"The photograph with us lifting the trophy at the SSC, Colombo is the first thing I visualise when there is a talk about that tournament," Ravneet Ricky gets nostalgic as we travel back in time to reminisce India's U-19 World Cup win in 2000.
"And that team photograph as well, before the start of the World Cup, that was special," he is quick to add.
It's been almost 20 years to that famous win in Sri Lanka but Ricky has crystal clear memories of that campaign, and why not? It was a special moment in the life of youngsters who went on to lift India's first ever U-19 World Cup and it was also the World Cup which gave India stars like Yuvraj Singh and Mohammad Kaif.
"It was a dream for us. The instant we lifted the trophy was the biggest moment for us. I still have that photo and every time I see it, it gives me goosebumps," recalls Ajay Ratra who was the wicket-keeper of that winning campaign.
It was a tournament in which India looked unbeatable. They didn't lose a single match and registered comprehensive wins in almost all matches. What helped immensely was the form of the players in the domestic arena ahead of the mega event.
"When we went to play the U-19 WC, we knew that our team was very good. There was Yuvi, Kaif, Sodhi, Venugopal Rao," says Ricky. "We knew at the back of our minds ye jeetne waali team hai (This is a winning team). They were coming on the back of performances in domestic cricket. We had players like Yuvraj and Kaif, ye doosri team ko todne wale player the (players who could blow away opposition). Most of the guys had played first-class cricket.
“All the departments looked formidable. So we were quite confident that we can do well in this tournament as it was happening in the sub-continent and the wickets also used to be similar to what we had in the South where our preparations took place. We had a seven-day camp in Chennai and before that there were state, all-India and zone tournaments already going on for 2-3 months."
The mindset was really positive ahead of the tournament.
"We knew that the conditions and wickets in Sri Lanka were a bit similar and we had played in those conditions which are a bit warm. Our team was balanced and the self-belief was a major driving force," says Ricky. "And we also had this in mind that India have never won a U-19 World Cup. That was a very big motivation. Because that time we had heard stories of India winning the 1983 World Cup but the junior team hadn't won," he adds.
"Roger Binny was our coach at that time and he had given us a clear message, 'No matter what the situation, don't give up," Ratra recalls.
"It had sort of become a slogan for our team."
India started off in style with a 122-run thumping of Bangladesh in the opener. In the next match, they bundled the Netherlands out for 58 but started off the chase scratchily at 15/3 before rain washed away the rest of the match. The next game against New Zealand was perhaps the only time they were under a bit of a pump. But Yuvraj unleashed his superpowers for the first time to hit a 62-ball 68 and scalp 4/36 from 9.3 overs to help India defend 199.
India topped the table in the group stage and then cruised into semis with three wins in three in the Super League, beating Nepal, England and Sri Lanka en route. They then brushed aside Australia, which had the likes of Shaun Marsh, Shane Watson, Mitchell Johnson, in the semis before cruising to a six-wicket win over Sri Lanka in the final to clinch the trophy.
The interesting aspect of that victory was India went in with an unchanged side in all the eight matches.
"We knew who was going to open, what's going to be our middle order and what will be our pace and spin department," says Ricky. "The team talk was that this is the best XI and this will only win us the tournament."
Every time we talk about that World Cup, the names of Yuvraj, Kaif, and even Reetinder Sodhi pop up. However, the one name that flew under the radar was Ravneet Ricky. He finished as the second-highest run-getter in the tournament, after Graeme Smith. India's success was built on the solid platform laid by openers Ricky and Manish Sharma. The pair amassed 495 runs at 61.87 with one fifty-plus and three century stands.
“Early morning it used to seam and as soon as the sun came out it dried up and started turning,” says Ricky. “In our team talks, we used to discuss having a good opening partnership. Even if you take time right from the beginning it's okay. 40-50 runs would do in first 10 overs else the middle ordered would get exposed to early movement as well as spin."
The other impressive aspect of India's win was their fielding and India did pull off some good catches and run outs.
"Binny sir gave a lot of emphasis on our fielding," says Ratra who finished with the most dismissals in the tournament with 13 catches and six stumpings.
"That World Cup brought a turnaround in my career. My keeping was extraordinary with the kind of catches I grabbed. I still remember, against Australia, there was a bat-pad, and the ball was popping up towards short leg. I jumped from behind the wicket and managed to grab it."
Excellent team bonding was a major driving force. Some of the players had earlier played together in the U-15 World Cup as well.
“This group, we knew each other's habits and plus and minus points. So when we came into the U-19 team, we didn't feel disconnected. We had a really good bond. There was a healthy atmosphere inside the team already," Ricky recalls. We used to back each other. Even the players who didn't play, they were also really supportive."
Yes, it was a big stage and there was seriousness but they struck a balance with a lot of fun as well. Ratra belts out a couple of fun stories.
"We had 3-4 players staying in an apartment in the hotel. In those times we didn't have mobile phones to get in touch with our family. So, what one of the players did was, he wanted to send out a message to his father, so he quietly walked up to the stump microphone during a match and said, "Pappa, aap mujhe shaam ko 7 baje phone kar lena, hotel ke number pe. (Dad, please call me in the evening at 7 on hotel’s number)." To date, we laugh a lot on that story when we get together.
"There's another fun story,” Ratra continues. “We were very young and didn't know English very well and in Sri Lanka we had to speak English. I also struggled with the language. But Roger sir used to talk in English only so it was difficult for us. But most of the time he used to understand what we were telling. What happened one day was, there was confusion regarding the team meeting timings ahead of the New Zealand match, so I told Binny sir, there is a 'Rammer' that meeting is at 7.30 instead of 7. I pronounced rammer instead of rumour. Yuvraj was really mischievous and had this habit of catching hold of these small, small things. He burst out laughing at that very instant. I was embarrassed. Binny sir understood it but since then Yuvraj had given me a new name, ‘rammer’, even now he greets me with ‘rammer’."
Ricky's moment of reckoning arrived in the big match against Australia in the semis. He scored 108 off 148 balls before Yuvraj blasted 25-ball 58, with 50 of them coming in boundaries (five 6s and five 4s), to take the match out of Aussie’s reach and steal the limelight. India posted 284/6, Australia were bundled out for 114.
"The wicket had a lot of moisture at the start and the Australian pacers were bowling well. So initially we saw off the early spell and then found our groove. It was really humid that day.
I remember I was on 95 and Yuvraj had come out to bat. He had told me just one thing, "Bohot kam mauka milta hai ek World Cup me 100 banane ka, to aap ne ye runs singles me finish karne hai, udhar se mera accha lag raha hai (Very few people get the chance to score a 100 in a World Cup, so you take singles, I am connecting well from the other end). So you take singles and give me the strike, I will take care of finishing. I scored the last five runs in singles. Yuvraj was just smacking every ball out of ground. His confidence on me and himself was an ultimate catalyst. On 99, I tapped one to cover-point and scampered through for a single. It gave me a sense of satisfaction and that feeling will stay with me life long."
Ricky finished with 340 runs from eight innings at 42.50 in the tournament and was adjudged the best batsman of the World Cup, which had the likes of Smith, Watson, Marsh, and Samuels who went on to become big names.
“I was in good form in domestic cricket and in the first game of the World Cup itself, I hit 61 against Bangladesh. That shot up my confidence massively," says Ricky. "My self-belief went high and I continued with the flow throughout the tournament.”
Ahead of the big game, there was an important team talk.
"We had discussed that Sri Lanka were the home team and they will have formidable crowd support and they did come in large numbers to support them," says Ricky. "So we had discussed focussing more on the game and less on the crowd. We decided that we have to win anyhow. People only remember winning teams. We were really pumped up.”
Sri Lanka were bowled out for a below-par 178 with pacer Shalabh Srivastava clinching 3/33 from 9 overs. However, it was Sodhi's day all along as he plucked a brilliant catch, effected a run-out, bowled a frugal spell of 10-0-26-0 and guided them past the finish line when India were still in a tricky situation. Striding out at 94/3, he scored a sensible 43-ball 39-run innings, adding an unbeaten 64-run stand with No 6 Niraj Patel (34 off 44) to chase down the target.
"Sodhi hadn't got many opportunities to bat so he was really pumped up ki 'agar baari aayegi to chhodunga nahi' (if the opportunity comes along, I won’t leave it)," says Ricky. "He was a big stage performer. I was a part of U-15 WC where he was the captain and Kaif was the VC. In that final against Pakistan, he made 82 not out to win the trophy for India. So I knew that on a big stage, he always does something extraordinary."
Ratra isn't short of stories. He recalls another funny one that took place amidst the tense final.
"We had Niraj Patel, he was from Gujarat so his pronunciation was a bit different. He had a habit of drinking Coke during drinks breaks. The 12th man came out in the final with water and energy drinks in the break. Niraj was batting at a crucial juncture and suddenly in the middle, he started shouting 'cook...cook...cook'. The thing was, no one was able to understand. He kept on shouting. We were tensed in the dressing room, kya hua yaar isko, itna tight match chal raha hai, kyaa chahiye jaldi do isko (What happened to him? Why is he shouting, it’s a tight match, give him whatever he wants fast). We were really curious. Finally, the 12th man who had gone out understood that he needs the soft drink Coke, so he went back and brought it for him. As soon as we understood we just erupted and were in the splits. And the joke continued for a long time. We used to continuously tease him."
"There wasn't a moment through the entire tournament when the team panicked", says Ricky. But in the rare instances when the chips were down, the dressing room jokes lifted the mood.
The win had a really positive impact on the players. It sprung them into the limelight. The interview requests had lined up and each player was rewarded with Rs 50,000. The likes of Sodhi, Yuvraj, Kaif made it to the senior national team that year itself.
"Yuvraj had played a very big role. Whenever he played, he looked unbeatable. Whenever he got a chance, he delivered. Those innings against Australia and New Zealand were unmatchable,” Ricky says.
"Kaif was a really positive force. He would never let you feel down or neglected. If you are not performing, he will push, motivate and take you forward. So even now when we talk we still call him captain: Kaptaan kyaa haal hai?" Ricky adds.
Unfortunately, Ricky couldn't make it to the big league owing to intense competition for the opening slots but he did play 73 first-class, 40 List A and 20 T20s for Punjab. Ratra went on to play six Tests and 12 ODIs for India.
Ricky is the batting coach of the Chandigarh Ranji side currently and sometimes does walk down the memory lane by watching the re-runs of that tournament.
"I have the videos, the matches were telecasted on Set Max and luckily I got hold of those at that time. So sometimes I sit back and take the nostalgic road."
Amidst myriad memories, there is one memory that will stay with Ricky forever.
"The moment I received the best batsman award," he says. “16 teams me ek hi best batsman banta hai and I was that one among those who went on to become legends. That memory will always there with me. That moment and the pride of wearing that Indian cap will stay with me forever,” Ricky signs off.
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