Switching off is important on tour, especially for a team that has already been in New Zealand for almost three weeks. So the India Under-19’s build up to the match against Zimbabwe on Friday featured very little cricket, but plenty of hockey, with some dancing thrown in.
Rain cancelled India’s practice at the Bay Oval on Thursday, but the mood in the camp was bright and sunny. Riyan Parag — who missed the first two games with injury but is likely to play against Zimbabwe — set Instagram alight with his dancing skills. And Prithvi Shaw took to the same platform to announce that Ishan Porel was fit, although at the same time, Vidharbha’s Aditya Thakare has been flown in as cover.
With some rain predicted on game-day as well, India will be hoping to win the toss and bat first. When Prithvi Shaw won the toss and chose to bowl against Papua New Guinea, no one was more surprised than PNG skipper Vagi Karaho. As he saw the coin go down in India’s favour, he must have been mentally preparing himself for an extended leather hunt, and wondering how much India would score against them. But with some rain around, the Indian management made the logical choice, looking to finish the match and net two points as soon as possible, even if it meant giving up on an opportunity for the batters to run amok.
The same strategy is unlikely to pan out against Zimbabwe. Should India win, they will cement their position at the top of the table. India currently have four points from two games, and Australia have two from the same number. Assuming Australia beat PNG, they will move up to four. And even if India’s game is washed out, shared points will see them move to five, and top the table. So India will likely look to flex some more batting muscle ahead of the quarterfinal.
“The team has prepared well, even though we didn’t have training”, said all rounder Abhishek Sharma on the eve of the game. “We had the option of training in the indoors, but Rahul sir advised against it, as indoor wickets are very different.” Abhishek insisted that India would not be taking Zimbabwe lightly though. “We made the mistake of thinking ahead about the knockouts in the Asia Cup. But we are very focused on tomorrow’s game.”
In contrast, the Zimbabwe team may struggle to find intensity on Friday. They played Australia in Christchurch on Wednesday, and then travelled to Tauranga on Thursday where they were scheduled to train in the evening. The fact that all India games are televised has had them based in Tauranga — one of only two grounds where the group games are broadcast — while the other teams have travelled back and forth. Zimbabwe have drawn the short straw in the schedule, having to combine their travel and training days. While they insisted the focus on was on performing despite their movements, coach Stephen Mangongo said it was something they would raise with their board after the tournament.
“It’s certainly unfair. If there are two rest days, everyone should have two rest days. No team is above any other, they are all Youth international teams here,” he said.
With their senior team having just pulled off a thrilling win against Sri Lanka, Mangongo said his squad would draw inspiration from that. “There is always a permeating effect, and it will be a big boost.”
An upset win for Zimbabwe would put them on four points, and in a three-way tie, so they have everything to play for. “We are one win away from a quarterfinal. It’s a very positive feeling”, said Mangongo.
Expected to be on the grassbanks when Friday’s game starts, is the India men’s hockey team. The side is in Tauranga, playing in the Four Nation Hockey tournament. The hockey arena is situated in the same campus as the cricket ground, and is just a two-minute walk away. Rahul Dravid, who played hockey in school, met the hockey team and had a short chat with their players on Tuesday. “It felt great to meet Dravid, he is a legend of the sport”, said Manpreet Singh, captain of the Indian hockey team. “He spoke to us, and motivated us, and said that our full team will come and support you.”
Wednesday was a rest day for the India U-19s, and they were on the sidelines cheering the hockey team in their tournament opener. The Indians duly won 6-0 against Japan, and will return the favour on Friday. “Yes we will be watching, of course”, said Indian hockey coach Sjoerd Marijne. “The boys all follow cricket so it’s really nice. I’m from Holland, and don’t know much about it, but we have to cheer for each other.