India in the Under-19 World Cups: 'Seeing that team win the tournament under Virat was massive'

The Indian team celebrates winning the Under-19 World Cup Stanley Chou / © Getty Images

Twenty-two years ago, almost to the day, India beat Sri Lanka in Colombo to be crowned Under-19 world champions for the first time. Since then, they have gone on to six more finals, winning three of those, to become the most successful side in U-19 World Cup history.

Along the way, some like Virat Kohli, the winning captain from 2008, Rohit Sharma, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ravindra Jadeja and Ishant Sharma - part of the 2006 side that finished runners-up - and KL Rahul from the 2010 team - have enjoyed tremendous success at the top level. Others like Reetinder Sodhi and Mandeep Singh, interviewed here, have only briefly appeared in international cricket, while someone like Unmukt Chand, the poster boy of the winning team from 2012, has left to play in the USA, after years of struggle at the domestic level.

As the current crop, led by Yash Dhull, look to emulate Mohammad Kaif, Kohli, Chand and Prithvi Shaw - the four title-winning Indian U-19 World Cup captains - we spoke to five Indian players from past editions about what the tournament meant to them, the challenges of graduating from the U-19s, and their favourite memories.

When did you start thinking that the U-19 World Cup was the pinnacle of junior cricket?

Reetinder Sodhi, 2000 team: As junior cricketers we were always taught how breaking into your state's Ranji Trophy side was the first "big" goal. Obviously from there on, you wanted to be picked for Duleep Trophy, Irani Cup and then the Indian team. There weren't too many India A tours like there are today, so for our batch, the mindset was: do so well in junior cricket that when it comes to senior state selection, your name is discussed at the first available opportunity.

I think the U-19 World Cup was also returning after a long gap [there was no tournament between 1988, the inaugural edition, and 1998], so we really didn't know the significance of it until we got to the semi-finals. But it's only when we returned home after winning the final that we realised the magnitude of it. Forget about Ranji, there were suddenly talks of us breaking into the national team, and soon enough it happened. Yuvraj Singh made it first, for the ICC Knockouts in October 2000. Two months later I made my debut against Zimbabwe, and I think a year later Mohammad Kaif got picked [Kaif made his Test debut in March, a month after the U-19 World Cup].

"I thought just because I had played India U-19, I had automatically earned the right to become Bengal's first-choice keeper ahead of Wriddhiman Saha. My attitude was such - I thought all I touched was gold" Shreevats Goswami

Shreevats Goswami, 2008 team: I didn't even know the significance of the Ranji Trophy. I thought if you played for India U-19 [at the World Cup] it was just a matter of time before you played for India. We looked at it as a shortcut.

As an 18-19-year-old, it was a huge thrill because you were playing on live TV and everyone was watching. I thought, "You do well here, and next step is the senior team." Call me naïve but that was the mindset growing up.

Mandeep Singh, 2010 team: I won the best junior cricketer award [the MA Chidambaram Trophy for best U-15 cricketer in 2006-07], and that is when it dawned upon me that there is a tournament like this [the U-19 World Cup]. I was 16-17 when I was sent to Kuala Lumpur with the 2008 [U-19] World Cup team, just to gain some experience. Seeing that team win the tournament under Virat was massive. We witnessed first-hand the kind of preparation that goes into the tournament while being stationed at the NCA for an U-17 camp. We saw closely how the team was preparing, the kind of drills they went through, the intensity at which they practised. That inspired me and our batch to want to be part of the next group of U-19 cricketers from India.

What fuelled your India U-19 dream?

Sodhi: My father's struggles made me realise how I had to live his dream along with mine. He was a coach at Sports Authority of India and played first-class cricket for Punjab. Unfortunately he couldn't play for India.

I was 12 when once we were returning from Solan to Patiala, where we lived - 120 kilometres away - in a Bajaj Chetak scooter. I was standing in front, and my sister was seated between mom and dad. It was a very uncomfortable journey. I remember asking Dad, "When are you going to buy a car?" He replied, "The day you play for India." That incident, I remember, upped my desire even more. For three years straight, I'd train three sessions a day, and then at night, dad used to lob deliveries at me in our backyard from 10pm till about 1am.

I was part of the India U-15 team that won the Lombard Junior World Cup in 1998 and then I was part of the U-19 World Cup winning batch of 2000. It was extra special because it was India's first [U-19] title, and I was Player of the Match in the final.

