It wasn’t until the Under-19 World Cup entered its third week that India faced their first real test. They were up against Sri Lanka in the first semifinal, and there was a significant amount of interest over how they would fare against an opposition with a pedigree vastly superior to Ireland, New Zealand, Nepal and Namibia — teams Ishan Kishan and his boys blew away without so much as breaking a sweat. In the event, India’s batsmen rode out the early storm to post 267, and buoyed by the target, the bowlers ran through the Lankan line-up to complete an clinical 97-run win.
‘Clinical’, infact, is an apt adjective to describe the campaign of Rahul Dravid’s team. Watching them is like watching a well-oiled machine working at its optimum. One of the words that was thrown in the press box about the semi-final on Tuesday was “boring”. It may sound a bit excessive, but it’s hard to deny an air of predictability about this side. But it’s the predictability that comes from efficiency. Two early wickets, no matter, Sarfaraz Khan is there, followed by Washington Sundar and Arman Jaffer. In bowling, Avesh Khan will almost always strike in his first spell, Khaleel Ahmed will unfailingly be miserly, and the first change seamer Rahul Batham will not let up the pressure.
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With this team, therefore, you almost know what’s going to happen next. In the same way as you know that your reliable cruiser motorcycle is not going leave you stranded on a highway. Here we take a look at various cogs of the India Under-19 wheel that is rolling on like a juggernaut.
Depth in the batting
Except for the match against Nepal, where the openers Rishabh Pant and Ishan Kishan went berserk, scoring 124 in 9 overs, India have found themselves one or two-down early, with not much on the scoreboard. However, Sarfaraz, coming in at No.4, brings the same kinds of reassurance that Aravinda de Silva would bring to the crease for Sri Lanka in the 1996 World Cup. The 18-year-old from Mumbai came in at 46/2 in the first match against Ireland and made 74; at 19/2 versus New Zealand and made, again, 74; and at 27/2 against Sri Lanka and made 59. With four fifties in five matches and 304 aggregate, he is the team’s leading run-scorer — and the third overall — in the tournament. Behind him in the list is Rishabh Pant, with 266 runs in five innings. The explosive opener has hit the team’s only century — 115 against Namibia — in the tournament as well as a hurricane 24-ball 78 against Nepal. Anmolpreet Singh — who made 72 in the semifinal — Washington Sundar and Arman Jaffer too have chipped in with crucial knocks. The hallmark of India’s batting has been singles and twos as the batsmen have found gaps effortlessly, never allowing the pressure to build. And when they need to up the run rate, all of them can resort to power-hitting. Especially, Mahipal Lamror, the stocky all-rounder who hits powerful sixes.
India’s speedsters, led by Avesh Khan, have worked up hostile pace and have choked the opposition batsmen with pretty tight lines. Khan has taken 11 wickets in five matches at 13.81 runs apiece, with an economy of 3.61. His new-ball partner Khaleel Ahmed hasn’t been as lucky and has taken only two wickets, but his accuracy has played a role in Khan striking from the other hand. The most heartening aspect of India’s bowling has been the third seamer, Rahul Batham. The Gwalior lad bowls with great intensity, ensuring the pressure doesn’t dissipate. He has five wickets in three matches (in which he has bowled 20 overs), and his economy rate is 3.07.
Mayank Dagar’s inclusion has added to India’s spin resources. The left-arm Dagar keeps his line and length pretty accurate and gets the ball to turn a fair bit. In fact, he has taken the mantle of the team’s main left-arm spinner from Lomror. The tall Washington has also troubled the batsman with his off-spin, extracting extra bounce from the pitch. In Anmolpreet and Sarfaraz, India have very credible part-time options. The depth in India’s bowling was evident in the semifinal when both Batham and Lomror twisted their ankles and had to go off the field. Sarfaraz chipped in with his leg-spin and gave Sri Lanka little breathing space.
Speaking of breathing space, India’s brilliant fielding has complemented their bowling in making their opponents feel claustrophobic. At the Under-19 level where you would expect youngsters to commit a few mistakes on the field, you will have to strain your brain cells to remember a misfield or a drop by the Indians. In all, one can recall one stumping miss and three drops in five matches — two of those four missed chances actually happening on Tuesday, a rare off day. Otherwise, their catching, in slips and outfield, has been outstanding. Even better has been their throwing. There has been a lot of emphasis on direct hitting, with the players even having a competition among themselves to hit a single stump during practice sessions. The result: they have effected five runs outs so far.
There are 15 members in a World Cup squad, and not all of them can be expected to be on the top of their game at a given time. India have been no exception. One of their senior batsmen, Ricky Bhui, hit a hundred in a warm-up game, but lost form once the tournament began. He threw away a good start in the opener against Ireland and fell to a beautiful outswinger by Zak Gibson against New Zealand. In the next match against Nepal, he played a lame shot off a long-hopper straight to mid-wicket. After 47 runs in three matches, the former captain and No.3 was benched. In came Anmolpreet Singh. The Patiala lad, who was carrying drinks in the first three matches, was the BCCI’s Under-19 Player of the Year for the 2014-15 season. He has a big appetite for runs and doesn’t get overwhelmed by the occasion. And the occasion was the quarterfinal against Namibia.
He made 41 runs and chipped in with three wickets. An even bigger occasion was the semifinal where he top-scored with 72, helping rebuild India’s innings after they were reduced to 27 for two.
In bowling, too, India played leg-spinner Zeeshan Ansari in the first two matches.The 16-year-old from Lucknow had decent outings, but India were looking at the more than that. He made way for Dagar for the third match against Nepal. The Delhi-born Himachal Pradesh left-arm spinner has taken eight wickets in the last three matches.
“You can trust in each of the 15 members we have. We know they can perform when the team needs,” captain Ishan said after the semifinal. Indeed, it speaks volumes of India’s bench strength that Amandeep Khare, the talented Chhattisgarh batsman who made a century against Sri Lanka in December, hasn’t got a chance, and probably won’t.