Under-19s prepare for World Cup Qualifiers
The most talented young players in Associate and Affiliate cricket gather in Toronto this week in an attempt to qualify for the 2010 Under-19 World Cup, staged in New Zealand.
While the opportunity of competing against the best young squads from larger nations, such as Australia and India, is at the forefront of the players' ambitions, the tournament gives them a chance to impress and perhaps even press for a place in the senior team.
Ireland's Paul Stirling, a highly regarded batsman, turns 19 September 3 and displayed his potential during his senior side's three-run defeat to England on Thursday, cracking 30 from 26.
"I am very much looking forward to the tournament. I haven't played against a lot of these teams before so it will be a great experience to play against the other sides that have qualified," said Stirling. "It has been a pretty hectic few months for me and it was tricky to fly the day after playing against England. It was disappointing to lose that game but that match has gone and I am focusing on this event now."
The senior Ireland team have been in excellent form lately. Over the past 18 months, they have gradually begun to extend the gap in class between them and other Associate nations, and Stirling is confident that the juniors have what it takes too.
"It is key for Irish cricket to take part in big tournaments and if we play in these events it does give more publicity to young players coming through," he said. "It is especially massive for our players as you see the young players are being given their opportunities in Ireland in the senior team, so everybody knows if they play well they are putting their names into the senior squads as well. It is important for them and Irish cricket.
"The aim for every single person in our squad has to be to play at the World Cup in 2011 and that is what they are all looking to achieve. If they score runs in a major tournament like this then they are definitely putting their name in the shop window to the likes of Phil Simmons [Ireland coach]. He has given opportunities to young players before, especially in Associate cricket, and encourages players to make the top."
The Netherlands coach, Roland Lefebvre, also believes that members of his squad can be inspired by the opportunity to graduate to the senior side and experience occasions like Netherlands' famous win over England during the World Twenty20 earlier this year.
"The night at Lord's will stay in the memory for a long, long time, but it also showed our guys that if you work hard then there is some great cricket waiting for you," he said. "With the World Cup and another World Twenty20 event coming up, these guys aren't that far off making the senior team. If you come up with a good performance in this tournament, then there is a good chance they could make the step up, perhaps even quicker than they think. There is a lot at stake for these guys and some great opportunities to show whether that they are capable of."
His side will have to cope without key players, however, as Stijn Allema and potentially Alex Kervezee - currently involved in the ODI series against Afghanistan - may be unavailable, but Lefebvre believes that his side are ready for the challenge.
"I think we will ask a lot from our players and ask them to focus on their strengths rather than worry about the opponents. I don't think we can take any opponents for granted as they all have a reason why they are here.
"The wickets are unknown, so that may be a challenge, and our opponents are unknown, so that will also be a challenge, but I think that makes it a special occasion. It is very exciting for our guys to play on a different continent against some very interesting teams and we are all very much looking forward to it."
The 10 competing teams at the event, which will be played on a round-robin basis are Afghanistan, Hong Kong, Canada, USA, Ireland, Netherlands, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu. Afghanistan and Sierra Leone, however, are in a race against time to obtain visas and may yet be forced to abandon their involvement.
Among teams hoping to do well and surprise more established opposition is Hong Kong, who have never played at an Under-19 World Cup before. Coached by former England Test batsman, Aftab Habib, he believes his side, who won the Asia qualifier, is ready to compete.
"We are quietly confident and each team has qualified to get here, so I am sure lots of teams will be thinking the same way. We have some very good players and it is a matter of performing well on the day," he said. "We have been fortunate to play around the world and a lot of our team has been in the senior side already. I am sure that the boys will grab the opportunities at this event and I am sure their knowledge of the game will develop as they take part in tournaments like this."