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Feature

How Saharan's timelessness took India to the Under-19 World Cup final

Even in the age of T20 cricket, India's U-19 captain likes to take his time and take the game deep without worrying much about the strike rate

Raunak Kapoor
11-Feb-2024
Sri Ganganagar, the northern-most city in the state of Rajasthan, no more than 225 square km in area and, with a population of around 200,000, is perhaps best known for being the birthplace of the legendary Indian ghazal singer and musician, Jagjit Singh.
By Sunday evening, the city might well have given India their sixth Under-19 Men's World Cup-winning captain.
Uday Saharan made the move from Sri Ganganagar in Rajasthan to play age-group cricket in Punjab when his father Sanjeev, who is also his coach, decided it was time to take cricket seriously.
Singh's music and Saharan's batting both share an element of timelessness.
Going into the final against Australia, Saharan has batted for 644 minutes in this tournament, facing 493 balls and scoring 389 runs, the third highest for an India batter in a single edition. Shikhar Dhawan's 505 in 2004 remains the record. Yashasvi Jaiswal's 88 in the final in 2020 took him to 400. A hundred for Saharan may well put him at the top.
But it isn't as much about his own runs as what, and more importantly how much, has happened for India while Saharan has been at the crease. Nearly 53% of India's runs have come with Saharan in the middle.
He has forged a partnership of more than 50 in every game, including four in excess of 100 and three over 150. His stand of 215 with Sachin Dhas against Nepal is a record for India in the Under-19 World Cup.
In India's two most important games this tournament, against Bangladesh and the semi-final against South Africa, Saharan walked in at 31 for 2 and 8 for 2, respectively. While Adarsh Singh (against Bangladesh) and Dhas (against South Africa) played the match-defining innings, Saharan is what kept the team from falling apart.
The earliest any team has been able to dismiss India's captain is the 37th over of the innings.
Saharan is a throwback to the old school of batting. Take your time to get in, eliminate risk almost entirely, and don't worry about the strike rate. Something he learned and inherited from his father.
"My father told me from the beginning to always take the game deep, as deep as possible," Saharan told Star Sports ahead of the final. "These days, batters like to play shots and try to finish things off early, but my father's thought process, which I know is old school, has always been to keep wickets in hand and take the game deep, because if you get to such a situation, then you can chase down anything, given the kind of batters you have today."
Saharan's style of batting is often one that stirs up the intent debate at the senior level, particularly in white-ball cricket. But in a World Cup where surfaces have generally been challenging for batting, with just three scores in excess of 300 in 40 matches, two of those by India, his methods have worked wonders for his team.
"If I'm completely honest, of course I want to go out there and play big shots," he says. "Play shots in the air, try to hit sixes, because that's what people like to watch today. But in reality, I want my team to win, I want my country to win, that's what makes me proud. So if my game needs to be different, where I need to play a secondary role to keep the team in the game, I'm more than happy to."
Saharan's team values his contributions. While his 81 off 124 winning him the Player-of-the-Match award ahead of Dhas' 96 off 95 in the semi-final might seem debatable, the emotions of the Indian team right after, roaring and applauding their captain receiving the award, was perhaps an indication they might not have got to the final without him.
"I've played a lot of pressure games already... Those games taught me how to react to different situations, how the opposition is likely to react to what has happened, how the bowlers are going to bowl"
Uday Saharan
Adarsh, Musheer Khan and Dhas, who had won Player-of-the-Match awards in previous games, have all credited Saharan for his game awareness and communication throughout the partnerships, on what to expect from different bowlers at different phases of the innings, something that even at 19, he feels comes naturally to him.
"I've played a lot of pressure games already," Saharan says. "I'm only 19, but from my cricket at the club, district and state level, I've played these innings before. Those games taught me how to react to different situations, how the opposition is likely to react to what has happened, how the bowlers are going to bowl. I feel I picked up a lot of knowledge from the cricket I have already played, so I just want to share that with the rest of my team. If my information helps my partner and makes him think about the situation of the game better, then that helps my team."
Ahead of the final, Saharan has become the leading run-scorer in the tournament. He wasn't on the top at any point before the semi-final. He has also predominantly run his way to the top with just 29 boundaries (27 fours and 2 sixes) in his tally of 389, the least among the top six, which is also a testament to his fitness, inspired by his role model Virat Kohli.
"Virat Kohli set the benchmark for fitness in the Indian team," Saharan says. "That is something I've always admired. The benefit of fitness on your game is immense, and that inspired me. Also, the way he aces chases by taking the innings deep, that and his passion is something I try to emulate."
Saharan has already outscored his role model, and any other India Under-19 World Cup captain. But Kohli's 235 runs in 2008 came at a strike rate of 94.75, which caught the attention of Royal Challengers Bangalore ahead of the inaugural IPL season and paved the way for Unmukt Chand, Prithvi Shaw and Yash Dhull to follow suit.
Saharan may well be different despite the demands of the modern white-ball game. It is unlikely his runs at a strike rate of 78.90 would have impressed the IPL scouts who have been in attendance throughout the World Cup.
Saharan is only 19 and may still evolve his game with time. But his ability to withstand pressure and exercise restraint in a tournament where every player grew up in the age of T20 cricket is what has brought India within one game of their sixth title.
At a time where conversations linger on about the future of the ODI format, India winning 50-over World Cups, senior or junior, can only help with reviving its popularity.
Jagjit Singh was widely credited for the revival and popularity of ghazals, a form of Indian semi-classical singing, by choosing poetry that was relevant to the masses. His work was regarded as genre-defining. Uday Saharan is one innings away from beating Australia, poetically, in an ICC final in the 50-over genre. Nothing is more relevant to India's masses than World Cup wins.

Raunak Kapoor is deputy editor (video) and lead presenter for ESPNcricinfo. @RaunakRK