffer and the lower order provided that impetus with some delightful hitting and brisk running to take the total to 267.
Pacer Avesh Khan then trapped Avishka Fernando and effected Kavin Bandara’s run out to leave Sri Lanka for 13/2. The Lankan just couldn’t stem the slide, and an Indian victory became a question of when.
It came in the 44th over when Asitha Fernando attempted a wild slog off left-arm spinner Mayank Dagar only to sky it high. At mid-wicket, Anmolpreet settled nicely under the ball to take a comfortable catch and finish the job that he began.