India are undefeated at the Under-19 World Cup. They have already played and won three games at Bay Oval, the venue of the final. Their smallest margin of victory has been 100 runs, against Australia, in the tournament-opener, at the same venue. Their pace attack is the fastest in the tournament. They have three left-arm spinners against a team comprised wholly of right-handers. More than 2,000 spectators are expected to turn up for the Saturday afternoon match, and most will be on India’s side (since no self-respecting Kiwi will support Australia).
These are the facts of the Under-19 World Cup final, that should make India firm favourites. But they don’t.
Numbers don’t lie
India will still go in with an advantage, but it won’t be as significant as most make it out to be. The dominant manner of victories means that the middle-order is a little undercooked. Riyan Parag, who bats at No 5, has faced 27 balls in the tournament. Abhishek Sharma, likely to come in next, has played 66. Before this tournament, Harvik Desai had never batted at No 4, and in this tournament, has had just two innings there. India have always put up strong totals batting first, but most of the work has been done by the top three, who have 724 of India’s 1087 runs in the tournament. That’s 66 percent.
India's bowling has always been threatening, but it has never been threatened. India have won the toss and batted first against all three big opponents: Australia, Bangladesh and Pakistan. All three times, the opposition was bowled out before they came within a lighthouse of India’s total. The bowlers have always added to scoreboard pressure, not bowled to restrain it.
Despite all the momentum and the form that India have going their way, these are also the facts. Facts that Australia coach and former fast bowler Ryan Harris said his team will look to take advantage of.
No element of surprise
“They're playing pretty good cricket but I don't think they've been challenged at all during this tournament”, Harris said ahead of the final.
“I think their batting is strong at the top. But I don't think their lower order has been really exposed. I guess our job is to get through those players at the top and get into the lower order”, he added. He maintained that with no element of surprise this time, his team were looking forward to facing India again, better prepared.
“The only positive (of that loss to India) is that we know what India do and what they've got. The boys are really excited, they want another go at redeeming themselves. India are the form side, when you're in the final against the form side, that's what you want to do.”
There are also likely to be three players in Australia’s XI who didn’t play in their opening game.
India also have to deal with another fact; for all the players who take the field on Saturday, this will be their last Under-19 game, thanks to a BCCI rule that no player can play more than one Under-19 World Cup. But skipper Prithvi Shaw insisted that this would spur them on to play better.
“Obviously, after this we might not be able to play together again for India at Under-19 level. It’s a final, and if we can win the World Cup, we can part with some good memories. There has 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.”
The fact that India have not chased a big total so far will make the toss that little more important. The Black Caps lost a T20I to Pakistan five days ago on the same pitch, which saw 344 runs scored in 40 overs. So the team that bats first, gets runs on the board, and then gets to close out the innings under lights will be at a slight advantage. Australia’s bowling attack isn’t the most penetrative, and they will certainly like the cushion of a big total to back them up, and the pressure of a World Cup final can get to even the best.
Still, this Indian team has been through a ‘full gamut of experiences’, as Rahul Dravid put it, over the last one year. They have players who have the faced the high-pressure of first-class cricket. Shubman Gill averages 170.5, and his 341 runs is the highest tally among the top half of the tournament. Anukul Roy is three wickets away from being the tournament’s highest wicket-taker. These are also the facts.
The only fact that matters though will be decided on Saturday night. Both India and Australia have won three titles each. After this, one of them will become the most successful nation in in Under-19 World Cup history.