Group C highlights wider gulf between teams
Hanuabada is a coastal village on the outskirts of Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea. In Motu, one of hundreds of languages spoken in the country, Hanuabada means big village. According to Wikipedia, its population is more than 15,000. Eleven of its residents are in Townsville at present, preparing to take on the might of India, the collective strength of the Caribbean islands and Zimbabwe.
The teams comprising Group C in the Under-19 World Cup in Queensland are a microcosm of the disparity among the 16 participating countries. There are the haves and the have-nots, and those in between, across all groups.
India have all they could want: a large talent pool of high quality to select from, the resources to develop chosen players, and various structures to keep these kids in the game. West Indies have also invested significantly in their youth programme, trying to bridge gaps in their set-up, and the efforts have produced an experienced squad. Zimbabwe have a youth system in place but need to improve their feeder competitions and find ways to retain the talent. That Papua New Guinea are at their sixth tournament is a testament to what they can achieve with basic structures and help from Australia. Two victories from 29 previous matches at the World Cup, however, indicate how wide the gulf between them and the rest is.
The disparity starts at the beginning. Twelve out of 15 players in India's Under-19 squad have represented their states. A few are members of IPL franchises. Those who have not played domestic cricket have tested their skills in high-standard club cricket. Six of the West Indians have played domestic cricket and their captain Kraigg Brathwaite is the only Test cricketer in the tournament. They have experienced what it's like to play against men - some who are former first-class or international cricketers - and are tougher because of it. Only two Zimbabweans have played for their franchises, and their coach Chris Harris believes his cricketers are a year or two behind where they could have been in their development had they had the same exposure as their competition.
"[The youth structure] is not too bad [in Zimbabwe]. We have representative teams right up from colts, Under-14s through to Under-19s," says Harris. "The players that get into those sides are looked after by very good coaches.
"The problem is the competition that feeds into those teams. That's probably not as strong as we'd like it to be and it's basically run through the school system. In an ideal world, we need a more competitive environment leading into those representative sides. In Zimbabwe, the club structure is not as good as you'd like it to be. Most of these boys don't even play in club cricket.
"So right from the onset we are slightly disadvantaged, but we are trying to rectify that. We're trying to get the club structure right. We're also trying to get a national league up and running. If we can get that in place, it's going to make a huge difference. It will expose these guys to the type of cricket they will face when they come to World Cups like this. We simply have to play more. I think you become a better cricketer through your experiences. You play an Indian side and their boys may have played 100 competitive games of cricket at club level. Ours might have played 25.
"No question that there's plenty of talent in Zimbabwe. The problem we have is based purely on experience. The talent is not exposed to a strong enough competition."
In Papua New Guinea, there are about 400 cricketers at Under-19 level, according to John Ovia, a former cricketer who is part of their management team in Townsville. Most of them are from Port Moresby and Hanuabada. "It's like a village challenging a country," says Ovia of the matches ahead.
Papua New Guinea's first game, however, is against Zimbabwe, who have not had much match practice in the lead-up to the World cup. They haven't been on any tours outside Africa to assess where they stand against their opponents. And like several other teams, they've also had just a week in Queensland to get acclimatised to the weather and the conditions. It's their first time in Australia.
The tournament is also West Indies' first visit down under but they got here on July 21. "We've had a camp while we've been in Australia. We've acclimatised nicely. Hopefully we can catch a few teams on the hop," says Roddy Estwick, the West Indies coach. "The board has made a conscious effort. This team went to Dubai [to play Australia], we went to India [quadrangular series], we went to Miami … in the past you would meet up and not have a lot of time together."
The West Indies team also had a camp at the High Performance Centre in Barbados and have travelled to Australia with a heavyweight management team. In addition to Estwick, they also have Courtney Walsh and Stuart Williams to guide them.
India's preparation has been elaborate. They hosted a quadrangular series, went to another one in Townsville and played the Asia Cup in Kuala Lumpur, all in the last 12 months. They also went on various team-building exercises during a training camp at the National Cricket Academy in Bangalore in July.
"They have a lot of self-belief," says coach Bharat Arun of his team. "There's little more we can do on the skill front. The mental side is going to be very important because it's about handling pressure at the World Cup." To that end, the team had interactions with Yuvraj Singh, Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar before flying to Brisbane.
India might triumph in Townsville. West Indies could too. It's unlikely either Zimbabwe or Papua New Guinea will. But the real triumph depends on how many of their players kick on to greater achievements in cricket. And therein lies another challenge.
The Indians can go back to the competitive domestic structure they came from and use their learning to perform better in that environment. More of them will play IPL and be employed by corporates that field strong cricket teams. Most won't have to worry about financial security. Some may not turn out to be good enough, but very little of the talent that is on show at the World cup will be lost for want of opportunity.
West Indies, according to Estwick, have taken similar steps to keep their young. "Before, you would come to the World Cup and if you don't break into your national side, it would be another two or three years before you were seen again. Now they've got a chance to get into the High Performance Centre, which does a few tours: Dubai last year, Bangladesh this year.
"We're trying to bridge that gap between first-class cricket and Under-19 cricket. If we can get a few of them breaking into the High Performance Centre and the A team, in a year or two year's time, then all the work would be worth it. Yes, we want to win the World Cup, but we've got to think long term and getting West Indies cricket strong again."
The situation in Zimbabwe isn't as promising. What happens to their Under-19 cricketers, says Harris, is "the other part of the problem."
"Hopefully some of these guys will make it into the franchise system," Harris says. "But that's not that easy to get into. Boys that don't get into the first-class structure, there's not really too many other places for them to go. They go back to club cricket and as I said we are trying to put systems in place that will make that stronger.
"From Zimbabwe Cricket's point of view, a lot of these boys have had a lot of money invested in them. They've come up from Under-13 all the way to Under-19, they've been on tours overseas, they've come to a World Cup, so it's really important we don't lose these players. The difficulty lies in keeping them involved."
The irony is that keeping players who have made it to this level involved with the game seems to be less of an issue in Papua New Guinea, because of the smaller talent pool. "Most of the guys who will play Under-19 will go to the senior team," says Ovia. "We have national contracted players." The challenge is how far they can take the senior team.
Papua New Guinea have been consistent qualifiers for Under-19 World Cup but are yet to debut at the senior event. They have a shot at 2015, though, if they fare well at two qualifying events over the next two years. Some of Hanuabada's residents currently in Townsville might have another World Cup in them.
George Binoy is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo