Familiar rivals battle for silverware
After an elimination process spanning two weeks, there's little doubt the two best teams have made it to the Under-19 World Cup final. India and South Africa had contrasting preparations for this tournament but their performance in Malaysia has similarities.
India quickly established themselves as the team to beat through strong batting and clinical efforts in the field, while South Africa improved with every game. India are the only unbeaten team in the tournament, South Africa have lost only once - to India.
India's strength has been the batsmen, most of whom have first-class experience; they didn't lose more than five wickets until the semi-final against New Zealand; South Africa's batsmen, barring a hiccup against India, have set up victories in the knockout games by setting targets of 240-plus. Both teams possess a variety of bowling options - all but two players in each team, excluding wicketkeepers, have bowled - but while South Africa's core is formed of medium-pacers, India have quality spinners to back up their seamers.
Both teams also held their own in challenging circumstances during day-night semi-finals that were affected by rain. India's batsmen overcame an asking-rate that had been scaled upwards by Duckworth/Lewis, while South Africa combated a slippery ball and changing conditions as their semi-final against Pakistan entered the reserve day. India's captain Virat Kohli said South Africa were among the teams they got along best with and the players mingled frequently at the team hotel.
The teams have certainly had plenty of time to get to know each other, having faced off in a series in South Africa before the World Cup and once before in the tournament, so both camps will have a good idea of strengths and weaknesses. South Africa pride themselves on disciplined medium-pace bowling during the middle overs, backed up by excellent fielding and a wicketkeeper who stands up to the stumps. However, they lack an attacking bowler after the new ball wears off and rely on building pressure over sustained periods, which forces the opposition into making errors.
The Indian batsmen have shown maturity and inducing mistakes from them will be harder than it has been against other teams. One vulnerability South Africa could target is India's middle-order, which hasn't been required to bat for long periods and quick top-order wickets could prove vital.
|India are expected to win and that excites me. We're going to come from the bottom and try to scare, not only the Indian team, but the entire country Ray Jennings, South Africa coach|
India have had three days to plan strategies for either of the second semi-finalists while South Africa's place in the final was secured with a little over 24 hours to go to D-day. India spent the eve of the final getting used to playing under lights at the Kinrara Oval while South Africa, having only just completed their semi-final against Pakistan earlier in the day, were relaxing in the afternoon. Sunday will be their third consecutive day on the field, but they've been physically stretched before during the group stages when they played three matches in four days.
The preparation of the two teams in the lead-up to the World Cup also presents a stark contrast. India's success is a return on tremendous investment to develop the U-19 team. India have toured six countries - more than any other team - since the last World Cup in 2006. The players have been exposed to varied conditions and playing styles. South Africa, on the other hand, put together their team for the World Cup only last December ahead of the home series against India. Although their team lacks exposure, theirs is a carefully selected squad with former senior team coach Ray Jennings putting a premium on all-round skills and mental toughness.
A victory for India will be a vindication for the effort put in to develop young cricketers. It may also prompt other nations to try and follow suit for India have been a class apart from most teams in Malaysia. If South Africa win, their administration might be encouraged to prepare their team better for such tournaments by sending them out for tours. They are underdogs for Sunday's battle and Jennings acknowledged as much: "India are expected to win and that excites me," he said. "We're going to come from the bottom and try to scare, not only the Indian team, but the entire country."
George Binoy is a staff writer at Cricinfo