Baba Aparajith shows his reliability
There are some big, strong boys at the Under-19 World Cup, with muscled six-foot frames, tattoos and stubbled chins: the kind most people wouldn't want to pick a fight with while at school or university, the kind that could break a stump or hit a ball on to the grass banks at Tony Ireland Stadium. Baba Aparajith, the Indian allrounder, isn't one of them.
To look at, Aparajith is skinny, not too tall but not short either, wears braces and his hair neatly, and has the facial fuzz of a teenager. At the risk of stereotyping him from the outside, he wouldn't be out of place in the front of a class; he might be the quiet boy at a party. If anyone was hasty enough to judge by appearances alone, they wouldn't single out Aparajith for Man-of-the-Match performances in a World Cup quarter and semi-final.
A batsman with an aggregate of 138 runs isn't anywhere near the top of the charts in this tournament. And neither is a bowler with four wickets and an economy of 3.71. However, if those numbers belong to the same person, who's also taken six catches - the most in the competition - then you're on to something. And that's what Aparajith has done for India in Townsville.
Aparajith's performance in the group matches was nondescript: 43 runs, two wickets and no catches. In the quarter-final against Pakistan, he was alert enough to take two catches at second slip in the first over, and two more later in the innings. He also took 1 for 23 in five overs, taking out the well-set Babar Azam to help dismiss Pakistan for 136.
During the pursuit, Aparajith walked in with India 7 for 1 and watched Prashant Chopra and Hanuma Vihari fall for the addition of one more run. The situation called for a calm, adhesive innings and Aparajith produced it, shepherding the chase against tough bowling. He had made 51 off 97 balls out of a total 120 when he was the sixth wicket to fall, and watched his team-mates drag India into the semi-final by one wicket.
Circumstances were different in today's semi-final against New Zealand. Batting first, India had made a sound start and, when Aparajith went in, they were 51 for 1 in the 14th over. By Tony Ireland's standards, it was a luxury, and Aparajith had to build on that early momentum. He did that successfully by hitting the ball into gaps in the large playing surface with minimum risk. Despite hitting only two fours in 61 balls, Aparajith still got his 44 at the best strike-rate in the match for a score over 25. He fell at an inopportune time for India, though, during the batting Powerplay, and they got 209 when they were on course for a few more.
"I was just trying to tick the strike over," Aparajith said of his innings against New Zealand. "[In the] last match, because of the situation, I was trying to play a little more dot balls. Today I was playing a little more freely because we were batting first.
"We knew on this ground 210-220 would be a fighting score, even our coaches said not to look for too many big shots. We were trying to play out 50 overs. We knew 200 was a difficult score on this wicket."
Aparajith's role is especially crucial to India because of the functions he performs: bats at No. 3 against the new ball, can offer ten overs of tight off-spin, and has safe hands at slip. Aparajith said he enjoys both batting and bowling but considers himself a batting-allrounder rather than a bowling-allrounder.
"It's a little tough, but if you want to become a good player, you want to do that," said Aparajith, when asked how hard it was to develop all disciplines. "Nowadays, everybody is looking for allrounders, in T20, Test cricket and one-day cricket. I try to bowl my ten overs, I try to contain and take a few wickets. I give my full effort in my batting and fielding as well.
"I've always been a slip fielder but from the Asia Cup only I started doing slips for this team. I've been concentrating on doing catches with our fielding coach, so it's been working good. Very happy with the performance, mostly the team has won the game, that's why I'm happier."
Aparajith is from St. Bede's Anglo Indian High School, an institution that is consistently among Chennai's best cricket teams, and a product of age-group cricket in Tamil Nadu. He's represented the state at Under-15 and Under-16 level in 2007 and 2008, and played four Ranji Trophy matches for Tamil Nadu in 2011-12.
Before coming to Queensland for the World Cup, Aparajith was one of four players in this India Under-19 team to play in all its 15 matches since the squad came together in September 2011. He was their third-highest run-scorer, with 329 runs, and their top wicket-taker, with 28 wickets. He and Unmukt Chand were the most prolific fielders as well, with 11 catches each.
It's taken him a while but having played pivotal, if not headlining, roles in the knockouts against Pakistan and New Zealand, Aparajith is quietly confident ahead of the World Cup final against Australia, who are familiar opponents. "We've played them in the Vizag tournament and in the Townsville tournament," he said. "We've played them four times, and only once we have lost."
Aparajith may not look the most formidable opponent, but clichés such as never judge a book by its cover are true.
George Binoy is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo