The Indian under-19 team return home to a grand welcome © AFP
The Indian Under-19 team that won the Asian under-19 tournament in Pakistan has returned home to the sound of applause. They made their entry on foot via the famous gates at the Wagah border. Special arrangements were made to facilitate this, and the complicated original route - Lahore-Karachi-Dubai-Hyderabad by air - was shelved.
For the Indian U19 team, it was a special moment, as a vast majority of the Indian cricket-loving public consider any sort of victory in Pakistan as more important than anything else. The team, lead by Ambati Rayudu, won the tournament by beating Sri Lanka in the final. In the league phase India lost to Sri Lanka but won a memorable nailbiter against Pakistan, and steamrollered Bangladesh when Irfan Pathan junior, later named the player of the tournament, took 9 for 16.
The final itself was a low-scoring affair with Sri Lanka bowled out for 225 after being put in at Lahore's Gaddafi Stadium. Pathan's 3 for 33 took his series tally to 18 wickets, but it was Robin Uthappa, the Karnataka batsman, who stole the show with an 86-ball 88 that took India to victory with more than five overs to spare. Uthappa, the Man of the Match in the final, has been talked about as a youngster with great talent in Karnataka. A batsman who likes to play his strokes, he has worked on tightening up his technique in recent months. He counts his experience at the Cricket Club of India in Mumbai, where he was coached for a while by Bob Simpson, as a big factor in his improvement.
The players told the media on their triumphant return that the tournament was an unforgettable one, and winning the final was a special moment that each would cherish. Robin Singh, the former Indian allrounder, expressed great satisfaction at the manner in which his charges had performed, and said the next aim should be the Under-19 World Cup in Bangladesh in February-March 2004. Robin reserved special praise for Pathan, and suggested that he was already on hte fringe of selection for the senior national team.
India's participation, and eventual victory, gained special status in the light of recent talks between the governments of India and Pakistan. In an environment ridden with tension, the Indian government has announced that it would allow the national team to tour Pakistan early next year.