The ICC Under-19 World Cup 2020, a gripping three-week tournament, came to an enthralling climax in an all-Asian final with a new winner, and we still can't stop raving over the teenage sensations that shook the world stage. The World Cup had every element you'd expect from a tournament of this stature but unlike usual times, when you'd conclude your views on the tournament by identifying the next batch of international cricketers, this under-19 World Cup threw up wider trends that could give us a peek into the future of cricket as such.
India’s talent depth
That India would become a cricket powerhouse was a given after the roaring success of the Indian Premier League (IPL) after the first few seasons. Talents were found in large numbers from the T20 league and India had an abundance of talent at their disposal. All of it cannot be put down to the IPL either. The domestic scene had vastly improved and players switched seamlessly to international cricket.
In the 2010s, India were a powerhouse across formats. They won the 2011 ODI World Cup, the 2013 Champions Trophy and the 2012 and 2018 under-19 World Cups. They further reached the finals of the 2014 T20 World Cup, the 2016 under-19 World Cup and the 2017 Champions Trophy.
In the recently concluded under-19 World Cup, India faltered at the last hurdle after winning 11 games on the trot in the under-19 World Cup, a winning streak stretching back to the 2016 tournament. Even if the loss to Bangladesh in the finals will hurt, India will know that they have an incessant talent flow coming through age-group cricket.
The talent depth was evident as Priyam Garg, Yashasvi Jaiswal, Ravi Bishnoi, Kartik Tyagi, Sushant Mishra, Dhruv Jurel and Divyansh Saxena showed that they are capable of stepping up to international cricket comfortably if needed.
The rise of Bangladesh, Afghanistan and the fall of the Proteas
The 2020 under-19 World Cup will remain a watershed moment in Bangladesh's cricketing history. Their first major title also marks their presence as a team to watch out for in the future. They had finished third in the 2016 under-19 World Cup, showed promise before fading away in the 2018 under-19 World Cup and put in the hard yards to create a winning outfit in 2020.
Bangladesh's rise is unmistakable. Even as their senior side keeps showing glimpses of promise across formats, the junior side is basking in glory and ready to make Bangladesh's future a bright one. Another Asian team, Afghanistan, have some serious talent coming through as the last two under-19 World Cups revealed.
They first played the under-19 tournament in 2010 and by 2018 — their fifth World Cup — reached the semi-finals of the tournament. In 2020, they finished seventh after the plate league, but the individuals in the team — the likes of Shafiqullah Ghafari, Ibrahim Zadran and Fazal Haq — show what the country can achieve in the future.
Even as Bangladesh and Afghanistan are on an upswing, there was a glaring no-show from the hosts, South Africa, whose junior side reflected the woes of their senior side. They had lost a bilateral series against Pakistan 0-7 in the lead up to the World Cup, before crashing out in the quarterfinals against Bangladesh.
They lost twice to Afghanistan — once in the first game of the tournament and then again in the plate league — and finished 8th. Since their 2014 title triumph, South African cricket has come down at alarming rates and unless something changes in their structure and policies, we might see them struggle in international cricket in the near future at least.
Batsman’s game? Nah, bowling teams still win
Cricket is often labelled a batsman's game but then that's a term for the blind purists. The team which bowls our their opponents more often than not is bound to come out on top. Bangladesh won the World Cup final through this simple strategy of knocking over India with the ball in hand.
In 13 games prior to the finals, India's youth team had never been bowled out. Teams struggled to get past their exceptional opening duo of Yashasvi Jaiswal and Divyansh Saxena in the World Cup. Bangladesh planned for their bowling more than their batting and brought down the Indian juggernaut with a clinical bowling performance.
India and Bangladesh have the best two bowling averages — 16.44 and 18.95 — in the tournament. In the lead up to the World Cup (since the end of the 2018 edition), the top six wicket-takers were all from the Bangladesh and Indian youth sides. They also had a presence in the batting front but the bowling attack completed these teams and gave them a wholesome outfit.
