One top-order collapse too many costs India

India Under-19s’ top-order struggles against West Indies Under-19s was not a new occurrence in the tournament that unveiled itself only in the World Cup final. An unbeaten Indian side that had nearly all its parts fall into place until now, was reduced to 50 for 5 within 18 overs.

Against Ireland in the first match, India were 48 for 3 before Sarfaraz Khan rescued them with a knock of 74. Against New Zealand, India were 19 for 2 and Sarfaraz scored 74 again. India were chasing only 170 against Nepal and the top order showed signs of getting into form with their biggest opening stand of the tournament – 124. But the top-order troubles came back in the knockouts – 27 for 2 in the semi-final against Sri Lanka, when Sarfaraz rescued them with another fifty. In the final, Sarfaraz was again India’s sole source of resistance with a patient 51 when the batsmen before him fell for 1, 4, 3 and 7.

While India’s initial matches in Mirpur had more seamer-friendly tracks compared to today, their position in the final was the worst of the lot in terms of wickets lost and the run-rate. If the West Indies pace attack had a reputation of carving through the opposition’s batsmen, the Indian line-up had also been resuscitating itself with major contributions coming from the middle order.

But much was being put on Sarfaraz’s shoulders. He was India’s leading run-scorer by a distance, and the second-highest overall, with a tally of 355 runs; Rishabh Pant was next with 267. Pant’s form was on the rise with consecutive fifties and then a destructive hundred against Namibia. But if he was not performing, all the burden was falling on Sarfaraz. India’s third-highest run-scorer was Armaan Jaffer with 160 runs. While coach Rahul Dravid accepted there was some “carelessness” in the first few dismissals, captain Ishan Kishan believed some batsmen have had to make up for the others not scoring on particular days.

“It wasn’t that we were relying only on him (Sarfaraz),” Kishan said after the final. “He’s a good batsman and in very good form. It’s not everyone’s day and whoever is in form takes more responsibility. Sometimes it happens that some players are not in form or wickets are falling early so the one who sticks around scores more, that’s the plan usually.

“They bowled well in the right areas and got good help from the pitch, there was very good bounce. Pant’s wicket was not good for us and later I got a wrong decision from the umpire. These things are very crucial and we needed a partnership but didn’t get that otherwise the result would have been different.”

Apart from a solid top-three combination, the Indian line-up needed a support system in the middle order they could fall back on, whether Sarfaraz was among the runs or not. The only thing he would rue would be that he scored five fifties in six innings but gave his wicket away instead of putting a price on it for the bowlers.

“I think he’s had a very good tournament in terms of numbers and stats but I think if he’s honest with himself, he’ll know that he should have converted some of those into one or two hundreds,” Dravid said. “Today was a really good opportunity, he was batting really really well. Just an opportunity to bat right till the end and get us to a fighting total. He has got a lot of talent and he’s shown that in the tournament. And he’s not the only one. Some of them have been able to show it, some not so much. But it’s the starting of a journey for some. Experiences like these, tournaments like these will really help them.”

A weak link that did not hurt India till the final was the No. 3 spot. India had Ricky Bhui at that spot for their first three games. He started off with a steady 39 against Ireland but produced subdued performances against New Zealand and Nepal with scores of 1 and 7 respectively. The result was Bhui, one of the three Indian players to play the last World Cup, was dropped for a batting allrounder who had not even batted in the warm-ups – Anmolpreet Singh.

Anmolpreet showed his mettle straightaway – 41 in the quarter-final and a pressure-soaking 72 against Sri Lanka when India lost the openers within 10 overs. But can you blame a new player for not scoring in the final when he had already scored in the previous two? To add to that, he faced the most unplayable delivery among the Indian batsmen in the final – an uncomfortable short ball that drew an edge for the wicketkeeper.

“Earlier we always found a way to pull ourselves back,” Dravid said. “Maybe it was one match too many. See, the guys tried their best. I will not blame anyone. The effort that I saw in training, practice was top class. We batted first in every single game except against Nepal and they were pretty challenging conditions. Considering we were playing in the sub-continent, these were pretty challenging conditions especially with 9 o’clock starts here.

“It wasn’t easy to bat but it was a great lesson for us going ahead that sometimes you have to bat in these conditions, sometimes you have to find a way to get through that. Really good lesson for the top three that conditions aren’t always going to be as flat as you experience in India and you have to fight your way through it, you have to have the technique and ability to get through to 20 overs and then cash in. Lessons and learning but can’t fault the effort.”

India were also caught unaware by the alertness of West Indies wicketkeeper Tevin Imlach who stumped Pant off a fast bowler on the fourth ball of the match. It can be said that that moment started India’s downfall and spoiled their plans of seeing through the first few overs of the opening bowlers. Pant did not have his best day while wicketkeeping either. In a challenging defence of 145, he dropped Kacy Carty in the 41st over on 35 and West Indies were still 37 runs adrift from the target. Carty went on to score an unbeaten 51 and steered his team through several nervous moments.

“It happens, catches get dropped,” Kishan said. “It’s not necessary that things will go your way every day. He (Pant) has given very good performances so far so it’s not that he had a bad day. We bowled well, if we had fielded well and taken our catches, the result would have been in our favour.”

Vishal Dikshit is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo

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