"I wish someone told me to loosen up a little and enjoy myself even more. This is the biggest advice I give to youngsters today: Enjoy yourself at that age, don't be so tight and intense about life" Harshal Patel

Goswami: I remember writing down in a diary that by the time I'm 23, I'll be an India player. At NCA, we spent a lot of time with a lot of legendary former players, who kept a close watch on us. I thought I was a step away, genuinely. I thought a good World Cup was a definite pathway. At 17-18, I'd nearly given up on studies and I wasn't sure of a career outside of cricket. So I had little choice. Once I got picked for India U-19, I decided cricket is what I will give my full attention towards. Wearing that India blazer gave us all a huge thrill.

Ishan Porel, 2018 team: The desire to prove my parents wrong was a big driving force. I'd played football, volleyball and given up both. So, when I told them I'm serious about cricket, they casually said, "Let's see, what is the guarantee? You start and give up things midway." So that determination was sown into me that I must prove it to them and myself.

We had heard and seen enough of the U-19 World Cup to understand its significance. At NCA, we would have Indian cricketers give us pep talks at junior camps. So that became a realistic aim the moment I touched 16.

But the journey was hard. I was very puny, not very fit. I couldn't bowl long spells. A lot of work went into elevating my fitness levels to competitive standards for the next three years.

How big was the jump from junior to senior cricket?

Goswami: It took me two years after that U-19 World Cup to realise the need to move on quickly. After the World Cup, suddenly the IPL came our way. Apart from the cricket, we were attending fancy parties, there was a lot of money we hadn't seen before. It took me a while to make sense of what was happening. I was distracted. By the time I realised I had to move on, I was already 22.

I thought just because I had played India U-19, I had automatically earned the right to become Bengal's first-choice keeper ahead of Wriddhiman Saha. My attitude was such - I thought all I touched was gold. I needed a bit of time to be brought back to ground reality. Also, partly a reason for that is, I wasn't treated like a superstar in Bengal, whereas I saw some of the other players from the team being looked at as absolute stars.

Mandeep: The IPL was starting to grow, and junior players were being looked at as prospects. Dav Whatmore had seen a lot of me at the NCA and he had just taken over as head coach of Kolkata Knight Riders. He played a key role in me being signed. I'd been a heavy scorer in age-group cricket, so there was this reputation around me. "This guy is good." There was a criterion that an U-19 player should have played either a first-class or List A game by a certain cut-off date to qualify to be picked in the IPL. And I remember, just before the cut-off, I made my List A debut and made a half-century.

But because I hadn't played any T20s before the IPL, it took a while to temper my game. And in trying to change that, I lost my footing. I probably didn't have to change the technique that had brought me success until then, but because my fundamentals changed, I struggled for two-three years immediately after the first IPL stint. I found the technical changes challenging, but I worked hard to bring my game back to where it should have been.

Harshal Patel, 2010 team: It was a massive step up, but mentally I always carried this pressure of having to prove a point every step of the way. I was so intense that I got to a point where I didn't enjoy my cricket because I expected so much out of myself. I wish someone told me to loosen up a little and enjoy myself even more. This is the biggest advice I give to youngsters today: Enjoy yourself at that age, don't be so tight and intense about life. You will make mistakes, learn from it. It was as if I was conditioned to believe "I have to do this now", "I have to do this by the time I'm 20-21" and so on.

What are your favourite memories from the tournament?

Sodhi: In the semi-final against Australia, we put ourselves in a good position. Yuvraj and I were padded up and as the end overs approached, I could see Yuvi was on edge, itching to go out and bat. I told him, "Yuvi, do something today", and he's like, "Boss, I'm going to own the field." For the next 20 minutes or so, we all sat there and watched him smack five sixes and hit a fifty off 20-odd balls. That confidence you could see even then. It was unbelievable.

Mandeep: Mayank [Agarwal] was very forgetful, and we called him "Ghajini" (for the movie in which Aamir Khan's character has amnesia). Chandrakant Pandit sir, our coach, formed different committees to foster team bonding. There was an entertainment committee, airport committee, ground committee. It was a lot of fun.

Mayank was part of the ground committee, and his job was to look after the boxes of balls, keep them safe, carry them to training. We land in South Africa, for a preparatory tournament just before the World Cup, and head to the ground for our first training session. Sir asks "Mayank, where are the balls?" He said, "Sir, it's at the hotel." Sir was furious and asked him to go bring it from there. After some silence, Mayank told him, "Sir, actually I left it back at the hotel in Mumbai." Sir gave him an earful. If I'm not wrong, he didn't get batting in the nets for two or three sessions.

Porel: Before the final in 2018, we were to have a team meeting. Just as we entered the meeting, we saw the Australians milling around in the lobby. And as our meeting started, they started making so much noise that we couldn't hear ourselves. Rahul Dravid sir then told all of us, "Guys, for the next five minutes we're all going to laugh the loudest we can." And our laughter boomed out of the meeting room. As we started laughing, there was stunned silence from outside. That was fun to be a part of.