The Bay of Plenty. That’s what the region where the Under-19 World Cup ended (and began) is called. If it were up to Shubman Gill though, it might be called the Bay of Plenty of Runs.
Gill finished the tournament as the highest run-getter in top half of the tournament, with 372 runs, and the Player of the Series award. It underlined perhaps the most dominant performance by an Indian team in an Under-19 World Cup. Australia were not just beaten, they were outclassed. Twice. How often can an Indian team claim to do that?
“I think the first match was the turning point,” said Gill. “We had not played Australia before that. We had played England, and we had played the Asia Cup. So when we beat Australia in the first match, that was when we knew we could do it.”
The belief was apparent. Even when Australia put up a 75-run partnership in the middle overs and threatened to go past 250, India never seemed ruffled. Sure enough, Australia folded for 216, which India duly knocked off to register an eight-wicket win.
The Indian players have effectively written themselves the perfect swansong. Thanks to a BCCI ruling in 2016, no player shall play more than one Under-19 World Cup. So in the retirement town of Mt Maunganui, Prithvi Shaw and his team have retired from Under-19 cricket in the best way possible.
“Yes, this is the last match at this level,” said Shaw. “But there are a lot of memories that stand out. I can’t express what I’m feeling right now after winning this World Cup. A lot of things have happened, and I’m very happy.”
He added, “We’ve spent nearly two years together waiting for this World Cup, preparing for it. Obviously there will be emotions when we say goodbye, but it’s a sort of memory that even if some of us won’t go on to lift the senior World Cup, we have this to remember. All the boys have worked really well. They have backed me very well throughout this tournament. Even when I’ve felt under pressure, I felt the team was with me, and that’s a good feeling.”
For most of the players though, there is no respite. Straight after this, they will participate in List A cricket, in the Vijay Hazare Trophy for their states, and then begin preparation for the IPL. Player of the Final Manjot Kalra would have made the Delhi Daredevils franchise smug with his big hitting in unbeaten century, what he described as his “best knock” so far.
“A World Cup final-winning knock, and that too a hundred, it’s a big deal,” he said. “I’ll definitely remember it for a while.”
Australia might have felt like they were in with a half chance when both Gill and Shaw got out, with India 131/2. But Kalra was nerveless, continuing to attack and making sure India lost no momentum. “When Shubman came out to bat, we talked and he asked me to play my natural strokes. When he got out, I knew I would have to finish the game. So I told Harvik [Desai] the same thing, that he play the singles and then later on try and hit. I knew I needed to take charge of the game, that if I got out, the new batsmen would have a problem settling in.”
The next step
While the players will enjoy well earned glory, success in the Under-19 World Cup rarely means a successful career in the senior side. Kalra can learn much from the case of his Delhi teammate Unmukt Chand, who had also scored a hundred in a winning chase in the final of 2012, but did not find a place in the Delhi XI for the Ranji Trophy final this year – a point that head coach Rahul Dravid reiterated after the final.
“Hopefully they would have enjoyed this, they would learn from it”, Dravid said. “They’ll reflect on these last not just six weeks but 14 months, and they will take those learnings into first-class cricket. Hopefully this will not be the highlight of their careers. The highlight should come when they lift a big trophy for India or win the Ranji trophy for their state teams. Those should be the highlights. This should be a stepping stone.”
The good news for the talent in this team is that Dravid will be around to guide them at the next step as well. Many of them have already made forays into their Ranji teams, but it will be their second season in the tournament that will show who really stands out. Technical deficiencies are exposed as ruthlessly as mental ones are at higher levels, and for players who were the fulcrum of an India side for the past year, playing small fish in their state teams is a bit of an adjustment. Those who survive will graduate from first-class cricket into Dravid’s India ‘A’ setup.
For better or worse, life will not be ‘normal’ for these young men now. Dravid put it best. “The tough part starts now.”