Saturday, March 2, 2024

U19 Men’s Cricket World Cup: Australia reigns supreme against India yet again

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For the third time in the span of eight months, Australia dented India’s hopes of lifting a trophy.

On Sunday, Hugh Weibgen led Australia to their fourth title at the ICC Under-19 Men’s World Cup as they defeated India by 79 runs at Willowmoore Park, Benoni.

Australia’s prowess as a cricketing nation only grew with this victory. Barring the ICC Men’s T20 World Cup title, they are the reigning champions of pretty much everything right now – be it the Women’s ODI World Cup, the Women’s T20 World Cup, the World Test Championship or the most recent ICC Men’s ODI World Cup. Their cricketing dominance, at the moment, is unparalleled.

It is no surprise that the youngsters from Down Under display the same ruthlessness and big-match mentality as their seniors.

Unfortunately for India, the pattern off-late, suggests that there needs to be some kind of introspection around their inability to cross the final hurdle across formats, age-groups and gender. India – still the most successful nation at the U19 Men’s World Cup – however will have to gulp this loss down with some difficulty.

Entering the tournament, they weren’t particularly favourites. In fact, having lost at the U-19 Men’s Asia Cup last year, they were not even the best side to come out of Asia in the World Cup.

However, India captain Uday Saharan, Musheer Khan, Sachin Dhas, Arshin Kulkarni and Saumy Pandey had started to suggest that there could be some hope to hold on to as they progressed through the tournament.

On the day of the final though, it wasn’t meant to be.

In fact, it was Australia who would go on to put forward a blockbuster finale performance to become champions. They first amassed the biggest score ever in an U19 Men’s World Cup final and then put up a brilliant bowling performance to flatten India’s chase.

Harjas Singh steps up

For the first half, it was Harjas Singh, who rose to the occasion with a vital blow to ensure Australia put up a score that they could come back and defend. He hadn’t had a particularly spectacular outing at the tournament so far but on the day it mattered, the southpaw stepped up.

Singh led the Australian innings along with Ryan Hicks with whom he stitched an important 66-run partnership for the fourth wicket. Singh’s strength is spin and he demonstrated his authority over the bowling attack by smashing Priyanshu Moliya for a six and a four in his opening over.

He persisted in applying maximum pressure to the spinners while Hicks found gaps to consistently rotate the strike. It was a pitch that did not particularly assist that spinners and Singh did well to ensure that he took them out of the equation entirely.

Saharan, in fact, had been relying on spin to bring in the wickets. Earlier, when Harry Dixon and Weibgen’s partnership was growing in confidence, spin momentarily slowed the scoring rate but it failed to yield wickets.

Consequently, when India reverted to pace after 11 successive overs of spin, it immediately reaped dividends resulting in the dismissal of Weibgen. It was all about pace yet again when Raj Limbani’s re-introduction to the attack ensured that the partnership between Hicks and Singh was broken when the seamer trapped Hicks in front for 20.

However, Singh carried on and finished with a superb half-century off 59 balls, his first of the tournament.

Naman Tiwari along with Pandey and Musheer picked up wickets in the middle as Australia slipped from 165/3 to 187/6. However, there was a late flourish from Australia’s lower middle order that took them past 250.

Charlie Anderson and Ollie Peake, fresh off a game-winning knock in the semi-finals, slowly re-built before Limbani claimed his third wicket in the 46th over by trapping the former in front. Peake remained unbeaten on 46 as Australia finished on 253/7.

A cartel and a record chase

The ‘pace cartel’ is what former cricketer, now commentator and broadcaster Ian Bishop called Australia’s quartet. It consisted of Anderson, Callum Vidler, Tom Straker and Mahli Beardman. While Vidler and Beardman were the speedsters, Anderson and Straker had the tricks.

Chasing a record 254, India was placed on the backfoot early. Vidler began with a maiden over and Anderson – who had claimed four wickets in the warm-up match against India – bowled another tight over with the new ball to begin the second innings.

With the pressure mounting early, opener Kulkarni edged one behind as Vidler got his first breakthrough. Australia’s relentlessness with the new ball forced India into a shell.

Khan displayed some impressive shots that showed promise, including a smooth punch down the ground for four. Beardman, however, in his very first over steamed in with the extra pace and the angled delivery into the right-hander exposed a gap in the batter’s defence. The variable bounce, as he looked to defend the ball, also played a role and it ended up hitting the stumps.

Saharan, who had been India’s most dependable batter and also finished the tournament as the leading run-scorer, was under the pump. As a captain, his team was staring at the possibility of losing their shot at a sixth title and as a batter, he needed to show why they were depending upon him.

The team was already in trouble at 40/2 inside 12.2 overs, the scoring rate was jolted and the Aussie quicks were all over them. Saharan attempted to break free after a watchful start, but it only assured Beardman of his second wicket.

India’s problems worsened when the in-form Dhas, who had starred for them in the semi-final against South Africa, was dismissed after spinner Raf Macmillan’s opening delivery. Dhas was caught behind by the off-spinner for nine runs, putting India at 68/4 and in serious trouble.

Adarsh Singh, who kept losing partners on the other end, then found some company from Priyanshu Moliya but the latter soon top-edged a pull off Anderson.

In the next over, Aravelly Avanish gave MacMillan a return catch, putting India six down.

Macmillan, aware that the pitch was better suited for pace and later movement, let his team-mates do the talking as he built upon the work of the spinners. He bowled to a plan with discipline even in absence of spin assistance as he picked up 3/43.

Adarsh, feeling the need to accelerate at 47 after his quiet innings, went after Vidler with two boundaries and a six. However, he ultimately nicked a short ball from Beardman to the ‘keeper, handing Bradman his third.

Although Murugan Abhishek contributed some fireworks towards the end, India were unable to make a significant comeback since they were too far away from the mark. He made 42 in the end, mistiming a pull in Vidler’s last over before India were bowled out for 174.

It is heard time and again but eventually, it was what resurfaced again – bowlers win you tournaments. The batting performance by Harjas Singh and Ollie Peake had helped lay down the foundation, but Australia must be lauded for selecting all four pacers in the playing XI for the final.

As Australian cricket continues to take the trophies by storm, adding more players to the pipeline and developing a robust mechanism for success, the rest of the cricket world must tip their hats but more importantly, learn from their dominance.

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