Plenty of fight in determined New Zealand
Fight and scrap: two words used often by Will Young, the New Zealand captain, and Paul Wiseman, a member of their coaching staff, to describe the ethos of this Under-19 side and its progress to the semi-final of the World Cup in Queensland. They could have been describing New Zealand sides of previous senior World Cups.
Consider the preparations of some of the sides that haven't made it to the final four. West Indies, the team New Zealand beat in the quarter-final, toured India, trained in Miami, played Australia in Dubai and had a camp at their High Performance Centre in Barbados. England put their players through rigorous training in Loughborough, and toured Bangladesh and Australia. Pakistan went to South Africa, had a camp at home, and left for Australia early to play three one-dayers before the warm-up games.
New Zealand, since hosting the previous Under-19 World Cup in 2010, only toured Australia for a quadrangular series in April. Between then and this World Cup, they hadn't even practised as a team at home; players worked in their own state associations. Due to budget constraints, they haven't been able to tour other countries. And due to it being winter in New Zealand, the players trained indoors.
"We obviously haven't had the same opportunities that they [some other countries] have had but it's the team that shows up on the day that wins a cricket match and we did that well," Young said, when asked about the lead-up to the World Cup. "We've put in all the work individually indoors over the winter and it's just great to see everything's clicked and all the hard work is starting to pay off."
What New Zealand did have, though, is some extra time in Australia ahead of the official World Cup warm-ups, during which they trained and played West Indies and Scotland, winning both games. "In New Zealand, it was four or five degrees, we come over here and it's blue skies everyday," Young said. "It's been awesome and that made the transition from indoor pitches to outdoor pitches a lot easier."
Wiseman said the players had learned quickly in Australia. "What we've done is, we've made the most of what we've had and what we've got," he said. "The guys really dug in and accepted any conditions and [took] everything on."
In the two official warm-up games, New Zealand lost comprehensively to South Africa before edging out Nepal by only 19 runs. Those results set the tone for the group stage as well: a 39-run win against Scotland, only an eight-run win against Afghanistan, and a five-wicket defeat against Pakistan to finish second in Group B.
"The real trait of this team is the fight it shows right through the game," Young said. "We haven't had it easy, we haven't smashed any opposition, so we've had to fight for a lot of our victories and I think that's the real trait of this team."
That trait had its litmus test in the quarter-final, against a West Indies side that had run roughshod over its opponents to top Group C. Chasing 237 at Endeavour Park, and no team had made that many to win in this World Cup, New Zealand needed 80 off the last eight overs and 12 off the last three deliveries. They won it by hitting a four off the last ball and celebrated fittingly, at the venue and later that evening as well with a team dinner. The next day, however, the focus was on India and the semi-final.
"The guys enjoyed that night, and you've got to enjoy after a game like that because they are pretty special, they don't come too often in a lifetime," Wiseman said. "The next day when we turned up it was focusing on the next game at hand and I think the guys are doing that. It's the biggest game of these guys' careers, first time on TV for most of them. We're just trying to treat the game as every other game we've played, and scrap and fight all the way."
Wiseman said the New Zealand side was full of "solid performers", not flashy ones, who had performed at different times to bring the team as far as they've come. New Zealand have two batsmen - Robert O'Donnell and Young - aggregating over 100 so far, while fast bowlers Matthew Quinn and Jacob Duffy have been their leading wicket-takers. What Wiseman hoped for to push India hard was a more "complete performance" in their first game at Tony Ireland Stadium this tournament.
India also had considerable preparation for the World Cup. They hosted a quadrangular series at home, toured Australia, played the Asia Cup in Malaysia and had a camp at the National Cricket Academy before leaving for Brisbane. They have also played two group games and the quarter-final at the venue of the semi-final.
"If we can get into a position where we're in a scrap tomorrow," Wiseman said. "Then the boys will be confident they can get across the line against a very good Indian side." And it isn't the size of the team in a scrap that's important, but the size of the scrap in the team.
George Binoy is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo