Eight years since winning the ICC U-19 World Cup 2012, members of the team Baba Aparajith and Sandeep Sharma recall the successful campaign
You are 16 years old. And you receive a phone call. That phone call could come from the national cricket board or a journalist or a close friend. That phone call which tells you that you have been picked in the U-19 team for the upcoming World Cup. This is not the senior national team but it still is an Indian team, still an ICC World Cup.
When the reality hits you, the ecstasy can make you dream further, dream a little more. You are already dreaming of castling the stumps during a crunch moment in the World Cup, if you are a Sandeep Sharma or an Avesh Khan or a Siddarth Kaul. You are already dreaming of hitting an unbeaten century in the final to lead your team to the title, just as Unmukt Chand did. You are dreaming of the trophy in your hand and dreaming of a career that awaits you. These moments are special for you and as well as for your family, who have been equal partners in this venture called dreams.
In 2012, India's U-19 team was full of such dreamers as well.
"When I was selected, it was a big moment for me and my family. It was a big thing to go and play the World Cup for your country," Sandeep, who played two U-19 World Cups for India, in 2010 and 2012, told Firstpost on receiving the message that he was going to the World Cup.
For Baba Aparajith, who was part of the victorious 2012 team, the moment was no different. "It was a nice feeling (on knowing he was picked in the squad for the World Cup). To represent your country at any level is always a proud moment," recalled Aparajith in a conversation with Firstpost.
Under head coach Bharat Arun, India flew to Australia to fulfill that dream. Even in 2012, India had a rich history in U-19 World Cups, having won the tournament twice, in 2000 and then in 2008. India could make it till quarter-finals in the last edition of 2010 but this time the team, which included some players from previous edition as well, was too determined to not settle for a second prize. A new chapter was to be written in this history book.
The disappointment of not going further than quarter-finals had remained as bruise in hearts of many like Sandeep and hence the team had begun the preparations for next tournament one-and-a-half years in advance.
"We started preparing for it very early. We started touring abroad one-and-a-half years before the World Cup. In 2012, before the World Cup, we had toured Australia to play a quadrangular series. That also helped us prepare better," recalled Sandeep, who scalped 12 wickets in the tournament.
Touring Australia right before the World Cup was to help understand the conditions and behaviour of the pitch.
"We wanted to understand the conditions. Weather plays a big role. We wanted to know how pitch behaves, in first and second innings. We played three matches on that tour and lost all of them but that was not our objective at all. We took our time to learn about conditions and all," said Sandeep.
For Aparajith, the one-and-a-half years of preparation was more of a journey. He cherishes the time spent with each member of the team, who were more like a family then just players or support staff. He said, "We had a great support staff. Bharat Arun sir was our coach and Sridhar sir was also there to lend support. It was like a family for us. In those one-and-half years before the tournament, ideas and efforts were put in for one ultimate aim and that was winning the World Cup. I think that was a very nice journey for me."
However, the tournament started on a bad note with India losing the first match against West Indies. But that loss had strengthened the team more than break it. India upped their game and played dominant cricket to reach the quarters, where they would play the arch-rivals Pakistan. Playing Pakistan in a World Cup automatically attracts attention, more so when you had lost to them at the same stage in the last edition.
"Pakistan game was very special. We were all too young and we wanted to play Pakistan eagerly. More than nerves, I think, we were excited to play Pakistan. We were all pumped up to play that match. We had certain challenges in the game. Luckily, we got through them," recalled Aparajith, who scored a gutsy 51 in the match while chasing on a difficult batting track.
"We did not want to succumb to the hype of playing Pakistan. We wanted to treat it as just another game and another opponent. That's all. However, when you enter the field it is difficult to negate the fact that you are playing Pakistan," said Sandeep.
India had bundled Pakistan out for 136 but found themselves in a spot of bother with the team 3 down for just 8 on the board while chasing. Aparajith, who came to bat at No 3 in just the third over, held one innings together till the 37th over as wickets tumbled at the other end at regular intervals. When he fell, things almost folded out for India.
