Captain Tom Prest hails England's character after victory in epic semi-final

Big calls at big moments give England the edge as they book place in first U19 final since 1998

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
Tom Prest, Josh Boyden and Jacob Bethell celebrate the moment of victory, England vs Afghanistan, ICC Under-19 World Cup semi-final, Antigua, February 1, 2022

Tom Prest, Josh Boyden and Jacob Bethell celebrate the moment of victory  •  ICC/Getty Images

Tom Prest, England's Under-19 captain, praised the character of his team-mates after they collectively held their nerve in an extraordinary World Cup semi-final against Afghanistan in Antigua, to book their place in the final for the first time in 24 years.
England's eventual 15-run victory spanned the full gamut of emotions, not least for the defeated Afghans, who looked to have been handed a lifeline when James Sales' final over of the night disappeared for 20 runs, including two costly no-balls - the first of which cost England a wicket that might have won the game with room to spare.
However, Sales showed massive composure to hold on to a running boundary catch in the penultimate over to tilt the balance once more, as did the bowler Rehan Ahmed, whose first five overs of the afternoon had been expensive, but whose legbreaks and googlies proved the perfect weapon to derail Afghanistan's lower order, as his sixth over yielded three wickets and a single run.
Josh Boyden, England's left-arm seamer, who had claimed a wicket with his third ball of the innings, then closed the match out with a supreme final over, hitting his wide yorkers with a nerveless resolve that could have taught a thing or two to England's senior-team seamers, after their struggles at the death over in Barbados last week.
"I don't think we expected it to get that tight at the end, the way things were going," Prest said during the post-match presentations, after Afghanistan had gone into the final four overs needing 43 more runs to win. "But credit to the lads there, Josh Boyden at the end was unbelievable under pressure.
"That can happen, it's shown how quickly things can change in a game of cricket. But the way that Salesy came back and took that amazing catch at deep midwicket is testament to his character as a bloke."
England's victory, however, was set up by their display with the bat in the first innings - most particularly by the player of the match, George Bell, whose hugely composed half-century rescued his team from a sickly 136 for 6, before he and Alex Horton (53 from 36 balls) turned the tide of the innings with an unbroken 95-run stand from 71 balls.
"It's probably quite a brave call, choosing to bat first at the toss," Prest admitted. "Obviously, we had to get a score on the board and when Belly went in, the way he played and then Horts at the back end as well was something special. That partnership got us to a winning score, those runs at the end were really crucial."
England's innings was interrupted by a rain delay in the 30th over, which allowed them to regroup in the dressing room at 120 for 5, and reassess their ambitions against an Afghan team with a set of formidable spin bowlers, including their star player, the left-arm wristspinner Noor Ahmad.
"We thought 200 would be a great score from the position we were in, and then to get up to 230 with those last few overs, when we targeted their seamers, was amazing from Belly and Horts," Prest said.
Bell, who finished unbeaten on 56 from 67 balls, brought out a succession of expertly played ramp shots to keep England's innings from stalling, before Horton put the hammer down in the final over of the innings, cracking the seamer Naveed Zadran for a six and two fours from his final three balls.
"I just tried to keep it steady for a while, until we could go big in the back end," Bell said. "Horts batted unbelievably well. When he came in, we were able to put a score on the board. We tried to target their seamers, and it worked quite well.
"Their spinners were very, very challenging," he added. "When you know that they played in the Big Bash [Noor played for Melbourne Renegades], you know they are going to be handy. So you just try and pick them as best you can, and then play to your strengths against them. It seemed to work today."
It nearly went to pieces, however, in a dramatic 44th over, when Noor skied a pull to backward point off Sales, only for replays to show that he had over-stepped. From the resulting free hit, Sales then served up a shoulder-high full toss that skidded away to the rope, and briefly looked to have resulted in him being removed from the attack. Though he was allowed to continue, his third legal delivery was launched over long-on by Abdul Hadi for six, at which point Afghanistan were firm favourites needing 26 more runs from 21 balls.
"After the big over they had, I think it was just about staying calm as a team," Bell said. "I was trying to get people to stay calm but I get quite hyper myself, so it's quite hard to do that. But the skipper did a great job of keeping everyone calm, and everyone just tried not to panic really."
Afghanistan's crestfallen captain, Suliman Safi, struggled to find words to explain his emotions at the post-match presentations.
"It's a very difficult time," he said. "The momentum was with us and now we lose the match. It's part of the game. We played some great knocks. We have a good team. It's part of cricket to win or lose. Congratulations to England team. They played well.
"Cricket has ups and downs. The momentum shifted to England when we lost the wickets in the [46th over]. We have played good cricket here. Inshallah we will focus on the next game."

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket