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No pressure for Tom Prest as high-flying England target their final berth

Spin-dominant Afghanistan pose significant threat, but confidence is soaring for England kids

Sreshth Shah
Sreshth Shah
Tom Prest has been one of the players of the tournament so far  •  ICC via Getty Images

Tom Prest has been one of the players of the tournament so far  •  ICC via Getty Images

The current England Under-19 players were not even born the last time their team lifted the trophy. Three from the squad of 1998 - Owais Shah, Rob Key and Graeme Swann - have gone on have illustrious careers in the game. The last of them had retired by 2016, and now all of them are established names in coaching or broadcasting. That's how long it's been.
Now, 24 years later, England find themselves two wins away from the summit once more, thus far unchallenged. The Bangladesh encounter, their first game of the competition against the defending champions, was meant to push them to their limit. England bowled the opponents out for 97. Canada were downed by 106 runs, United Arab Emirates beaten by 189, and the path to the knockouts couldn't have been smoother.
South Africa was supposed to be tricky, but England laid down a marker by not only chasing 212 comfortably, but doing so in a manner - inside 31.2 overs - that sent a signal to every other semi-finalist - England mean business.
The man doing the leading, not only on the field but also with the bat, is Tom Prest. Prest is a right-handed, middle-order batter who possesses strong arms and a clean bat swing. When he hits them, they stay hit. Ask UAE, against whom he hammered an unbeaten 154 in 119 balls. Or Canada, against whom he scored 93.
And he's already shown an aptitude for the big occasion. In his very first knockout game for Hampshire, the T20 Blast quarter-final against Nottinghamshire last August, Prest's 44 from 34 balls dragged them to a winning first-innings total, and ultimately into Finals Day, after D'Arcy Short and James Vince had both failed before him. Prior to that, in only his third first-team appearance for the club, against Gloucestershire in July, he smacked a match-winning 59 not out from 42 balls.
He's a man of many talents too. He grew up enjoying Coventry City's football and Rafael Nadal's forehand, and so football and tennis competed with cricket for Prest's attention. Hockey was another favourite, and as it did for Tom Banton and Eoin Morgan, the sport also helped him develop a love for the sweep and reverse-sweep.
But hockey is not the only reason why Prest likes innovative shots. His batting is inspired by Kevin Pietersen, who always had the knack of dazzling impressionable young minds with the shots he brought out. Growing up, Prest copied Pietersen's switch-hit as a kid and even worked on the flamingo, back leg up while flicking through the leg side. However, as a captain, it is Morgan who is his role model.
"Morgan is pretty calm under pressure," Prest tells ESPNcricinfo. "I am probably not the loudest member of the team, but kind of a quiet leader. Not someone like Virat Kohli who is very passionate on the pitch. I try to think about things logically and stay calm in the key moments of the game.
"What [Morgan's] done with bowling changes, like using Adil Rashid at the end, it's not something teams have done before. It's considered unorthodox, but he does whatever is needed on the pitch, he thinks quickly and clearly under pressure. From the outside, it looks like he does it very well."
"Tom is a very modest guy, and fits in with the group. He hasn't been seen as a prodigy, instead he's seen as a good young cricketer who has come through the system. Whenever he steps up a level, he seems to do that in a seamless way and looks comfortable"
Hampshire director of cricket Giles White
And England's Under-19 team - who were just entering their impressionable teenage years when Morgan's men began the revolution that would lead to glory at the 2019 ODI World Cup - possesses many of the same attributes too. The top order thrives on quick runs, scores of 362 and 320 being proof of that. Barbados-born Jacob Bethell played the quarter-final without worrying about the implications of a knockout fixture while smacking 82 in 44 balls against South Africa, and Prest has brought in the fireworks himself, averaging 91.66 at a strike rate of 105. William Luxton delivers the Jos Buttler-style death-overs assault, and five other batters have 100-plus strike rates. Batting is their strength, and Prest has adapted to difficult West Indian batting conditions to score 275 runs in four innings.
"The pitches are obviously quite different to England," Prest says. "Quite spin-friendly and tricky in the opening period. New-ball spin bowlers are tricky too, because some balls skid and some spin. The 9am start can be tricky batting first, since the ball obviously does a bit.
"But I am probably quite attacking. I like playing my shots. But with that, I like batting for long periods of time as well. I sometimes take my time to get in, but I like to score quickly after that. Watching T20 cricket and the Hundred last summer has reinforced the fact that scoring quickly... everyone loves watching it really. Good entertainment."
But England are far from being a one-dimensional side. Batting alone cannot inspire a team to win a championship. England have also taken ten wickets in every game thus far.
In left-arm seamer Joshua Boyden, there's a swing bowler who gets the ball moving into the right-handers. Rehan Ahmed is a leggie who can give the ball a rip. James Sales is a new-ball enforcer. Fateh Singh is a Ravindra Jadeja-style left-arm spinner. As a combination, the bowling attack has sparkled. In particular, they have adapted to what the Caribbean surfaces are offering, and haven't been afraid to lean heavily on their spinners, with Prest himself bowling a mean offbreak too.
So the team is well-rounded, the players are in form. But does the captain have the temperament to see the side through the high-octane moments that lie ahead? Hampshire's director of cricket Giles White sums up Prest's credentials.
"Sometimes in England, when you're a young player like Prest that's got a lot of talent, you tend to play above yourself [in age groups] and there are captains in place so you can't lead much yourself," White says. "But Prest is good with his peers and has a good feel for the game. The England U-19s have toured Sri Lanka before, so they have practice on surfaces that turn.
"Tom is a very modest guy, and fits in with the group. He hasn't been seen as a prodigy, instead he's seen as a good young cricketer who has come through the system. Whenever he steps up a level, he seems to do that in a seamless way and looks comfortable."
Despite not winning a World Cup in over two decades and not even making it out of the group stage in the last edition, Prest's Under-19 England team is aiming for the stars. However, he's aware there are some factors, particularly at this late stage of the competition, that are not in one's control.
"We've all come with the intention of winning the whole competition," he says. "Without a doubt. To play those three group games and win every one convincingly, it's given us a lot of confidence. But from here, we can only take it game by game from here, since we haven't played the other opponents."
Standing in England's way for a final spot, though, lies their biggest challenge yet - Afghanistan. They have the most revered spin combination of the competition, with two bowlers already on the radar for IPL teams. Against Bangladesh, chasing 98 meant that England were not really put under the pump by a good spin-bowling unit, and the other teams so far have not offered much to dent the confidence of England's batters. Will the lack of a prior spin challenge, or the lack of pressure in their previous fixtures, come back to bite England?
That is the big unknown when they step out at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium on Tuesday. A 100-over match, against a team that is high on morale after winning an epic quarter-final against Sri Lanka, could very well send them out of contention.
If it does, however, it will be an anti-climactic end for a team that's been one of two countries to have a 100% win record so far. That's been the impact England have had on the 2022 U-19 World Cup, and for that alone, it has been a memorable campaign under Prest's captaincy.

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