Pakistan favourites against historic foes
Big PictureIt is perhaps fitting that the Under-19 World Cup final should feature Australia and Pakistan. One country conceived the idea of a global youth tournament, the other pioneered the trend of thrusting teenagers into the international arena. To cap it all, the teams meet in a final 22 years after facing off in the inaugural edition of the tournament, in 1988.
A tournament that now competes with first-class cricket in determining the worthiness of players at the international level, the Under-19 World Cup has been dominated by Pakistan over the years; tomorrow's final is their third in the last four tournaments and their fourth overall.
A bigger pool of players exposed to first-class and List A cricket (eight against four), an unbeaten run in the competition and greater familiarity playing in Lincoln, the venue for the summit clash, gives Pakistan a significant advantage. Not that they've had it easy; their previous three wins were close-run - two of them going to the last over - with each wrought from a position of weakness. This ability has been less consistent in Australia's performances.
Unlike the senior World Cup, which is a long, drawn-out tournament, the finalists of the Under-19 version have had fewer hurdles to scale. They haven't had a common opposition, though Australia have had it easier, facing USA and Ireland in their first round. A greater potential for surprise, given the fewer steps to the trophy, makes the contest between the finalists more desirable than the one-sided offering their senior counterparts have managed to conjure.
Australia were upstaged in the last over by South Africa in the league phase, beat New Zealand comfortably and just managed to hold their breath against Sri Lanka in the semi-final, chasing 206. Since the start of 2009, they've been beaten in the two 50-over series they've been involved in, squandering leads in both instances to go down 1-2 to India and 2-3 to Sri Lanka. Though a much-improved outfit in this competition, measuring up to Pakistan's experience, form and stubbornness will be difficult.
Pakistan were among the frontrunners coming into this competition and have lived up to their reputation. They beat Zimbabwe 5-1 in a limited-overs series before being edged out by Sri Lanka in a tri-nation tournament. They began their World Cup campaign with an easy win over West Indies and a mauling of Papua New Guinea. But they have since been challenged. A late surge by wicketkeeper Mohammad Waqas snatched a penultimate ball win against Bangladesh, Hammad Azam's composure at the death handed them the much-cherished thrill of overcoming India and an inspired fightback, again by Hammad, helped them chase 212 against West Indies in the semi-final.
Players to watch
Hammad, an allrounder, has had the biggest impact on Pakistan's success. An integral part of the middle order, he's made it his responsibility to finish off games, shepherding Pakistan to three consecutive wins with his penchant for the big hits at the death and the maturity to wield restraint after an early collapse, as in the semi-final. Among those without first-class experience, Babar Azam has been a find. He is currently the third-highest run-getter in the tournament, but in conditions that have favoured fast bowlers of late, the swing of Sarmad Bhatti and Fayyaz Butt could prove hard to tackle.
Australia's fast-bowling trio of Josh Hazlewood, Alister McDermott and Nick Buchanan have grabbed 24 wickets between them at 16.22, forming the backbone of their team's attack. Captain Mitchell Marsh has starred in the knockout phase with half-centuries against New Zealand and Sri Lanka and remains a much sought-after scalp in the Australian top order.
"There's no other country in the world that can match the talent that Pakistan has at U-19 level, just look at the last four U-19 World Cups."
Azeem Ghumman, Pakistan's captain, states a fact.
"I have really enjoyed the tournament and I'm very happy with my form because I haven't been dismissed yet in this tournament."
Hammad Azam on his terrific run.
"With the sort of experience in our side, it was always a goal to be in the tournament at this end. Like any other team, we have come here to win the tournament and not just to fill up the numbers. We've got the side that is capable to win this tournament."
Mitchell Marsh is far more diplomatic than his counterpart..
Siddhartha Talya is an editorial assistant at Cricinfo