So, India meet Australia in a grand finale for the third time since June 2023. The occasion is eerily similar to the one from November last year. Except, Benoni won’t be as intimidating as Ahmedabad, even though South Africa’s massive Indian community will try and make their presence felt with the teams tussling for the Under-19 World Cup.
India, the defending champions, are the most successful side in the competition’s history. Playing in their ninth final, they will be gunning for their sixth title. Australia, meanwhile, last won under Mitchell Marsh in 2010. They’ve run into a rampant Indian team twice since, only to finish second-best.
In 2012, Unmukt Chand played out of his skins to win India the title in Townsville. In 2018, Manjot Kalra emulated his Delhi senior in Mount Maunganui as India’s campaign ended with Rahul Dravid being carried around Bay Oval. Six years on, Australia have another crack at junior cricket’s biggest prize, with the stakes just as high, against a side whose age-group structure and pathway programmes are the cricket world’s envy.
India’s road has been smooth for large parts. They’ve traversed a familiar path of batting first, consolidating slowly and then going big in the death overs. Then in the semi-final, with plenty at stake, they opted to field first and had their sternest challenge yet against South Africa with the top order being blown away by pace and swing.
From the depths of 32 for 4 in a chase of 246, they found two heroes in Uday Saharan and Sachin Dhas, who put together the highest partnership for the fifth wicket in the history of Under-19 World Cups to steer India home. It told you two things: how temperamentally strong India’s squad is, and how game time in the lead-up, as against camps and inter-squad matches many of the other teams stuck to, has helped them massively.
Australia got here by overcoming an almighty scare by Pakistan. They eventually survived…by the barest of margins. Needing four runs to win off the final over with one wicket in hand, Pakistan’s over-rate penalty led to them having just four fielders outside the ring. One of them who would’ve stayed out, fine leg, was brought in.
As luck would have it, Raf MacMillan’s thick inside ran past that fielder for four to ensure Tom Straker’s six-for didn’t go in vain. Ali Raza, who’d fought valiantly to pick up a four-for to turn the game around on its head, sat on his haunches shedding tears of heartbreak.
A game prior to being pushed by Pakistan, Australia slumped to 87 for 5 against West Indies, and had to dig into their batting reserves to eke out a competitive total. So it hasn’t always been a smooth sailing. Sam Konstas, whose temperament many experts have likened to Michael Clarke’s, responded with a backs-to-the-wall 108.
Callum Vidler has had many take note of his ability to hit speeds upwards of 140 clicks, which for someone just 18 is mighty impressive. He has proven to be way too quick and sharp for batters across teams and the stats back that. He has picked up 12 wickets in five games at an average of 10.75 and economy of 3.88.
Beyond the wins, it’s spurts of individual promise like this that makes the Under-19 World Cup a spectacle that it is. There will be several players from both sides to look out for come Sunday.
India WWWWW (last five completed matches, most recent first) Australia WWWWW
In the Spotlight: Kulkarni and Harjas
Arshin Kulkarni brought with him heaps of promise as a ferocious ball-striker but he has enjoyed middling returns so far. Barring a hundred against the USA, Kulkarni has struggled to set the pace at the top of the order. With the ball, he has been more steady than sensational. One of the few from the current squad with senior cricket experience, Kulkarni came into the tournament with a burgeoning reputation. Can he fire on Sunday?
Harjas Singh grew up as a right-handed batter but switched to become a left-hander as a 12-year-old so that he wasn’t always in danger of breaking windowpanes at his backyard. His rise up the ranks to become a boy wonder at the school level has left many people impressed. A stroke-maker with a penchant for big runs, Harjas has had a forgettable tournament so far, having made just 49 runs in six innings. That he has featured in every game so far is a sign of the team management’s faith in him. There can’t be a bigger occasion than Sunday to repay that faith.
Pitch and Conditions
Benoni has had plenty of pace and carry for the faster bowlers. Early on, the new ball bowled have also found plenty of swing. This coupled with teams looking to build rather than go-big up top has led to middling totals in the 250-range. In a big game, the captain winning the toss will have a tough choice to make. Should they exploit the morning conditions or bank on the comfort of runs to defend?
Australia: Harry Dixon, Sam Konstas, Hugh Weibgen (c), Harjas Singh, Ryan Hicks (wk), Oliver Peake, Tom Campbell, Raf MacMillan, Tom Straker, Mahli Beardman, Callum Vidler
India: Adarsh Singh, Arshin Kulkarni, Musheer Khan, Uday Saharan (c), Priyanshu Moliya, Sachin Dhas, Aravelly Avanish (wk), Murugan Abhishek, Naman Tiwari, Raj Limbani, Saumy Pandey.
Stats and Trivia
India have not had a fifty-plus opening stand in this Under-19 World Cup yet. If they don’t manage one in the final, it will be the first World Cup for them without a 50-plus opening partnership.
Australia last beat India at the Under-19 World Cup back in 1998. India have won all the six meetings since then including twice in the finals, in 2012 and 2018.
“We don’t mind being the underdogs, we’re not the favourites, that’s alright. Being in pressure situations [at different times] will help us in the final” – Australia captain Hugh Weibgen is comfortable with how his side’s looked at.
“I am not thinking anything like that.” – India captain Uday Saharan on being able to take revenge for the 50-over World Cup final loss.
Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo
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