·South Africa launches title defence against host Bangladesh in Chittagong while England takes on Fiji on the opening day
Cricket’s finest young talent will be on display when the ICC U19 World Cup 2016 starts in Chittagong, Bangladesh, on Wednesday, 27 January, with South Africa opening its title defence against host Bangladesh and England facing Fiji.
Teams have been divided into four groups with the top two in each advancing to the Super League quarter-finals and the other two qualifying for the Plate Championships.
The previous ten editions have thrown up stars such as Brian Lara, Inzamam-ul-Haq, Chris Gayle, Virender Sehwag, Michael Clarke, Yuvraj Singh, Steven Smith, Virat Kohli, Brendon McCullum, Angelo Mathews, Kagiso Rabada, Mushfiqur Rahim, Joe Root and others, and the 2016 event promises to be no different.
Three-time winner India is coached by batting great Rahul Dravid and captained by wicketkeeper-batsman Ishan Kishan, who hails from Jharkhand, the same state as World Cup-winning skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni.
The Indians showed it will be the team to beat as it piled a mammoth 485 for three against Canada in a warm-up match and then defeated Pakistan by five wickets in another practice game ahead of the tournament.
Two rounds of warm-up matches for all the teams produced eight centuries and eight hauls of five wickets or more to raise prospects of exciting contests ahead.
England, seeking to end 18-year drought after winning its only title way back in 1998, is led by Brad Taylor, an off-spinning allrounder from Hampshire who is one of nine players in the squad to have played county cricket at the senior level.
Two-time champion Pakistan warmed up for the tournament by winning a tri-series against Australia and New Zealand in the United Arab Emirates earlier this month, albeit on run-rates after all three teams secured two wins each in the double-leg event.
Bangladesh will fancy its chances on home turf with a side that boasts of five players who also took part in the previous edition in the UAE in 2014. Mehidy Hassan Miraz will captain the host nation for the second time – he led the team in the UAE two years ago when he was just 16.
South Africa will defend the title under Tony de Zorzi, hoping to repeat its UAE performance where it defeated Pakistan in the final to make up for two runners-up spots in 2002 and 2008.
The seven non-Test-playing nations are determined to stand up and be counted as well, especially fast-improving Afghanistan, which finished seventh two years ago and is aiming to progress even further in the tournament.
The tournament opens with a potential Group A humdinger between Bangladesh and South Africa in Chittagong, a match in which the host nation hopes to continue the recent winning streak over the defending champion both at home and away.
With Scotland and Namibia the other teams in their draw, the winner of that match will fancy its chances of topping the group, but Bangladesh’s captain was not looking too far ahead.
“Of course, we want to become world champion, but you can only think of playing the quarter-final, semi-final and final if you make it to the second round,” said Mehidy, who dismissed suggestions that his team will be under pressure at home. “On the contrary, I think we will be even more determined and charged up because this is rare chance to play a world event in front of family and friends.”
De Zorzi, the South Africa captain, played down his team’s recent defeats against Bangladesh, saying he now knows what to expect from the hosts. “It works both ways,” he said. “If they know a lot about us, we also know a lot about them. On the day, it will just come down to who wants it more.”
India, which faces New Zealand, Ireland and Nepal in Group D, has one of the strongest batting line-ups in the tournament led by Sarfaraz Khan, who has already made a name for himself with his big-hitting in India’s domestic competitions.
Skipper Kishan, who said he has received captaincy tips from Dhoni and has honed his batting under Dravid’s watchful eyes, insisted the all-round ability of his side will help to win matches.
“The strength of my team is that almost every batsman can bowl,” said Kishan. “We have a good pace bowling attack, a good fielding unit, and our batting goes till number eight. This will help us in the matches.”
Pakistan, the only nation to win back-to-back titles in 2004 and 2006, will need to survive a tough Group B, which includes Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Canada, if it is to make its second final in a row.
“We are confident,” said Pakistan captain Gohar Hafeez. “The other teams are good but we will accept the challenge and beat them all. We are here to win the World Cup.”
If both India and Pakistan top their respective groups and also win their quarter-final matches, they will set up a mouth-watering semi-final clash in Mirpur on 11 February.
Sri Lanka, which defeated Pakistan at home last year, aims to top the group with skipper Charith Asalanka promising bright cricket from his side in Bangladesh.
England, which reached the semi-finals two years ago, is favourite to win Group C against the West Indies, Zimbabwe and first-timer Fiji.
Skipper Taylor said a tri-series in Sri Lanka before Christmas last year, which was won by India, will help his side adjust quickly to conditions in Bangladesh. “We have plenty of options for sub-continent pitches in our team and we have experience of playing in the sub-continent,” he said. “The bowlers and batsmen know how to adjust to the conditions.”
The Super League quarter-finals will be played between 5 to 8 February, the semi-finals on 9 and 11 February and the final in Mirpur on 14 February. The semi-finals and the finals will have reserve days.
Fixtures for Wednesday (matches start at 0900 local time):
Group A: South Africa v Bangladesh, ZACS, Chittagong
Group C: England v Fiji, MA Aziz, Chittagong
Group A: South Africa, Bangladesh, Scotland, Namibia
Group B: Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Canada
Group C: England, West Indies, Zimbabwe, Fiji
Group D: India, New Zealand, Nepal, Ireland.
Super League (quarter-finals, 5-8 February):
A1 v D2; D1 v A2; C1 v B2; B1 v C2
Plate Championship (quarter-finals, 4-5 February):
A3 v D4; D3 v A4; B3 v C4; C3 v B4