“Winning is important but the ultimate is the progression of players through the pathway.” - Ian Bishop
Before the start of the ICC Under 19 Cricket World Cup, neither West Indies nor Sri Lanka wanted to be playing in the Plate Final. They hoped to be participating in the Super League stages, and considering the historic strengths of their senior and Under 19 sides, they might have expected to be there too.
West Indies’ absence is especially surprising, considering they came into this tournament with a title to defend. But the ICC commentator and former West Indies fast bowler thinks it is unfair to expect them to have success just because their forebears did.
“They aren’t as talented a squad as the one that won,” he said. “There were a couple of guys in the 2016 squad that had a little bit more experience, a little bit more grooming, and that’s not being unfair, I think this one is just a little bit raw around the edges.”
A factor in West Indies’ failure was the strength of their group, which also contained New Zealand and South Africa, a quirk of seeding caused by Namibia’s upset of South Africa at the 2016 ICC Under 19 World Cup.
Their first game came against New Zealand, and West Indies weren’t routed, as many teams have been. They made 238 on the back of an opening partnership of 123, but couldn’t find a way past Jakob Bhula and Finn Allen in the chase until it was too late. “New Zealand were just good,” said Bishop. “A better New Zealand team than I’ve seen at Under 19 World Cups for a while. Finn Allen played brilliantly.”
Against South Africa it was a similar story. That game is better remembered for a controversial ‘obstructing the field’ appeal by West Indies’ captain Emmanuel Stewart, but it was also a highly absorbing game of cricket. That loss eliminated them from the competition proper, and would have smarted especially considering West Indies U19s had won a series in South Africa just last summer. But it is what's happened since then that Bishop believes has made the difference.
“Even though the West Indies just managed to pip South Africa in South Africa last year in a series, it went down to the wire,” he said. “It was good of West Indies to win, but coming into the tournament and looking at how much experience their players had gleaned since then, where a few of them had played first-class cricket, I think South Africa were just more skilful and more experienced.”
It is worth recapping the events of the game in brief, since it was much closer than an eventual 76-run margin would indicate. A superb unbeaten 99 helped South Africa from 112/5 to post an imposing 282, and for large parts of the chase West Indies were competitive, their total dovetailing with the DLS par score, until, once a 90-run stand between Kirstan Kallicharan and Alick Athanaze was broken, they nosedived from 177/4 to 208 all out. It is those two, along with opener Keagan Simmons and seamer Nyeem Young, that Bishop marks out as players for the future.
“I have been impressed by Athanaze,” said Bishop. “His construction of innings, his innings against South Africa I thought he was calm, he looks to have a range of strokes, he has a good temperament as well, so I think he will go far, if I had to pick one even though he is hit and miss.
“Kallicharan looks quite a good player. He’s not getting the scores that I think he should, but even my colleagues have been impressed with him. He racked up scores at Under 15, but I don’t think he has racked up enough scores at Under 19 level even though every time you see him, even if it’s briefly, you see something special in him.
“For players like him it’s how to pace an innings, when to accelerate, shot selection, but that’s a pre-requisite of being a teenager. But he’s got strokes, he seems to understand batting very well.”
It’s a key point – this tournament is about more than winning, and many of the flaws these teams and players possess will be improved upon because of the lessons they learn here. For West Indies, there are positives to take.
You might expect similar to be true of Sri Lanka, especially considering they didn’t come into this tournament as holders, and in fact have never won an ICC U19 CWC before. They also had arguably a tougher group, comprising Under 19 Asia Cup finalists Pakistan and Afghanistan and never-to-be-discounted Ireland, meaning they were in the only group with four Full Members.
Despite this however, ICC commentator and former Sri Lanka batsman Russel Arnold was dismayed at his country’s struggles. “Sri Lanka have been a bit disappointing because usually at Under 19 level Sri Lanka’s standards are very high,” he said. “I did expect them to make a quarter final to start with and them not being here, and their performances, not being able to put pressure on the better teams is a little concerning from Sri Lanka’s point of view. Looking at the past history at Under 19 level, and Sri Lankan school standards, the standard of cricket is very high, therefore I did expect them to really compete and push the other teams.”
Arnold did however concede that Sri Lanka’s failure was at least partly due to other teams getting better. “It reflects on world cricket where the likes of Afghanistan are really improving,” he said. “Teams are being competitive, and through history the Under 19 level is a very difficult level to assess because the kids move on pretty fast, and it’s not the same batch of players you might come across if you play them a year and even six months down the line. The skill levels, the competitiveness, everything will vary as things go on.”
Arnold did find some bright spots but was quick to point out that those players who had performed well are still some way from making it to the top level.
“Kamindu Mendis the captain is playing his second Under 19 World Cup, he’s a very good all-rounder. What stands out with him is the fact he bowls with the left hand and the right hand, but more than that I think he’s a quality batsman. We had Hasitha Boyagoda score 191; Jehan Daniel is another one you will look out for.
“But these are not the finished articles, and all in all I think a lot of work needs to be done at that level to push them up to the international level. It’s a reflection of where their cricket is and sometimes finding yourself having been knocked out allows you to identify areas you need to work on and come back stronger.”
It’s a point Bishop makes too. “We like to praise the winners of Under 19 World Cups, but really you hear a lot of coaches talking about it as being a stepping stone of development, rather than the entire focus being winning. And I think we are guilty at times of just looking at winning rather than taking these World Cups for what they are. Winning is important but the ultimate is the progression of players through the pathway.”
For West Indies and Sri Lanka's players, the Plate Final is the last chance to make a name for themselves at this tournament. Even if it's not what they came here for, they'll be desperate to win.