It’s the home stretch of the 2018 ICC Under 19 Cricket World Cup. So far, it seems almost everyone has been talked about as potential candidates to win the title – India with their seemingly flawless team, England and New Zealand after unbeaten group campaigns, and even Afghanistan, whose thrilling run to the semi-final made them the neutral’s favourite.
When the tournament began, Australia were also among those list of definite favourites. But a 100-run hammering at the hands of India in their opener resulted in many losing confidence in them. They weren’t exactly written off; they just weren’t talked about.
It is therefore to the credit of Jason Sangha and his boys that they have become the first team to make it to the final of the tournament after seeing off Afghanistan in the Super League semi-final at the Hagley Oval on Monday (29 January).
They have quietly chugged along while the world’s eyes were focussed elsewhere. Their group-stage victories over Zimbabwe and Papua New Guinea were both one-sided encounters, but not many paid them much heed – they were considered routine victories.
In the Quarter-Final, they met England in what turned out to be an absolute thriller. Three-quarters of the way through that game, Australia were on the verge of being made to contest for fifth place, bundled out for 127 with England 47/0 in reply. Then Lloyd Pope happened, the leg-spinner taking 8/35 to see them through to a magnificent 31-run victory.
Australia erred plenty of times in that match but showed plenty of spirit and grit to find a way back when left for dead. But still the world didn’t pay them any mind, choosing instead to focus on Pope’s individual display and England’s shambles.
Ahead of the semi-final against Afghanistan, once again before the game Australia were restricted to a few column inches. Afghanistan had the more memorable, nuanced story, the one that everyone needed to know. Australia were, well, just Australia – three-time winners, their semi-final ascent was the least they were expected to do.
But it is now time to give them their due. Afghanistan are no easy side to play against, but Australia dismantled them with pedigreed know-how. Their bowlers found a chink in the Afghanistan armour and peppered them with short deliveries angling at the body – three were strangled down the leg side. Even having restricted Afghanistan to 181, still not many believed Australia were favourites. They were yet to face Afghanistan’s much-vaunted spinners.
Led by Jack Edwards, who scored a match-winning 65-ball 72, the Aussies nullified the spinners, most emphatically seeing off Mujeeb Zadran, the mystery man, who managed just 1/45. The chase was completed in 37.3 overs and Australia sealed their place in the final, as a few assembled fans chanted, “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie! Oi oi oi!”
Rather surprisingly, even after all this, Australia didn’t earn many admirers. Naveen-ul-Haq, the Afghanistan captain, implied as much. “They were a good team, Australia, but I think we have beaten better sides than them in this tournament,” he said in the post-match press conference. “Pakistan and India are better sides than them. I can make that statement for you.”
Sangha, of course, was asked of his thoughts on that statement, but his reaction oozed maturity. “I have no comments. That is their opinion,” he laughed. “We actually thought the Afghanistan team were quite good. Cricket is a funny game, it doesn't matter what has happened before – it all depends on who is the better team on the day. It doesn’t bother us, we are through to the final and that is all we care about. They [Afghanistan] have a number of good spinners and they will hopefully be successful in the future. For us, we are in the final now and we will watch India-Pakistan tomorrow and go from there.”
Sangha went on to reflect on Australia’s campaign so far, and was even honest enough to admit he found it hard to see his team in the final after that opening loss against India. “You never know what can happen in such a tournament,” he said. “It is a long tournament and we have been playing some good cricket. Every game, I knew we were closer and closer to our best game. Once we kept ticking off every run in that game we just had, we knew we were getting closer and closer – once you hit that winning run, it just hits you that you’re in the final. We might not get a chance of playing in one again, and we’re really looking forward to it.”
The captain also commended his team on making a habit of overcoming setbacks. “We have been challenged in every scenario and we have come out on top,” he said. “We have overcome the Afghanistan spinners so that will give us confidence whoever we meet in the final. Jack [Edwards] played really well at the top, and Nathan [McSweeney] and Param [Uppal] did exceptionally well – it was tough pitch to get yourself in.”
Irrespective of who they meet in the final, Australia will once again back themselves to fight out of any tough spots. And if they do win the tournament, you can be sure some recognition, finally, will come their way.