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Feature

Deep and varied attack leads India's quest for a fourth straight final

No team has crossed 200 against them yet, but semi-final opponents Australia will present an entirely different challenge

Sreshth Shah
Sreshth Shah
30-Jan-2022
Two of Rajvardhan Hangargekar's five wickets in the tournament have come in the first over of innings  •  ICC/Getty Images

Two of Rajvardhan Hangargekar's five wickets in the tournament have come in the first over of innings  •  ICC/Getty Images

India have had an unusual Under-19 World Cup campaign so far. They began with a big win over South Africa, then lost their captain and his deputy to Covid-19. After their stand-in captain led them into the quarter-finals, they went into an eight-day break. Then stand-in tested positive for Covid-19, just as the captain and vice-captain were set to return to the XI.
While India's batting has been a Ship of Theseus due to Covid, their bowling attack has remained unaffected. The same group has turned out in every game, partly due to squad-size constraints, and no team has crossed 200 against them yet. It could be considered unsurprising that they bowled Uganda out for 97 and Ireland for 133. But they've also bowled South Africa out for 187 and defending champs Bangladesh for 111.
The tone has been set right from the first ball, usually by Rajvardhan Hangargekar. Two of his five wickets in the tournament have come in the first over of innings, and the blow he dealt to Uganda opener Isaac Ategeka's left arm, which forced him to retire hurt, also came in the first over. He could have had another first-over wicket with a first-ball yorker to Bangladesh's Mahfijul Islam, but the ball hit the stumps and somehow failed to dislodge a bail.
Through the rest of his first spell, Hangargekar had the batters guessing whether they would have to guard their toes or their head. When you have the batter looking to survive instead of score runs, a wicket is always around the corner. In one line, Hangargekar is a strong, tall man using his build to fluster the opposition.
Then there's the ice to Hangargekar's fire. Ravi Kumar is a conventional left-arm seamer with an uncomplicated action who gets the new ball to swing into the right-hander. He challenges both edges of the bat early on, and in later spells, bowls like a metronome on good length and a stump-to-stump line. He has bowled well through the competition, but against Bangladesh he really bloomed, getting three early wickets with the swinging ball. Bangladesh could never really recover after Ravi had reduced them to 14 for 3.
After the pacers comes Vicky Ostwal, a left-arm spinner who operates like Ravindra Jadeja, bowling flat, skiddy deliveries that occasionally turn across the right-hander. After the new-ball bowlers have finished their first spells, batters try to take Ostwal on, and that has only played into his hands, helping him take nine wickets in four games.
An expensive South Africa game has skewed seamer Raj Bawa's numbers, but his ability to bowl a tight fourth-stump line has otherwise brought India control through the middle overs. Nishant Sindhu, the left-arm spinner who is now down with Covid, has induced numerous false shots without having the wickets to show for it. Throw in offspinner Kaushal Tambe who turns it sharply, another left-arm spinner in Aneeshwar Gautam, and a useful line-up of part-timers, and India have the variety that every team craves. That's been a key to their success so far, as their combined bowling average of 14.11 - the best in the tournament so far - shows.
A lot of the pacers' success has come down to how they have been managed. Under the watchful eyes of VVS Laxman and Hrishikesh Kanitkar, the captains have not used the quicks when not needed, protecting their young bodies from injury while juggling a shoestring squad. Hangargekar bowled just ten overs across the games against Ireland and Uganda, and Ravi only seven. Instead India have spread the workload around, using six bowlers in three of their four games, and eight against Ireland.
Their variety has allowed them to use specific bowlers to target specific weaknesses. If a batter has looked slow to get onto the back foot, they've brought back Hangargekar. If a right-hander has looked uncomfortable against balls turning away from him, Ostwal and Sindhu have been introduced in tandem.
This approach has left every India bowler entering the semi-finals with some degree of confidence. The way the bowling unit has operated has made it difficult to pin down any one bowler as the "sixth choice".
Coming into the semi-finals, however, these bowlers will have their toughest task yet. In Teague Wyllie, Australia have a batter with scores of 86*, 101* and 71 in the tournament. Campbell Kellaway averages over 52 and Corey Miller has struck form on the back of a 64 against a very good Pakistan attack. India's pace, which has rattled other sides, may not hold as much fear for an Australian line-up that has grown up playing fast bowling. Wyllie learned his cricket on the notoriously quick pitches of Western Australia.
India, though, will be very aware that Australia aren't quite as strong against spin. When Sri Lanka rolled them over for 175, the left-arm spinner Dunith Wellalage did the bulk of the damage with a five-wicket haul. In their quarter-final against Pakistan, the bowler who troubled them most was the offspinner Qasim Akram. And India have plenty of spin assets, and could deliver as many as 40 overs of spin if need be. They could even open the bowling with spin.
But Australia will present a test for India and their captain Yash Dhull. At the Asia Cup and for most of the World Cup, their seamers have made the early inroads and broken nagging partnerships. But against Australia, India might need to be flexible with their template. It could make all the difference for them as they aim to reach their fourth straight Under-19 World Cup final.

Sreshth Shah is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @sreshthx