In the quarterfinals between India and Australia, this stood out as the Indian batting unit struggled. Their bowlers came to the fore to bring down a strong Australian side. They almost did the same against Bangladesh in the finals, but there just weren't enough runs to scrape through. Bowling teams continue to rule the roost at all levels of cricket.
Cricket taking earnest steps to become a global sport
A hallmark of the 2020 under-19 World Cup was the presence of Nigeria and Japan as one of the 16 teams. They finished 15th and 16th respectively at the end of the tournament and made just four totals above 100 (two apiece by Japan and Nigeria). But this World Cup wasn't about their performance.
"People who may criticise us, saying 'what is Japan doing at an Under-19 World Cup', are also the same people who criticise ICC for having a ten-team senior men's World Cup. We feel qualification for the World Cup should be how it is for Under-19s. Cricket's not just about India, England, Australia and South Africa. When people say ICC should grow the game, the ICC is actually doing great at the Under-19 level. And this actually boosts cricket across countries where it's not so big," Japan Cricket Association head, Alan Curr, said during the tournament to ESPNCricinfo.
It couldn't be truer. Cricket is becoming a global sport and there's evidence of it everywhere. Just that people do not want to see it. The upcoming T20 World Cup in Australia will feature the likes of Papua New Guinea, Namibia and Oman aside from regular associates Netherlands and Scotland.
These teams weren't randomly chosen, though. They come through a rigorous qualification process much like in football. There are two groups of teams from Asia, America, East Asia Pacific and three each from Europe and Africa that play the initial round of qualifications before there's an Asian qualification round, an African qualification round and a European qualification round. These teams play the World Cup qualifiers, which has produced some high-quality cricket over the last few years, that ultimately decide the qualifier teams at the main World Cup.
The ICC is taking earnest steps at grassroot levels to bring up the sport and even if the number of teams in the final tournament has come down of late, there's a rigorous background process to it so as to keep churning out the next Japans and Nigeria.
There's a whole process and thinking behind age group cricket than ever before. The title winners, Bangladesh, had a strength and conditioning coach who helped bring about their clinical performance in the finals. They reached South Africa a month before the tournament and played practice games before the actual warm-up matches.
This shows that the preparation and intensity in youth level tournaments are at an all-time high. Never before has so much attention been given to an under-19 World Cup. The 2018 and 2020 tournaments have produced some mind-blowing performances from teams and individuals.
The direct consequence of this will be players making the step up to international cricket seamlessly. The maturity and quality in some of these cricketers stood out in the three weeks of the tournament.
Fittingly, it concluded with the Bangladesh skipper, Akbar Ali, handing over the trophy to his teammates and watching the celebrations from the sidelines. That he fought through a personal tragedy back home further goes on to show the tenacity and grit he has as a youngster. Despite no exceptional performance until the finals, Akbar showed enough qualities to be elevated to the senior national team during the tournament and can even be identified as a future leader.
A slew of such players, ready for international cricket, made a mark in the tournament this time around and the talent pool is again at an unprecedented high.
The actions of role models matter
If there was a botch on the tournament, it came in the final, a few moments when cricket's gentlemanly nature took a U-turn after Bangladesh's title triumph. Players from either side clashed on-field in what could even be the first case of a major fight on the field between two teams in an international match.
Right through the finals, the emotions and intensity was high and players threw abuses and sledges around for fun. Ravi Bishnoi roared at the face of Bangladesh batsmen while Saxena at short-leg complemented Bishnoi's unwarranted aggression. All the while, Bangladesh's Shoriful Islam was also muttering swear words.
Aggression in this era of cricket has been mistaken for a shower of abuses. What's transpiring in the senior men's game has not been dealt with properly and it's seeping into junior levels too. The role models for some of these junior players are ready for a spat or two any time during the game and this toxic attitude has been passed down to junior levels.
In 2017, David Warner promised 'hatred' and 'war' against England before an Ashes series. India-Pakistan or Australia-England matches are often labelled and even promoted by broadcasters with the 'war' tag. That attitude is starting to show its consequences in junior-level cricket now with the clash between sides in the finals a glaring example of how hero-worshipping can go wrong when the heroes have imperfect ways of portraying their passion for the game.
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