Keep calling them minnows. Keep telling them their dreams of stardom, hatched in Dhaka and surrounds before flourishing around the world, are nothing but fantasy. Their response will not come in the form of words or whims or any sort of argument. It will come on the field, because Bangladesh are the best junior side in the world.
Boisterously led by the charismatic Akbar Ali, who cajoles and keeps wicket all at the same time, the Tiger Cubs flashed their teeth and snatched a truly remarkable ICC Under-19 Cricket World Cup title from the mightily fancied India in Potchefstroom, South Africa, on 9 February.
“When I went into the middle, we just needed a partnership. I told my partners that we cannot afford to lose a wicket. The plan was simple. We knew India won’t make it easy. They are a challenging side and we knew it would be a difficult chase,” said Ali of the dramatic and at times tortuous pursuit of their rain-affected target in the World Cup final.
“I am a person who wants to keep things simple. In the first half of the tournament, I hardly got any chances to get in the middle, and I wanted to make it count today,” Ali said with a smile after the match.
His 43 not out was decisive, guiding his side into the history books. It was the proudest moment in Bangladeshi cricket, as they landed their first international trophy.
Behind the elation of victory, 18-year-old Ali was dealing with the death of his sister, who died while giving birth to twins in January. She was his cheerleader, a pillar of pride, strength and perspective. His family initially kept the news from him, not wanting to distract him from the task at hand. Ali’s father told the media in Bangladesh that he didn’t know how to tell his son that his sister was no more.
Making it count
The story provides sober perspective, a stark reminder that cricket is still but a game. Certainly a game of consequences and rewards and vivid memories. But measured against matters of life and death, which so many nations who pursue the game in Asia deal with daily, it is just a game.
As Ali said, he wanted to make his final appearance count. And how!
It had to be India in the final. Bangladesh ousted the host nation in the quarterfinal and a plucky New Zealand in the last four. But it had to be four-time champions India in the final, the side that had denied Bangladesh in consecutive Asia Cup finals and whose most promising starlets are already talking of domestic Indian Premier League deals and endorsements.
Bangladesh’s victory illustrated that the status quo is not a foregone conclusion. The 2020 Under-19 World Cup was a trophy first for Bangladesh cricket and a monumental triumph for the growth of the game.
The International Cricket Council (ICC) can say all it wants about the thousands of dollars it spends on associate nations to try and grow the game, but numbers are often met with questions and concerns. Actions, such as the sight of Nigeria and Japan playing in their first ICC tournament, speak louder than words.
Actions such as Zimbabwe and Scotland and Pakistan showing that the game still inspires new players in their countries, even amid turmoil and tension, scream far louder than any balance sheets showing how much funding they receive. And of course actions that lead to iconic images such as that of Ali surrounded by his delirious teammates roar defiantly against the narrative that cricket is not developing and changing its face.
Minnows? What does that word even mean at a junior level, where Afghanistan can beat South Africa on African soil, and the West Indies can strut and stun and best England and Australia as if it were the 1980s?
Before the money and politics of senior international cricket kick in, the playing field is much more level. And the 2020 juniors tournament was another illustration of how much talent is unearthed around the world every other year.
The challenge is to ensure that the likes of Nyeem Young from the West Indies, Adithya Ashok of New Zealand and Zimbabwe’s Wesley Madhevere are provided with the tools they need to convert their youthful promise into fully fledged stardom in their national teams. The challenge is to provide the means for Ali and his fired-up teammates to make the leap into international cricket and be the next generation of trailblazers. The talent is there.
The beauty of junior cricket
To see them, and many other outstanding players across the 16-team tournament, show off their potential was a treat, one that would have pricked the consciousness of those who judge junior cricket according to the strength of the senior teams. It’s a horrible misjudgement, one that reveals a patent lack of appreciation of the competitiveness in the developmental ranks of the game.
A touch of controversy at the end of the final resulted in demerit points handed to players from both sides when post-match festivities boiled over into a standoff. While abuse and violence can never be condoned on a sports field, the aggression Bangladesh displayed throughout the tournament was an indication of their refusal to be regarded as minnows any longer.
They jealously protected their corner, sniping at any perceived threat. They made their presence felt and heard, celebrating wickets with stares and dance routines, along with a metaphorical thump of the tiger that sits on their chests.
As boys become men, or Cubs become Bangladeshi Tigers, there is bound to be a bit of confrontation. As South Africa’s Kagiso Rabada, a former Under-19 World Cup winner, admitted when he made a turn at the tournament as a guest commentator, aggression has always been part of his game. He added that, fortunately, there was no demerit points system in place when he played in this tournament.
It is a fine line to balance emotion with animosity, and the ICC’s immediate sanctions ensured that the last, lingering taste of this tournament was not one of controversy but of the colourful cricket played in Kimberley, Benoni, Bloemfontein and Potchefstroom.
The growth of cricket
In these supposed backwaters, starlets were born and cricketing memories made. As the game continues to grow and spread around the world, with different flags popping up at major tournaments, it will become less of a surprise to see new powers emerge at the top of the game.
Afghanistan are maturing with each year of exposure and experience, while Scotland and the United Arab Emirates always punch above their weight.
Japan and Nigeria are ahead of their schedules in terms of qualifying for tournaments and the ICC Women’s T20 World Cup in Australia saw Thailand make their debut at the tournament.
The Americans are stirring and China are dipping their toes into cricketing waters. With their human and financial resources, those nations have the ability to change the landscape.
Minnows? Keep calling them that at your peril.