Spirited Pakistan fall in final hurdle
Having at least one subcontinent team in the final of the Under-19 World Cup was what the tournament organisers would have hoped for. It was perhaps fitting that Pakistan was one of those teams, given that the turnout is always bigger when Pakistan and India play in these parts.
A Pakistan win would have brought massive cheer to the several expectant fans who showed up in Dubai, but the team failed to deliver. It might have been stage fright on an important day such as this, but the players got a taste of playing in front of large numbers, by U-19 World Cup standards.
Sami Aslam, the captain, has been a part of two World Cups and has endured heartbreaks in both. In 2012, it was a quarter-final exit in a low-scoring thriller against India, a match which was in Pakistan's hands till India's tenth-wicket pair stole the show.
In 2014, they were bundled out for 131 in the final - just one short of their senior team's score in the 1999 World Cup final - and the results were similar. They made South Africa sweat in the beginning but couldn't sustain the intensity. Rather than look for excuses, Aslam gave due credit to the opposition and acknowledged the work put in by his own team getting to the final.
"We had played very good cricket coming to the final," Aslam said. "But South Africa bowled well in the final, and two or three of our batsmen played some poor shots."
Pakistan had only dropped one match in the tournament, against India, and had to fight tooth and nail in the semi-final to get to the summit clash. Their batting problems from the semi-final resurfaced in the final, with their top order stumbling to South Africa's four-man seam attack.
The team had a huddle before going out to defend 131 and Aslam said the message was to focus on the positives.
"The manager spoke to us and said that there is nothing to be disappointed," Aslam said. "We had played well and he motivated all of us. Today, we could not play that well."
Pakistan struggled against the South African duo of Justin Dill and Corbin Bosch, two bowlers of similar pace, and were floundering at 72 for 7 at one stage. Aslam said their accurate lines and lengths changed the match.
Pakistan's biggest takeaway from the tournament is Imam-ul-Haq, the opening batsman who finished the second highest run-getter in the tournament with 382 runs and forged a formidable opening stand with Aslam.
Pakistan's journey is all the more special considering that they don't get to face bowlers of international quality back home, because many teams have refused to tour the country since 2009. Therefore, their foreign tours assume greater significance than for most teams. In the lead-up, Pakistan had played tournaments in England, UAE and a short home series against Afghanistan and had won all barring the Asia Cup.
Kanishkaa Balachandran is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo