Why the battle between Australia's and India's captains could go a long way towards deciding the destination of the ICC Under 19 Cricket World Cup.
Prithvi Shaw and Jason Sangha are both unerringly adept at interacting with the press. They answer questions fluently, without stuttering or hesitating, adapting clichés to naturally pad out responses, but also offering insights, while revealing nothing that could be used to paint them or their teams in a negative light.
There’s even the occasional quip when relevant – Sangha gave an extended lie-in as the reason he’s looking forward to the Final being a Day/Night contest, while after Shubman Gill’s match-winning century in India’s Semi-Final Shaw pokes fun by saying, “he’s the most mischievous guy in the team – he just doesn’t talk much in press conferences!”
It’s an ease that players normally achieve much later in their careers, if they ever do, and it demonstrates the confidence they possess. For Sangha, the poise with which he holds himself was evident from Day One of this tournament, when he was willing to laugh at himself for dancing in the shower in front of his teammates and on camera at a media day.
Shaw’s moment in front of the lens would come later, kissing and holding a fan’s baby, an incident caught by TV cameras. It’s something Presidents and Popes are more used to than Under 19 cricketers, but naturally Shaw took to it with aplomb.
Perhaps the reason for each’s confidence is different. Sangha’s might be a by-product of him being naturally wise beyond his years -Australia’s batting coach Chris Rogers describes him as “almost like a man playing in this competition with his maturity” – while Prithvi’s comes from a lifetime’s experience.
“Right from childhood, the school that I came from had players such as Sarfaraz Khan, Arman Jaffer,” said Shaw. Khan and Jaffer each broke the record for the highest score in the Giles Shield, an Under 14 tournament, in successive years. Shaw surpassed them both with an innings of 546 in 2013.
“Whenever we used to play school cricket, there used to be newspaper media, photographers, camerapersons. These guys were always watching us, we knew they would be here and we would have to deal with it. So, from an early age, we knew that if we performed well, our photos will be on newspapers and on televisions. I've got used to it now.”
The confidence affects their cricket in different ways too. Shaw’s batting is based on pure belief – he often hits the ball in the air, but trusts himself to find the gaps, which he invariably does. But as a fielding captain, it can’t yet be said one way or the other what sort he is, if only because of how easy he’s had it – all he’s had to do is throw the new ball to Shivam Mavi, Kamlesh Nagarkoti, and Ishan Porel, and if they don’t break through, bring on his spinners, and they’ve been so good little other thinking has been required.
Sangha on the other hand, while an excellent batsman in his own right, has shown himself more adept at grinding it out than taking the attack to the opposition. Before the tournament he made headlines for a defiant hundred against a touring England side, making himself the youngest Australian to do so in first-class cricket, and his most important knock of the tournament was a backs-to-the-wall half-century, again against England in the Quarter-Final, dragging his side to a total which Lloyd Pope then famously defended.
But in the field he’s something else entirely, as Rogers points out. “His captaincy has been outstanding,” he said. “For a young guy I haven’t seen captaincy like that in a long, long time. Tactically there’s times I sit there and being an ex-captain I think ‘ah we could do this now’ and inevitably he does it and then I just watch how he works the angles. He always seems to get the angles right. As coaches we’re sitting up there thinking this man needs to come further round, and then sure enough Sangha will move that guy around to where we think he should have gone. It’s been a joy to watch really.”
All of which means that, when India’s innings commences, it will be fascinating to watch. Shaw will stride out, 100 on his back, desperate to impose himself and lead by example, confidence brimming as he takes on the biggest challenge of his career so far. And in his way will be Sangha, who, in his own words is “an aggressive captain, always looking to take wickets, always looking to put pressure back on the batsman”, trying to cut off the angles, move around his fielders, all in an attempt to keep Shaw quiet.
No team has managed to do so thus far – his lowest score in the tournament to date is 40 – and Shaw decisively won their opening encounter, striking 94 to leave Australia punch-drunk on the way to a comprehensive win. But with a lot having happened between then and now, the Final could well be a different story, and whoever triumphs in their personal battle in the Final will surely go a long way to winning the ICC Under 19 Cricket World Cup for their team.