Under-19 World Cup, Sri Lanka January 27, 2006

Hoping not for rain but to reign

South Africa's current crop of young players will be hoping to avoid a repeat of the fate that befell their predecessors the last time the under-19 World Cup was held in Sri Lanka, in 2000.

Six years ago the Proteas arrived for the tournament with a powerful batting line-up that included future Test captain Graeme Smith and Jacques Rudolph and looked capable of mounting a significant challenge.

But rain washed out all three of their first round matches - while it relented to allow other teams in their group to play at least once - and they found themselves missing out on the Super League stage of the tournament.

South Africa were relegated to the Plate competition and although they won that event, beating Bangladesh in the final, that was only a minor consolation to Smith - the top run-scorer in the tournament - and his team mates.

This good news for South Africa this time around is that they should have less reason to worry about the weather. This tournament is taking place almost a month later than the one in 2000 and February is traditionally one of the driest months in Sri Lanka.

So, the players can devote all their concentration to the job in hand - playing good, winning cricket - and that focus will be essential because South Africa have a tough job just to get into the Super League.

They find themselves in one of the toughest first round groups, Group B, as they have been drawn with 2004's losing finalists the West Indies, along with Australia, the 1988 and 2002 winners, and tournament newcomers, the USA.

And as only two sides go through to that Super League stage from each group it means at least one Test-playing side from Group B will be left disappointed.

But South Africa have plenty of reason for optimism despite modest form in the lead-up period.

They may have finished fifth out of the six teams in action in last November's Afro-Asian Under-19 Cup in Vishakapatnam (they won just one match, their opening encounter against Zimbabwe), but they still possess several extremely talented players.

That fact was shown up not only in India but also during the Under-19 Cricket Week in South Africa in December 2005.

One of the side's leading batsmen is likely to be Brett Thompson. The right-hander from Eastern Province (EP) made 71 against Northerns and 116 not out against Free State, one of only four individual hundreds during that week.

Plenty will be expected of Thompson, as it is of captain Dean Elgar. A lefthander from Free State, Elgar was a consistent performer in the Afro-Asian U19 Cup and made 81 against EP and 99 against Border in December's domestic action.

Elgar can also bowl left-arm spin (he took 4 for 17 against Kwa-Zulu Natal Inland in one match) and he is one of several players who may be expected to fill a slow-bowling role for the side.

The captain is joined in the spin department by fellow left-armer Jean Symes and off-spinners Mafinki Serame and Richard Das Neves and that means the Proteas have plenty of options, something that could stand them in very good stead on what may prove to be spin-friendly pitches.

Symes comes into the tournament off the back of some impressive form. He took 5-21 for Gauteng against EP and also returned figures of 1-14 in nine overs against eventual tournament winners Western Province (WP) after earlier scoring 68 in the same match.

Other batsmen to look out for include Pieter Daneel (the Proteas' leading player in the Afro-Asian U/19 Cup), Romano Ramoo, vice-captain Richard Levi and wicketkeeper Craig Kieswetter.

The pace attack will probably be led by right-arm fast bowler Craig Alexander. He is the only member of the squad with previous experience at this level, after playing in the 2004 event in Bangladesh and he is also one of only two players with first-class experience (Symes is the other).

Alexander will be supported by fellow WP pace bowler Malusi Siboto, who also impressed in the cricket week, Mthokozisi Shezi and Wayne Parnell, an accurate left-armer, amongst others.

If South Africa do make it through as one of the top two sides in their group then things are unlikely to get any easier for them as they will probably then face either the hosts Sri Lanka or the tournament favourites India in the Super League quarter-final.

Both sides beat them heavily in the Afro-Asian U/19 Cup in November but this is a new tournament and Elgar and coach Ray Jennings, who this time last year was in charge of the senior side, are unlikely to allow any negative thoughts to hang around for long.

South Africa squad Dean Elgar (captain), Richard Levi (vice-captain), Craig Alexander, Pieter Daneel, Richard Das Neves, Craig Kieswetter, Grant Makoena, Wayne Parnell, Romano Ramoo, Mafinki Serame, Mthokozisi Shezi, Malusi Siboto, Jean Symes and Brett Thompson.