Pace, collapses, and a format in need of change
Prior to the tournament, the pitches in the UAE were expected to be loaded with runs. Top-order collapses at the Dubai International Stadium were a regular feature, especially in day games. India were 8 for 3 against England, 22 for 5 against Scotland, West Indies had slumped to 70 for 8 against Australia, and in the final, Pakistan had lost half their side by the 20th over, to name a few examples. The early morning moisture and two-paced pitches in Dubai also played a big part in giving the bowlers a bigger say.
The top order needed to treat it like the first morning of a Test, giving the early overs to the bowlers. Teams also had to realise that a score of 20 for 0 after ten overs is acceptable. It was an affliction particularly for the side batting first in a day game. South Africa got it right in the semi-final, with the openers nullifying the new ball and adding 105. Overall, it was a good education for batsmen in dealing with swing bowling and learning to respect the conditions. Patience was the key because the surfaces didn't always encourage hitting through the line.
Low scores and a statistical quirk
The collapses would suggest that this was a bowler's tournament, but the stats reveal a twist. The run-aggregate of 17694 over 48 matches makes it the second highest in World Cup history, after Bangladesh 2004.
Ironically, it's the highest in terms of runs-per-wicket - 23.12. Sharjah had the highest runs-per-wicket with 30.04 while in the main stadiums in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the numbers were 22.46 and 21.44 respectively, at the bottom. The two smaller grounds in Abu Dhabi and the ICC Academy ground in Dubai produced more runs, with the runs per wicket between 25 and 30 at the three venues.
The large outfields and pitches at the Sheikh Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi and the Dubai International Stadium explain the difference in numbers. In Dubai especially, even senior teams have to put that extra muscle behind their shots to clear the long boundaries. But the juniors had no leeway either. Towards noon, the pitch would ease out and the lower order would come to the rescue, time and again. England captain Will Rhodes' comment that even 204 is a defendable score in Dubai was significant because it summed up the control the bowlers had, overall. Once a team had passed 200, a psychological battle was overcome.
The U-19 World Cup was compelling from a purists' point of view because it taught batsmen how to graft, as it did for Aiden Markram, the South Africa captain who was also the Man of the Tournament. "Personally, I have learnt to bat time. I think the longer you bat and the longer you drag it, the easier it becomes," Markram said. "You have more time to assess how the conditions are playing on the day. The longer you drag the game, the more the opponents fade off."
South Africa's consistency
It was fitting that the most consistent team, South Africa, won the competition. South Africa were unbeaten from the start, while their final opponents Pakistan dropped just one game. They were the better all-round side, with several players making contributions. They were given a scare by West Indies in the beginning but managed to defend 198 with ease. Markram was the pivot and the allrounder Yaseen Valli was effective in batting under pressure, especially against West Indies after a collapse, and in the semi-final when South Africa needed runs in the latter half of the innings. Valli was also their main allrounder, as their main spinner.
For pace, Kagiso Rabada was the sensation, knocking over West Indies and Australia and while Justin Dill and Corbin Bosch don't yet have the pace to match, their accuracy played a crucial part in the final. A predominantly pace-heavy attack found the conditions to their liking. The 'chokers' tag was finally off their backs. The coach Ray Jennings said the difference between this U-19 side and those in the past he has coached is the attitude. Their work ethic, he said, made up for what they lacked in talent.
"Each game there was a different player who stepped up," Clyde Fortuin said. "And like we said in the beginning of the tournament we have no superstars."
Format could be tinkered
The current format has 16 teams divided into four groups of four each, with the top two from each qualifying for the quarter-finals. But given how some teams had spent months preparing for the tournament, it was heartbreaking for them when one bad match, hour or a dropped catch, spoils all their efforts.
Two dropped catches at the boundary in knockout games proved decisive to the outcome - Deepak Hooda's and Jake Winslade's. One coach suggested that the format could be revised, splitting the teams into two groups of eight, with the top two teams contesting the final, or the top four going through to the semi-finals. Such a format would reward consistency. It would have been bad news for the organisers had Pakistan and India been eliminated at the group stage.
The 2007 World Cup was a lesson. When big teams have to compete for places in the playoffs instead, the motivation drops. The ICC has stuck to the current U-19 World Cup format since 2006. Since the groups for the next World Cup are allotted based on where the teams finish in this World Cup, it is unlikely the format will change. Dropping the quarter-final and having a Super Eights (like in the senior World Cup) will give all teams a chance of coming back after a poor start. While it might lead to more matches, the challenge is for the organisers to crunch the schedule to within two weeks.
How much preparation is enough?
Not all cricket boards may have had the resources to get their U-19 squads ready for the World Cup by participating in various tournaments. The Indian side for instance underwent an extensive program, having played four tournaments in the lead-up and winning all. They had claimed the Asia Cup also in the UAE just weeks before the World Cup. However, a quarter-final choke shattered their dreams.
South Africa's preparation wasn't as extensive as India's. The quadrangular tournament in Visakhapatnam, featuring Australia and Zimbabwe, was their only exposure to Asian conditions and yet they won. Before the final, the players were asked to watch video clippings of the opposition and analyse their strengths and weaknesses.
England too gave space to their U-19 program, playing a tri-series in the UAE late last year and performed above expectations by finishing third. New Zealand, however, were the least prepared, having played only seven ODIs since the 2012 edition, all of which were either at home or in Australia. They eventually lost to Bangladesh in the Plate final.
The examples above show that preparation doesn't confine itself to nets and skills sessions, either before or during a tour. It's also about the homework done indoors. Markram too said before the final that the side that panics will not go all the way. The side that does the basics right by taking catches and saving runs in a pressure scenario will succeed.
Kanishkaa Balachandran is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo