The 13th edition of the ICC under-19 World Cup set to get underway in South Africa from 17 January will see a host of talented players from 16 teams competing for the premier title at youth level.
India, the defending champions after their win over Australia in 2018 in New Zealand, boast of some extraordinary young talents who have already made their name in domestic and franchise circles.
The ICC under-19 World Cup was first conducted as an eight-team tournament way back in 1988. It took a decade for it to become a biennial event with 11 further tournaments conducted between 1998 and 2018.
India have won the Youth World Cup four times with Australia a close second having won the title thrice. Pakistan (twice), England, West Indies, and South Africa are the others to win the title over the years.
India are also the side with most wins in under-19 World Cups, having won 58 of their 77 matches so far. Australia and Pakistan, with 53 wins apiece come next, while South Africa, West Indies, England, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka have also won more than they have lost in the World Cup history.
Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, New Zealand, and Afghanistan are the major sides without a youth ODI world title in their kitty.
The last tournament conducted in 2018 in New Zealand garnered widespread interest with quite a few talented players emerging from it. India took on Australia in the final and won by eight wickets to secure the trophy. Manjot Kalra, for his match-winning hundred, was the Man of the Match in the final while Shubman Gill walked away with the Player of the Tournament trophy.
Pakistan and Afghanistan were the other semi-finalists but the third-place play-off between the two sides was abandoned due to a wet outfield.
The 16 teams are split into groups of four with the top two teams qualifying to the Super League phase and the bottom two progressing to the Plate League. The top eleven full members at the time of the last event automatically qualified for the current edition of U-19 World Cup. Ireland were the only full member team to miss out on qualification.
The qualification matches played between 2018 and 2019 paved way for five more teams – Canada, Scotland, UAE and first-timers Nigeria and Japan.
In the final round of qualifications in mid-2019, Japan benefitted from Papua New Guinea suspending 10 of their players and qualified for the first time to the main event. They slot in with India, Sri Lanka, and New Zealand in a strong group A.
New Zealand underachieved at home in the last event, finishing eighth, and will be looking to make amends. Sri Lanka haven’t punched above their weight since reaching the semi-finals in 2016 and will be aiming to cause a stir.
India are the reigning champions with a terrific group of players and a dominant record in recent times and are expected to top the group.
Group B, which has Australia, England and West Indies along with newcomers Nigeria, can be termed the 'group of death' for this World Cup owing to the presence of three former champions. One of these three big sides will miss out on the Super League phase.
The fixtures for this group are all scheduled at the Diamond Oval ground in Kimberley. Australia and England are expected to qualify ahead of the Windies, although they themselves boast of some fine talent.
Pakistan have a fairly easier Group C with Bangladesh, Scotland and Zimbabwe pitted with them. With some extraordinary young talent in their ranks, both Pakistan and Bangladesh are pretty strong this time around and should make it to the next round.
South Africa, Afghanistan, Canada, and UAE are in Group D with the hosts expected to face stiff competition from the Afghanistan boys in topping the group. Afghanistan, which first played the tournament in 2010, have made rapid progress and were semi-finalists last year alongside Pakistan.
South Africa, meanwhile, will look to take inspiration from their 2014 performance when they won the title under current Test opener Aiden Markram.
Which teams have done well in the build-up?
The period after the 2018 U-19 World Cup has been a fascinating one with the one constant being India’s domination. The Indian youth side hasn’t lost a bilateral series since the 2018 World Cup and have won 22 of the 31 matches in this time frame. They are in good form having won a quadrangular series in South Africa this week – also involving the hosts Proteas, New Zealand and Zimbabwe - in the build-up to the competition.
Bangladesh, which have some incredible talent this time around, have 18 wins in 30 matches and boast of the third-best win-loss ratio. Runners-up last year, Australia, have won five of their seven games but have played considerably less than some of the other top teams.
Pakistan are the only other team to have won more than they have lost since the last youth World Cup. England and West Indies, have lost more than they have won, but remain strong contenders owing to the squad strength they have.
Players who are in form heading into the tournament
Bangladesh batsman Towhid Hridoy is the top run-getter in the format since the last U-19 World Cup with 1144 runs in 27 innings at an average of 60.21. Recently, he slammed a hat-trick of hundreds against the Sri Lanka youth side to take his tally of tons to four in the last two years.
The only other batsman with over a 1000 runs in the period under consideration is again a Bangladesh player – right-handed batsman Mahmudul Hasan Joy.
Yashasvi Jaiswal, who recently triggered a bidding war in the IPL auctions, has 986 runs in 21 innings at an average of 58 with two tons in this period and is the third-highest run-scorer. Nipun Dananjaya Perera, Sri Lanka’s skipper, has the fourth most runs while fellow mate Navod Paranavithana has also shone in this time frame.
With the ball, Bangladesh once again have representation at the top with Shoriful Islam and Mrittunjoy Chowdhury taking 35 and 34 wickets respectively at impressive averages.
Pacer Sushant Mishra from India has 29 wickets and is third in the list of top wicket-takers since the last tournament. Indian spinner, Atharva Ankolekar, has 27 wickets in 10 innings with a mind-blowing average of 9.51 in this period.
Mishra and Ankolekar will lead India’s charge with the ball this World Cup. Leggie Ravi Bishnoi and left-arm spinner Shubang Hegde are the others to have shone for India in this period.
India are the favourites to defend their title with a slew of reputed stars in their arsenal. From the ever-reliable Priyam Garg as captain to the flamboyant Yashasvi Jaiswal, the solid Divyaansh Saxena and a formidable bowling group, the squad strength on paper is firmly in favour of India winning the title.
The bowling attack, like last time around, is India’s strength with Mishra, Kartik Tyagi, Ankolekar, Bishnoi and Hegde capable of humbling any batting unit on their day. Anything less than a place in the finals will be an underachievement for Paras Mhambrey’s boys. Since winning the title for the first title in 2000, India have dominated the tournament and have missed out on a top-three place only twice in two decades.
Bangladesh can dare to dream on their day with them commanding one of the strongest squads in the tournament. What will work against them are the pacy South African pitches, but Bangladesh have the team to thwart conditions and test the opposition.
Vice-captain Towhid Hridoy, Tanzid Hasan, Mahmudul Hasan Joy and Akbar Ali form a strong batting core while the bowling, which has Shoriful Islam, Mrittunjoy Chowdhury, Rakibul Hasan and Shamim Hossain, is also capable of testing strong batting line-ups.
Bangladesh have a fairly easy group to start off with and should make it to the Super League phase without sweating a lot. They will, however, face stiff competition from the strong Group B qualifiers in the Super League phase.
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