"We were in a very strong position and then came to a situation where we were almost out of the game and tournament. But we pulled through," recalled Aparajith.
'Pulling through' was difficult with just one wicket in hand and still 10 to get. India's last hopes were Harmeet Singh and No 11 Sandeep Sharma.
"The most difficult match in the 2012 World Cup campaign was the one against Pakistan. We needed 10 runs and we had just one wicket in hand. Harmeet Singh and I were batting. Both of us had played in the last World Cup as well and we had been ousted in the quarter-finals in that edition and the team which beat us was Pakistan. We both spoke to each other that we cannot let the history repeat itself. We cannot let our campaign end at this stage again," recounted Sandeep.
On the last ball of the 48th over, Harmeet swung the bat hard, collected two runs at deep square leg, and took India past the winning total. India had won the cliffhanger, and reached the semi-finals. History was not repeated.
India played another close contest in the semi-finals where they beat New Zealand by 9 runs. The next match was the final against Australia, and the anxiety levels were on the rise.
"I still remember many players admitting that they could not sleep the night before the finals due to excitement and anxiety. We were all 17 or 18 years old and were going to play a World Cup final the next day. It was very natural to not sleep," said Sandeep, remembering the night before the big game.
Sandeep took four wickets in the final, helping India restrict the Aussies to 225/8. This was going to be the highest total chased in that edition of the tournament. But the belief in the camp was very high.
"We did not talk much during the innings break but there was a lot of belief in the dressing room that we could chase this down. Throughout the tournament, we had been playing well. Apart from the first game when we lost to West Indies we had won everything. We knew we could chase any total at any wicket; 224 may appear very easy but it was a challenging total on that track. That was the highest chased total in the tournament. We had utmost belief in our processes and preparation," said Aparajith, remembering the dressing room scenes during the innings break in the final.
India lost opener Prashant Chopra in just the second over of the chase. Aparajith walked in and formed a 73-run stand for the second wicket with Chand, giving much-needed stability to the innings. Three wickets fell quickly but a resilient Smit Patel gave a solid hand to Unmukt, who smashed an unbeaten 111, to take India to the title.
The World Cup was India's and the dreamers were now going to be storytellers. They were a part of history. A night of dance, songs and party followed before the players boarded the flight back home the next day, where they received a huge welcome. Their careers had taken a definite turn. Some were offered IPL contracts, some made their Ranji debuts. They knew U-19 WC was important earlier but it was only after the triumph that they came to know about how important it actually was.
Sandeep said, "U-19 is a big platform. When I used to play U-19 cricket, even I did not know how big a platform it was. When we won the World Cup and I came back home, I started playing in Ranji Trophy and IPL. Then you realise how important and big that tournament was that now your career has taken the right path. That is why the players who are a part of the U-19 setup should try and give their best, do well because if they come back with a trophy, it will help them grow their cricket further. Their careers can get a huge boost."
For Aparajith, the title-win was a huge moment, but he also is very thankful for the journey and the perspective he gained at such a young age.
He said, "I think winning the World Cup was the one beautiful moment. Beating Australia in Australia in a World Cup final was special for us. Looking back, I feel, results were good but more than the results, we made memories and we learnt a lot. We interacted a lot, not only with our teammates but with players from other countries, getting to chat and practice with them and go around with them. It was a great experience."
It's been almost eight years since the World Cup win in 2012. The players took different paths to pursue their cricket. Some have gone on to play for India, some have not. They have not had a reunion so far to celebrate the memories of the win but whenever they meet during domestic tournaments, they recall the campaign.
The current crop begin their campaign on 19 January and the winners of 2012 have a message for them.
"It is going to be a great experience for them. They have been preparing for this for a while now. It is important for them to express themselves. I agree that it is an important but it is also important to enjoy yourself. This will become a big experience later on. There will be ups and downs but it is important to enjoy," said Aparajith.
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