Defending champion India looks like the side to beat once again at the ICC U19 Cricket World Cup (ICC U19 CWC), the tenth edition of which will be played in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) from 14 February to 1 March.
In 2013, India won 12 of its 14 matches and emerged victorious in all three series it played. And after lifting the ACC U19 Asia Cup in the UAE last month, it has established itself as the firm title favourite.
History suggests that apart from India, the other big title-contenders will be Australia and Pakistan. These three countries have won, between them, eight of the nine ICC U19 CWC editions that have been staged so far. England is the only other country to have become the champion – a feat it managed in 1998.
Australia and India have won the title three times each. Australia was triumphant in 1988, 2002 and 2010, while India wore the crown in 2000, 2008 and 2012. Pakistan is the only team to have defended its title, repeating its 2004 heroics in 2006.
Recent performance and form, however, clearly mark out India as strong contenders to emulate Pakistan. In 2013, it first won the Top End U19 tri-series also featuring Australia and New Zealand in July.
India then won the three-match bilateral series against Sri Lanka 2-0 in August 2013. To round off a good year, it won the U19 quadrangular series also featuring South Africa, Australia and Zimbabwe.
At the recent ACC U19 Asia Cup, India lost just one league match (against Pakistan) in the preliminary round, before beating the same opponents comprehensively in the final.
However, the individual honours went to Pakistan in that tournament. Sami Aslam, who is also its captain for the ICC U19 CWC, emerged as the highest scorer with 379 runs from five matches. Karamat Ali bagged the most wickets (18 from five games) and was named the player of the tournament.
Among the other teams featuring in the ICC U19 CWC, Priyamal Perera of Sri Lanka prospered in the ACC U19 Asia Cup, scoring 211 runs from four matches; Pankaj Prakash Samant of the UAE and Zia-ur-Rehman Akbar of Afghanistan picked nine and eight wickets respectively from three matches each.
The ACC U19 Asia Cup is the only tournament of the three that Pakistan has participated in during the last calendar year that it has not won. Before that, it won two tri-nation series – one in England also featuring the host and Bangladesh, and one in the UAE featuring the host and England. Overall, Pakistan was unbeaten in 12 consecutive matches before losing to India in the ACC U19 Asia Cup final, and will be one of the teams to watch out for this month.
Australia, the other traditional heavyweight in the ICC U19 CWC, has been rocked by a bad series-loss away in Sri Lanka. The home side swept the three-match series there, to embellish its own credentials as a serious title-contender in the UAE.
Skipper Kusal Mendis starred with the bat for Sri Lanka in that series, scoring one century in two appearances, while Harsha Rajapaksha was the best all-round performer, taking six wickets and scoring 112 runs.
Australia, however, will be encouraged by the form shown by left-arm medium bowler Matthew Fotia, who took 10 wickets in that series, including a haul of 6-39 in the second match. Having won only six of its 17 matches in the last calendar year, however, Australia may find it hard to reach the final like it did in 2012.
England has not played a single match this year, but in 2013, it won just two of the 16 it featured in. It lost all its games against South Africa and Pakistan, beating Bangladesh two times out of three last year.
Among the other traditionally strong contenders, South Africa, which finished third in 2012 and was the runner-up in 2002 and 2008, was in great form last year. In 2013, it won nine out of 11 matches, only losing twice to India and beating England, Australia, Zimbabwe and India in every other encounter.
New Zealand, which was the runner-up in 1998 and finished fourth in 2012, won just two of its five matches last year, losing the three-match series against Australia 2-1 and failing to reach the final of the Top End tri-series.
The only other team to have reached an ICC U19 CWC final till date, the West Indies, also struggled last year. The 2004 runner-up won just three of its eight games last year, losing to Bangladesh the other five times.