India seemed cheerful enough on the eve of the match. While their captain, Prithvi Shaw, posed with the ICC Under 19 Cricket World Cup trophy along with his Australian counterpart Jason Sangha towards one end of the pitch, the rest of the team took part in a version of ‘piggy in the middle’ further away. Their coaching staff, with head coach Rahul Dravid sitting on the carpet-like turf at the Bay Oval, watched them with smiles, as the players became boys, ribbing each other and generally having fun.
All said, though, there did seem to be a nervous energy within the group, the laughter not quite hearty, the game not fully bought into. It might perhaps be reading too much into an innocuous situation, but given the context, it isn’t too far-fetched for that to be a possibility. India have been untroubled in their campaign so far. An oft-repeated stat that the smallest margin of their five victories so far is the 100-run win over Australia in the opener is indicative of that. They have been favourites for the trophy from long before the tournament even began, and they have delivered on the hype. But even considering all this, it is natural the team is daunted by the stage, a few jitters, some butterflies in the belly.
It is a World Cup Final. It is the biggest match of their fledgling careers to date. All that they have done so far is irrelevant – it is the next match that counts. In these situations, even the most dominant senior teams can succumb to nerves. These are, it is easy to forget, still a bunch of teenagers, and though their careers may well be filled with such moments, such opportunities, this is the first.
And sure enough, after their piggy-in-the-middle warm-up session, India moved over to the nets. And the mood was completely different. The smiles had disappeared, and now Kamlesh Nagarkoti was a stern fast bowler, not holding back even against his teammates. Ishan Porel also seemed jittery, his instinctive, loud grunt before every delivery betraying displeasure at the slightest mistake. Shubman Gill was pleasant to watch as ever, but he didn’t seem too happy with himself, especially after inside-edging Nagarkoti. Elsewhere, Dravid was heard advising a batsman on how he grips his bottom hand. It was a serious session, extremely intense.
It is a good sign. One of the worries the Indian management might have had, heading into this clash, is that the players might succumb to complacency, given how untroubled they have been so far. That there are signs of nerves naturally leads to the conclusion that these boys are taking nothing for granted, that they are desperate for this trophy. Add to all this the fact that this is likely to be the last match this team plays together, and the motivation is evident.
“Everyone is saying that after this, we might not be able to play together again for India at U19 level,” said Shaw at the pre-match press conference. “It’s a final, and if we can win the World Cup, we can part with some good memories. There have already been lot of memories created in this tournament – lot of fun, both on and off the field. These memories will become even better if we win tomorrow.”
India’s progress so far might have been serene, but there are a few hints of chinks in the armour. They have relied on the top order to provide starts, and all of Shaw, Manjot Kalra and Gill have delivered so far. However, in the two knockout matches, India’s middle-order weren’t exactly convincing, a fact of which Australia coach Ryan Harris has made note. Riyan Parag is still struggling for form after a finger injury, and Harvik Desai’s only half-century so far came in a group match against Zimbabwe, and that too at the top of the order.
Then there is the case of what might happen if their bowlers struggle. All of Nagarkoti, Mavi and Porel, along with Anukul Roy and Abhishek Sharma, have been excellent, snuffing out oppositions with ease. But it remains to be seen how India will respond when it isn’t all so easy– if Australia can put together just one significant early partnership, India’s reaction will be interesting to see.
“Yeah, you never know how the situation is going to be in the final,” said Shaw. “We’ve not been under pressure right now, especially while we’re bowling, but we’ve beaten good teams like Pakistan, Bangladesh, all the teams. So just focussing on the process right now, and we’ll see what happens.”
Australia have grown in confidence as a team since their opening loss to India. Their fast-bowling attack is markedly different to the one that walked out in that match – Xavier Bartlett and the injured Jason Ralston have been replaced by Zak Evans and Ryan Hadley, and both are quick enough to rival Maci and Nagarkoti. Jonathan Merlo seems to have found form as well, while Jack Edwards, who returned 4/65 and scored 73 in the opener, has provided crucial starts to Australia ever since.
Add to it the fact that India, and their bowlers in particular, no longer have that element of surprise, and a very different challenge from Australia is on the cards. Shaw admitted as much, although he said his focus was on his own team. “They have changed a few fast bowlers who were injured when we played them,” he said. “They’ve got a better side right now, and so it’ll be challenging for us. We’ll stick to our process and try and execute on the field. We’re not focussing too much on them. As captain, I’m focussing on my own team, what we can do in the match tomorrow, what all we’ve to do in different situations. What these (situations) depend on, who to play in that time. Things like that. That’s important for us, rather than looking at their team.”
Shaw might not let on much, but one thing is for certain: India know they have a game on their hands, and they are not about to take anything for granted.