Christchurch: It's considered the stepping stone for the stars of the future and 16 teams, including three-time champions India, would be aiming to discover their Virat Kohlis and Steve Smiths when the ICC Under-19 World Cup starts off here on Saturday.
From Kohli to Smith, most modern-day greats have learnt the ropes in the biennial event, which has gained significance with every passing edition. The boys not only become men here, they also become household names with millions following the live broadcast of the competition. The event begins tomorrow with Pakistan taking on Afghanistan, and hosts New Zealand facing reigning champions West Indies. India, eager to prove themselves after their disastrous showing in the Asia Cup, open their campaign against Australia at Bay Oval, Mount Maunganui. The tournament's stature has risen to such an extent that a great like Rahul Dravid, the current India U-19 coach, would love to have been part of it back in the day. "We never played this tournament in my day. After 1988 they didn't hold the tournament for 10 years, so I've no exposure of playing and being part of this tournament. I tell a lot of these boys that I think it's a terrific opportunity for them to be a part of this tournament," Dravid had said in the lead up to the event.
Countless number of U-19 players have gone on to represent their countries at the highest level. Each edition unearths oodles of talent and makes them overnight stars, be it Rishabh Pant or Alzaari Joseph from the previous edition in 2016 when three-time champions India lost the final to the West Indies. This edition too has created high expectations with a selected bunch already proving themselves at the first-class level. The likes of India captain Prithvi Shaw, teammate Shubham Gill, Australia captain Jason Sangha, Pakistan pacer Shaheen Afridi, Afghanistan batting sensation Baheer Shah, they all go into the event after making a mark on the domestic circuit back home.
Shaw, Gill, Sangha and Shah already have a first-class hundred to their name while left-arm pacer Afridi hogged the limelight by taking eight for 39 in the Quad-e-Azam Trophy, the best figures by a Pakistani on first-class debut. The sensational performances of Baheer Shah too has created a buzz. The 17-year-old averages a staggering 121.77 in his seven-match first-class career, beating even the legendary Donald Bradman (95.14). He has the highest average in the list of players with at least 1000 first-class runs, leaving behind not just Bradman but also Vijay Merchant (71.64) and George Headley (69.86).
The exploits of India captain and opener Shaw too are well-documented. After grabbing headlines with his performance in junior cricket, Shaw has graduated to the higher-level so seamlessly that he always belonged there. Therefore, it was not a surprise that he hit a match-winning hundred on Ranji Trophy debut 12 months ago. Adding to the tournament flavor will be the sons of Steve Waugh and Makhya Ntini – Austin and Thando – who will be turning up for Australia and South African respectively. Cricket Australia CEO James Sutherland's son Will is also in the national squad. With the IPL auction round the corner, there is every possibility that a millionaire could from the U-19 World Cup, just like Pant had a bagged Rs 1.9 crore deal with Delhi Daredevils after his stellar showing in Bangladesh.
The 22-day tournament, featuring 16 teams and being played across seven venues in the cities of Christchurch, Queenstown, Tauranga and Whangarei, will see 20 matches being broadcast live.