This Valentine’s Day will witness the start of what promises to be an exciting tournament featuring a host of bright young things from all over the cricket world. The ICC Under-19 World Cup will kick off at various centres in the United Arab Emirates on February 14 with 16 teams battling it out for the top honours. But the real tournament will begin a day later when old rivals Pakistan and India will lock horns in what will be a mouth-watering clash in Dubai.
Both India and Pakistan are among the most successful teams in the history of the Under-19 World Cup which first took place back in 1988 in Australia. Defending champions India have won the title on three occasions while Pakistan bagged the coveted trophy in back-to-back events in 2004 and 2006. Australia with three titles and England with one are the only other teams to have won the title so far.
For all these teams, the youth spectacle holds special significance. It has helped unearth future stars not just for the four victors but for other teams as well. Take for the instance the case of South Africa. The Proteas have never won the crown but found Graeme Smith -- their most successful captain -- from the junior team’s 2000 campaign.
Pakistan, too, have found many of their leading stars from the tournament. They came agonisingly close to winning the inaugural tournament in Australia in 1988 but lost the hosts in the finale. But in the long term, they found two rookies from the event, who went on to become world class players in the nineties. The two stars were Inzamam-ul-Haq and Mushtaq Ahmad.
The Under-19 World Cup carries a lot of fond memories for the players who have been lucky enough to be a part of it.
Ask Pakistan’s young pacer Junaid Khan and he will tell you that the event is a true breeding ground for future stars.
"The fact that so many of my peers from my U19 days -- the likes of Ahmad Shehzad, Umar Amin, Umar Akmal, Shan Masood, Mohammad Amir and Usman Salahuddin -- have also worn national colours, stands as a true testament to the ICC U19 CWC as a breeding ground for future stars," said Junaid, who represented Pakistan in the 2008 edition held in Malaysia.
"The bonds we have formed and the experiences we have shared during our transition to the senior team have all been lasting and memorable. We’ve grown together, learnt with and from each other, and can all say that playing the ICC U19 CWC went a long way in making us the players we are today," he said.
Junaid is looking forward to the Pakistan-India clash in Dubai.
"I’m personally thrilled for our U19 boys that they’re getting a chance to open their campaign against arch-rival India at the ICC U19 CWC UAE 2014. That’s where you feel the most pressure as an Indian or as a Pakistani, and it will be a baptism by fire for many of the boys in both teams," he said.
"With both countries also opening their campaigns against each other in the ICC Cricket World Cup 2015, these matches promise to be another couple of exciting chapters in the long saga of important Pakistan-India matches."
Anwar Ali, who was Pakistan’s hero at the 2006 event in Sri Lanka, believes a good show by the young guns in the national team will put them on the selectors’ radar.
"Succeeding in the ICC U19 Cricket World Cup gives upcoming players a tremendous boost, and raises their profile and standing," commented Anwar, who took five for 35 when Pakistan skittled India out for 71 in the 2006 final in Colombo.
"For us from Pakistan, doing well there, and especially against India, assures you of a place under the spotlight and in the radar of the selectors.
"I fondly remember my performance against India in the 2006 ICC U19 Cricket World Cup final in Colombo. Taking five for 35 there and playing a major role in landing my country the biggest U19 title there is in the world did a world of good to my confidence, and set me on my way to representing my country in the senior ranks.
"I dismissed a number of batsmen that currently play with distinction for India -- the likes of Cheteshwar Pujara, Rohit Sharma and Ravindra Jadeja. I can almost relive all their dismissals as though they were happening right before my eyes now. My Man of the Match performance in the final is one of the highlights of my brief career.
"My message to all players who’ll take part in this tournament is to play hard, play fair and relish the experience -- it is a truly memorable one, and will stay with you for as long as you live."
Graeme Smith, who was the leading scorer of the 2000 edition in Sri Lanka with 348 runs at an average of 87, commented: "Playing the tournament was a big step up for me as a young cricketer. It was seen then as the pinnacle for all aspiring cricketers.
"At that level, I felt the important element was to go out there and to enjoy your cricket, make lasting memories and friendships," he said.
"My advice to those playing this tournament: Have fun! There are many young cricketers around the world that would love to have the opportunity of playing in such an elite event. Remember you are representing your country, so it’s important to have pride in your performances on and off the field."
Mohammad Kaif, who led India to the ICC U19 CWC 2000 title, said: "Our winning the crown changed the landscape of age-group cricket in India forever, and for the best."
Yuvraj Singh, who was the Player of the Tournament of the 2000 edition, agreed with Kaif, adding: "The ICC CWC 2000 was a tremendous stepping stone in my career. It gave me the confidence to do well in future global ICC tournaments such as the ICC World Twenty20 2007 and the ICC Cricket World Cup 2011, in which I contributed to India’s title-triumphs. I had been there, done that.
"Beating Australia in the semi-finals was one of my happiest memories from the ICC U19 CWC 2000. And what a happy coincidence it is, that in 2007 we managed to beat Australia in the semi-finals and in 2011 we got past them in the quarter-finals!"
Also known as the Youth World Cup, the inaugural Under-19 World Cup was the brainchild of Australian Cricket Board General Manager Graham Halbish. It featured the seven Test-playing sides of the time and a side drawn from six ICC Associate Member countries (Bangladesh, Bermuda, Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands and Zimbabwe).
Played on a round robin basis, the top four sides – Australia, West Indies, Pakistan and England – qualified for the semi-finals. During the group stages, teams didn’t have the luxury of staying in hotels, with players paired off and put up with local families to help cut costs.
Australia won the event losing just one match throughout, to Pakistan, after it had already qualified for the semi-final. Australia got its revenge however, beating Pakistan in the final.
The tournament boasted a galaxy of future stars including future Test captains Brian Lara and Jimmy Adams (West Indies), Michael Atherton and Nasser Hussain (England) and Chris Cairns (New Zealand) apart from the duo of Inzi and Mushy. It was hailed as a success, but there was no repeat of the Under-19 World Cup until ten years later.
This year’s edition will be staged across seven venues. A total of 48 matches will be played, with India looking to defend the title it won in Australia in 2012.
The tournament will also feature Afghanistan, Canada, Namibia, Papua New Guinea, Scotland and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) besides the 10 Full Members of the ICC.
India, which also won the tournament under Mohammad Kaif and Virat Kohli in 2000 and 2008, respectively, defeated Pakistan by one-wicket in an enthralling semi-final before going on to beat Australia by six wickets in the 2012 final in Townsville, Australia.
In the 2010 event in New Zealand, Pakistan beat India in a last-ball thriller in the quarter-final in Lincoln. The two sides also met in the final of the ICC U19 Cricket World Cup 2006 in Colombo where Pakistan defended a modest total of 110 to win by 39 runs.
In the 16-day tournament, 48 matches will be played across seven venues, which are: Zayed Cricket Stadium, Abu Dhabi; Abu Dhabi Oval 1; Abu Dhabi Oval 2; Sharjah Cricket Stadium; Dubai International Cricket Stadium, Dubai Sports City; ICC Academy Oval 1, Dubai, and ICC Academy Oval 2, Dubai.
The format of the competition is such that the 16 teams have been divided into four groups, with the top two teams progressing to the Super League quarter-finals, while the two bottom teams from each group qualify for the Plate Championship quarter-finals.
The UAE tournament will be the 10th edition of the ICC U19 Cricket World Cup since its inception in 1988. Australia won the tournament in 1988, 2002 and 2010, England was the champion in 1998, India held aloft the trophy in 2000, 2008 and 2012 and Pakistan was the winner in 2004 and 2006.