In 1976, British driver James Hunt became Formula One Champion. It was the high point of his career — he would never repeat the feat again, and would retire in 1979 — but it was blighted by one small detail: Formula One legend Niki Lauda, who was Hunt’s main rival, missed three races in the season after a horrific car crash, giving Hunt time to carve a lead. In the final, rainy race of the season, Hunt finished third, earning him the championship by one point.
It is a story that has some links to India’s 2016 World Cup campaign. While India did not eventually win, they were the team to beat in the tournament, eventually finishing runners up to the mercurial West Indies. But India’s near perfect campaign was made a little easier by one fact: Contenders Australia did not take part in the tournament, as the team was withdrawn due to security fears in Bangladesh.
So as India and Australia prepare to face off in Tauranga, in their first games of the Under-19 World Cup, there are points to be proven on both sides. Australia, three-time champions themselves, will be looking to make up for lost time. Current Australian captain Jason Sangha said he was picked in the squad that was to travel to Bangladesh, but missed out on that opportunity. “It was the first major thing I’d accomplished in my cricket career, something I’ve cherished since”, he said on the eve of the game. “For me, it was difficult. I would’ve loved to be in Bangladesh, but I knew I had another World Cup coming up.”
Not all the players were as fortunate as Sangha though, something that fuels the captain. “Most of the guys, they knew how much it meant to actually not play that World Cup. From there, I had the extra desire and hunger to be a part of this World Cup.”
From a big picture view of the world, only a stiver of water separates New Zealand from Australia, and the conditions are much more familiar to the Aussies than the Indians. “New Zealand’s such a lovely place, it’s almost like home”, said Sangha. India coach Dravid was aware of the fact that this will practically be like India playing the home team, but said they were looking forward to the challenge. “For them these conditions are a bit more familiar than it is for us, and that was one of the exciting part of this, playing this tournament away from home”, he said. “It’s really a good learning from our perspective… just exposing them to conditions is very important at this U-19 level.”
India might look to take advantage of the fact that the entire Australian squad bats right handed. “Yeah, we'll do that”, Dravid said. “From our perspective, we've got a few left-arm spinners and we do have a leg spinner as well. We've got a couple of guys who bowl a bit of off-spin. We've got most of our bases covered.”
One of those who bowl off spin, Riyan Parag, will miss the first game, Dravid confirmed. “Little bit unfortunate for us, Riyan has been in really good form for us. He had a bit of an injury in the last game at Napier, stubbed his finger into the ground, it's (got) a bit of a ligament strain and swollen up.” Parag scored 48 and 45 in two friendly games India played against Central Districts XI, before the official warm-up matches, so his loss means that second wicketkeeper Aryan Juyal might play as a batter.
Much like Hunt’s last formula one race, there is some wet weather forecast for the India-Australia clash, but that should not dampen the sense of spectacle. The town of Tauranga has a healthy immigrant population, and larger cities like Auckland and Hamilton are only a few hours away. The Bay Oval might see a decent crowd turn up on Sunday night, to watch the two favourites teams. Like two waterfalls pouring into the same small pond, Sunday night will decide which one overflows.