A semi-final appearance is the least you would expect from an Indian team that has won the U-19 World Cup five times (more than anybody else) and made each of the last four finals. So, there is perhaps nothing eye-catching about the 2024 batch gearing up for a last-four showdown against hosts South Africa in Benoni on Tuesday, but the swagger with which they’ve dismantled opponents thus far is still commendable.
The group of boys changes every two years — no Indian is allowed to play more than one World Cup — but so professional and robust is the U-19 system in the country that their players just look better-equipped at this level than most of their opponents.
They have underlined their superiority by sauntering to one convincing win after another. When India began their campaign against Bangladesh in Bloemfontein two weeks ago, you wouldn’t have estimated an 84-run win to be their narrowest margin of victory so far. In that game, fifties by Adarsh Singh and skipper Uday Saharan proved to be crucial to India reaching 251/7 and Saumy Pandey’s 4/24 confined Bangladesh to 167.
Thereafter, they haven’t had to break a bead of sweat. Various players have contributed at different junctures, which is ever so crucial in a marquee tournament where over-reliance on one or two players can be a dangerous path to tread come the knockouts. But as far as standout performers go, it’s hard to look beyond Musheer Khan with the bat and Pandey with the ball.
Musheer, the younger brother of Sarfaraz Khan, is currently leading the run-scoring charts with 334 runs in five innings at 83.5. Batting at No. 3, Musheer has been able to withstand the early pressure before opening up and showing his more flamboyant side. His most defining contribution came against New Zealand, scoring a 126-ball 131 that took India to 295/8 for a comfortable 214-run win. His left-arm orthodox spin is a useful second skill too, reflected in his four wickets in five matches at an economy of 3.01.
It’s another left-arm spinner in Pandey though who has been India’s primary weapon with the ball. The 19-year-old from Madhya Pradesh is the tournament’s third-highest wicket-taker with 16 scalps in five games. An uncomplicated bowling action and unrelenting accuracy are at the heart of Pandey’s method, allowing Saharan the comfort of control on the field.
Saharan has been no less important. The expectations are enormous given India’s accomplishments in editions gone by, but the youngster has dealt with it all with a seeming sense of calm. He is only behind Musheer in the run-scoring tally, with his 308 runs including a timely ton against Nepal in their last game.
“Different players stepping up is a good thing. We aren’t thinking of dominance. We are just looking to play to the best of our ability on any given day. All the players are working hard, we are playing well as a team,” India U-19 coach Hrishikesh Kanitkar said ahead of the semi-final versus South Africa.
While most indicators point to India building on their proud record and bidding for a sixth title, the South Africans will hope to spring a surprise in conditions that they should know like the back of their hand. Their campaign hasn’t been all too smooth sailing having lost to England in the group stage, but as the senior ODI World Cup three months ago reiterated, what transpired in the past can be rendered irrelevant on the big day. At least that’s what South Africa will cling onto on Tuesday.