Tough, competitive, and memorable
It's the day after the Under-19 World Cup final and Townsville feels different. Flinders Street bears no sign of the Indian party the night before, and the cafés on Palmer are missing the groups of young cricketers who've been ever-present over the last two weeks. For the 240 players who've left the city, the fortnight gone by has been probably the most revealing, instructive and emotional of their teenage lives.
The 2012 Under-19 World Cup has felt like a bowler's tournament; perhaps it was the imprint left by the first day, when England were dismissed for 143 by Australia after which Reece Topley broke Jimmy Peirson's middle stump and Jamie Overton let rip at scary speeds for someone so young.
However, though it might not have felt like it when Pakistan collapsed for 136 and India lost nine wickets in a successful chase, the batsmen of the class of 2012 have surpassed those of both 2010 and 2008 by a striking distance. In those previous two tournaments, you could have counted the number of centurions on one hand; you'll need three for 2012. In fact, there were as many hundreds - three - scored on the pitches at Tony Ireland Stadium, the venue where the bowlers had it best, as they were in the whole of the 2008 Under-19 World Cup in Malaysia.
The abundance of runs in international cricket over the last few years has raised expectations of batsmen but the kids in Queensland seem to have met those high standards. The 15 centuries scored in the 2012 tournament are the most for the Under-19 World Cup, and the run aggregate and average also compare favorably to most other World Cups. On the other hand, the average per wicket for bowlers was 25 in 2012, which is smack in the middle when compared to other tournaments.
The competition was tough too, in 2012. Unlike in 2008, when India won all their matches, there was no undefeated team in Queensland. Like in 2010, when Australia, South Africa and Pakistan won five out of six games, there were three teams with similar records in 2012. India lost only their first game, to West Indies; Australia lost only the final, to India; and South Africa were beaten in the semi-final by Australia and won their third-place playoff. South Africa, always strong contenders at this level, had the best stats in the tournament but failed to win it once again.
The smaller gap in quality between the sides is perhaps due to an increasing investment in youth cricket. While India, England and Pakistan always had elaborate preparations for their Under-19 sides, other countries have tried to follow suit. Australia, who are increasingly on the hunt for young talent these days, and West Indies have stepped up their Under-19 programmes; Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have had tours as well, though Sri Lanka failed to make it through the toughest group. Only cash-strapped New Zealand came in from the cold of their winter, and credit to them for finishing fourth.
The finalists were perhaps the best prepared sides and their success a vindication of the investment made. India gave their players exposure by going on two tours, to Malaysia and Townsville, and hosting a quadrangular series. Their players had been tested by foreign conditions and demanding situations several times before they faced the pressures of the World Cup. The Indians also had an elaborate camp at the National Cricket Academy in Bangalore where, apart from their cricket skills, the players worked on intangible factors such as building trust and team spirit.
The Australians went to India last year and hosted a quadrangular series as well. They also invited Pakistan for three one-dayers in the week before the World Cup. And, in addition to the significant advantage of playing at home, their cricketers also had the expertise of Stuart Law, Greg Chappell and Craig McDermott in their management group. Law said often that at this age-group, the more competitive matches a team plays, the better it becomes.
The on-field lessons have been numerous and invaluable. The batsmen were challenged by the bounce of Australian pitches and the speed of Ronsford Beaton and Reece Topley, the strangling accuracy of George Dockrell, the guile of Harmeet Singh, and the swing of Sandeep Sharma, to name the best in their disciplines. They've learned the importance of leaving the ball, of giving the first hour to the bowler if necessary, of making a start count once the hard work's been done.
The bowlers learned from not getting carried away on helpful pitches, from bowling at batsmen whose strengths are unique to their part of the world, from being unable to dismiss William Bosisto. Topley spoke of the instructive value of bowling on a large ground, where the gaps between fielders are larger for a batsman to knock an inaccurate delivery into. Their patience has been tested, because wickets haven't been as forthcoming as they have been in age-cricket at home.
For a lot of the players coming to Australia for the first time, the adjustment to culture, cuisine, technology and the difference in daily life from the way it is back home has been a transformative experience. They have striven to overcome unfamiliarity so that their on-field performances are unaffected.
The players who were in Queensland will now follow different paths and traverse them at different speeds. Those from most of the Associates and Affiliates will find a relatively unblocked route into their national teams because of a lack of competition for places from outside the age-group structure. Those from the Full Members will attempt to break into their first-class teams and apply the lessons learned in a much tougher environment of men. Their senior-team caps will not be easily earned.
The 2012 Under-19 World Cup was the time of Reece Topley and Anamul Haque, of William Bosisto and Unmukt Chand, the stars of a stage protected by age. Whether it is they, or someone who was hidden in obscurity during the last two weeks, who will succeed in greater arenas, it is much too early to tell. Most of the cricketers who came to Brisbane, Sunshine Coast and Townsville will never return again, but perhaps the time they spent here will be the making of some of them.
George Binoy is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo