Giant leap on road from boys to men
In the lead-up to the 2012 Under-19 World Cup, Alastair Cook, captain of the England team in the 2004 tournament and now leading their one-day international side, said the competition would be "just a start to people's careers rather than a pinnacle". He was both right and wrong.
There are 240 players from 16 countries spread out over three cities in Queensland. For most of them, irrespective of whether they are Indian or Nepalese, English or Namibian, this will be the grandest stage they play on. Most are unlikely to be part of another global tournament, to have exposure to the ICC's policies - on issues as diverse as racism and bat sticker size - and their education on corruption and doping, to have the opportunity of playing in front of a global audience, to be contenders for a World Cup. For many of these boys being in Australia's sunshine state will be the pinnacle of their cricket careers.
That, however, is no mean achievement. From the far corners of the world they have travelled to a storied cricket country at such a formative age. Several of the Zimbabweans, for example, are so young they could play the next Under-19 World Cup in 2014. What was your most determining adventure at 17?
"A lot of these boys haven't ever been away from their parents," says Zimbabwe's coach, Chris Harris, of his team. "In this environment they get what we call 'meal money' or allowances, and they get to buy their own lunches and dinners. So even those little things are great experiences for people who haven't done it before. And I guess it shows you, at a pretty important age, how the real world works."
The players will experience life in a high-pressure global event, without the comforting support of family and friends, away from the familiar surroundings of their home countries, where one does not have to think about how to use the transport system or the self-checkout at the supermarket. They will interact with and learn from cultures they haven't even read about, and begin lasting friendships with people they would have otherwise never met. Not many of us knew about life in Port Moresby or Port Elizabeth at 19, or had a friend from Kabul or Wellington at that age. Walking the streets of Brisbane, Sunshine Coast and Townsville, these boys will have the experience of a lifetime. As people on the cusp of their adult lives, they are starting from the pinnacle of their cricket careers. It will help give them perspective for a life outside the game.
"It's a fantastic experience and already we've seen the players interacting from knowing each other from previous tours," says England coach Tim Boon. "We wholly encourage our players to integrate, we think it broadens their horizons and they make life-long friendships."
There will of course be cricketers for whom this is not the pinnacle of their sporting lives, those who will go on to have successful first-class and international careers, or even just extremely well-paid Twenty20 gigs. They could even be the ones reminiscing before the tournament in 2020 about how instructive and seminal such an experience was. They may or may not be the success stories of this World Cup: runs, wickets and a trophy now, or a lack of them, is no guarantee of success, or failure, over the next five years.
"There's a huge difference between the maturity of an 18-year old and a 22-year old," says New Zealand coach Matt Horne. "And along that journey other things do come along. There are guys at U-19 level who don't cut the mustard at a higher level. There are others who miss this team but catch up and overtake."
The winners of the future, though, are likely to be the ones who take most out of today. "They are the kids who stand up, they are the ones who learn, they might listen a bit more," says Stuart Law, Australia's coach. The ones who were most attentive at an ICC seminar about what substances to not put in your body and whom not to speak to. The ones who picked up skills by watching the Australians play bounce, the English handle swing, the Indians use their feet to spin, the Pakistan and Sri Lankan spinners flight the ball, and the joy with which the West Indians play. The ones who made a note of what sort of food to eat, of doing the right exercises at the right time, and of how much sleep to get. The ones who leave Queensland having assessed their games in comparison to others and are determined to bridge or extend the gap. The ones who can deal with triumph and failure, and treat them the same.
Without undermining the achievement of winning the Under-19 World Cup, true success here is revealed later, depending on how many of these cricketers have lasting careers in cricket. The coaches drive the point home: this tournament is all about development of their charges, as players and as people. Most would gladly choose producing a greater number of future international cricketers over winning the trophy.
"My job is to produce Proteas cricketers," says South Africa coach Ray Jennings. "Winning World Cups at this level is important, but not as important as producing future Proteas cricketers."
It's a common goal and to achieve that most of the Under-19 sides go through the same pre-match, post-match and off-day drills that a senior team would. "You're trying to prepare them for a professional life in cricket," says Roddy Estwick, who's been involved in West Indies' youth programme for three World Cups. "Once you do the right things here, it helps them in the long run. So when they break into the senior team, it's nothing new, they are accustomed to the set-up, they are accustomed to the regime."
In a couple of years, a few of these Under-19 players will have given up cricket, fewer will have broken into their national sides, and most will be striving towards their international debut. The hope is that several of the boys competing for this trophy will be back in Australia as young men for the real deal in 2015.
George Binoy is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo