By Manoj Narayan in Chittagong
The Under-19 World Cup provides the perfect springboard to higher honours, but it is also more than just about cricket
The tournament proper underway on Wednesday, with South Africa, the defending champions, taking on Bangladesh, the hosts in Chittagong. They are two of 16 teams who will take part in the event that includes nine Test-playing nations and seven associates and affiliates. The teams have been divided into groups of four, with the top two from each group progressing through to the knockouts. The bottom two, meanwhile, will contest in the Plate Championship, which will decide where each team outside of the top eight finishes, down to the last spot.
The matches will be staged across five venues in Bangladesh – Mirpur, Fatullah, Chittagong, Sylhet and Cox’s Bazar. For the participants, this is the biggest event of their lives.
As far as the cricket goes, there is potential for a few riveting contests and the unearthing of those likely to take the world by storm in the coming years. That said, Australia, three-time winners of the tournament, will be conspicuous by their absence – they pulled out of the tournament citing security concerns, prompting the call up of Ireland, the runners-up in the qualifiers in Kuala Lumpur, as replacements. As big an absence as Australia’s is, it is unlikely to severely diminish the interest surrounding the tournament massively.
The warm-ups have served as an appetiser, a taste of what can be expected in the tournament proper. While the associate and affiliate sides will hope that India’s mammoth 485 for 3 against Canada on Saturday is an aberration, the neutrals will hope for more of the South Africa-West Indies thriller in Fatullah, South Africa making 153 for 4 in response to West Indies 153 for 9.
On the face of it, the traditional heavyweights who have structured age group cricket systems in place must be considered favourites. India’s total can be considered a statement of purpose, even if they will struggle to repeat the feat against better opposition. South Africa will be particularly determined to defend their only title, Pakistan at any level make for irresistible viewing, and the English youngsters will buoyed by their senior team’s recent embracing of youth.
As far as the associates and affiliates go, some will have very realistic hopes of toppling the traditional biggies. Afghanistan have a good side, four of whom have the experience gained from the 2014 tournament, and will hope to emulate their senior side in making a habit of upsetting the big names. Ireland and Scotland will have similar motivations, even as the likes of Fiji, playing this tournament for the first time, Namibia, Nepal and Canada will consider the tournament a massive learning opportunity.
In the days leading up to the opener, many of the game’s greats, some currently active, have spoken at length about what they gained out of this tournament, and what it does for a young cricketer. “The event provides an opportunity to grow and learn, meet cricketers from other countries who you may go on to play against at the senior level for many years,” said Rahul Dravid, the batting great and the coach of the Indian side. “Touring at a young age exposes you to the outside world and helps you explore and understand various cultures. That will go a long way in the development of a cricketer.”
Kevin O’Brien, who played in the 2004 edition, was also insistent on the need to explore. “As youngsters, we learnt what life on tour was all about. It was a tremendous tournament to play in and we still talk about it in the Irish dressing room,” he said. “The best piece of advice I can give to players travelling to Bangladesh is they should try and embrace the local culture, try the local cuisine and not just stay in their hotel rooms. They will grow as cricketers.”
More than the competition itself, each of them stressed on how relationships formed and experiences gained on an extended overseas tour helped them grow as sportsmen.
While each player will be mindful of the need to put his best foot forward in the coming days, he must also keep in mind that the tournament is about so much more than what happens on the field. Rabada will vouch for that.