India back their big-game prowess
This India Under-19 side knows how to get to a final. Had they made just one or two over the last 12 months, it could have been put down to a hot streak or even luck. But Unmukt Chand's team has qualified for the final of every tournament it has played in: the battle against Australia at Tony Ireland Stadium on Sunday for the World Cup is its fourth.
Their first final was in a quadrangular series - a tournament also involving Sri Lanka, West Indies and Australia - in India in September 2011. The next was in another quadrangular, this time in Townsville, against England, New Zealand and Australia in April this year. The third was in the Asia Cup in Malaysia in June. And now this.
India's route to the World Cup final has been bumpy. Before they left for Brisbane they lost opener Manan Vohra and seamer Mohsin Sayyed to injuries. And once they began their campaign, their batsmen struggled on the tough pitches in Townsville but, to varying degrees, so have the batsmen of every other team. They've had to fight hard for all of their victories, which were narrower than some of the margins might suggest.
"It's been really good, we faltered initially and after sometime we got into the groove, and now we're seeing that we're peaking at the right time," Chand said about the campaign so far. "We've stumbled, the journey hasn't been that easy for us, there have been ups and downs, that's the best part of it. That's really got us together.
"We take a little time to adjust to the conditions and then, when you lose at first, you tend to come closer. That's happened with us: usually when you lose you drift away, but for us we've come together."
India might have got their combination wrong in the first game, picking three spinners and only two seamers on what Chand called a "treacherous" pitch. Sent in to bat, they were limited to 166 for 8 and lost by four wickets, though their bowlers kept West Indies chasing until the 48th over. Though their hopes of topping Group C were gone, Chand said there was no panic because India had been slow starters on their previous visit to Townsville as well.
"It wasn't something that came to us like a shock. It wasn't that easy in those conditions. We lost a match, it's okay," Chand said. "We still had two matches to go, so we knew that we'll win those matches and make the knockout stage."
They tinkered with their combination for the next two group games, bringing in seamers Kamal Passi and Ravikant Singh, for medium-pacer Rush Kalaria and left-arm spinner Harmeet Singh, who would have played but for an illness. Harmeet recovered in time for the knockouts though and replaced the spinner Vikas Mishra, as India finally found their best XI.
Passi took six wickets in his first game, Ravikant took five in his second and Sandeep Sharma has been swinging the new ball around corners with exceptional control. Harmeet attacked with guile and flight, while Baba Aparajith contained with his offspin. There is no weak link. Passi has become the crowd's darling, while Ravikant smiles when fans call him, Rajnikanth, a film star with a cult following among Indians. The bowlers have made up for the batsmen's struggle.
"The bowling has been really good from the very beginning," Chand said. "Sandy is the spearhead of the attack, Passi has contributed after his injury in the Asia Cup and Ravikant has come up too as a surprise. He's a newcomer... it's his first tournament, that too a World Cup. The way he's bowled is fantastic."
India also relied on their bowlers to do a bit of batting for them. Passi clubbed 24 off five balls against Zimbabwe to post a strong total, and Harmeet and Sandeep pulled off a tense one-wicket victory in the quarter-final against Pakistan. Before coming to Australia, India's coach Bharat Arun had said the team had a motto of "keeping a cool head to win a hot game." There is no better example of that than Harmeet and Sandeep calmly playing out seven overs to score the ten runs needed to get to the semi-final.
Five Indian batsmen have scored seven fifties so far, and there have been others who've got starts as well, but a collective performance has been lacking. They took a step towards remedying that in the semi-final against New Zealand, where the top order produced its best performance to date. Although there was a middle-order collapse, India had done enough to compile a match-winning total. "We have showed big-match temperament, we have done well when it counted most, people have contributed well at the crunch times," Chand said. "That's a good sign for us and hope we do it in the final as well."
No one has made more than 78 as well and Chand emphasised the importance of converting a start in the final. "Once you are set you should not throw your wicket away in these conditions because it is really difficult for a new batsman to come in and score runs straightaway," he said. "This is what we've been telling each other, that if you're set, then please play the whole innings."
India might not be everyone's favourite to win Sunday's summit clash. Their bowling has been outstanding but their batting has been patchy and they are facing Australia at home. The players will be quietly confident, though, because apart from knowing how to get to finals, they also know how to win them. Of the three they reached over the last 12 months, they tied the Asia Cup final and won both in the quadrangulars, including one against Australia in Townsville only a few months ago.
George Binoy is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo