Let us get the numbers out of the way first.
India have reached the final of each of the last four editions of the ICC Men's Under-19 World Cup, from 2016 to 2022, winning in 2018 and 2022. India have met four different teams in the four finals, which further indicates how dominant they have been.
In fact, India's defeats in the finals of 2016 and 2020 are the only two matches they have lost across four editions. They have won 22 matches over this period, which gives them a win-loss ratio of 11. No other team has come anywhere close.
India had also won the Under-19 World Cup in 2008 and 2012. And in 2006, they collapsed spectacularly to lose the final, despite bowling out Pakistan for 109.
Over the same period (2016-2022), India had won 11 and lost 2 matches at the Asia Cup Under-19. Sri Lanka (6 wins, 6 defeats) are the only side to have not lost more matches than they have won.
And yet, even amidst this remarkable domination, the 2022 World Cup triumph stands out for at least two reasons. First, the Indian camp was hit by COVID-19 halfway through the tournament. Six cricketers had to go into isolation. So depleted was the squad that the coaching staff had to carry drinks during the match. They did not have the full squad at their disposal until the final.
The other factor, of course, was their lack of preparation, largely due to COVID-19. The Indian domestic season had to be curtailed in 2019/20. A truncated season – sans the Ranji Trophy – was played in 2020/21, while 2021/22 is still under progress. Only one member of the Indian squad – Rajvardhan Hangargekar – has played senior-level cricket until now, for Maharashtra.
How, Then, Was the Squad Selected?
In early November 2021, the BCCI had hosted the Challenger Under-19s, a six-team tournament with potential candidates for the World Cup. Each team played five matches, which provided the cricketers with enough opportunities. The top performers were then split into two teams.
They then played a triangular tournament, with Bangladesh Under-19s as the third team. The final squad was chosen after that. Ahead of the World Cup, this squad also played in the Asia Cup.
That brings us to an obvious question: how are the long lists chosen?
Under-19 cricket is unlike senior cricket. In the latter, one can observe a cricketer for two or three seasons in domestic cricket before drafting them into the national side. One needs to identify Under-19 cricketers early enough to slot them for the appropriate edition.
The Cooch Behar Trophy – the national Under-19 red-ball tournament – is older than Independent India. Along with its 50-over counterpart, the Vinoo Mankad Trophy, it has been part of the humongous BCCI supply chain of cricketers.
However, the cricketers are identified long before they play Under-19 cricket. The Vijay Merchant Trophy (Under-16 inter-state) serves as the initial talent pool. With 38 teams, this comes across as a robust system at first glance. However, there is a problem.
Let alone being televised, even the full scorecards of these matches are seldom available outside the official BCCI website. The scorecards do not reveal, among other factors, match conditions or opposition strength. The selectors, thus, rely on umpires, scorers, and match officials. Writing for ESPNCricinfo, Sidharth Monga called them an ‘informal scouting system’.
Based on their inputs, a pool of 150 cricketers is shortlisted from the 38 state teams. They are split into six groups, of 25 each, and sent to the six Zonal Cricket Academies, which report to the NCA, about 18 months ahead of an Under-19 World Cup.
There, they receive training from some of the best coaches in the country and are monitored for cricketing skills as well as fitness, strength, and other physical attributes. Of this pool, 50 make it to the next level. They attend subsequent, sterner camps.
The NCA’s job is not done as soon as the cricketers are released. The cricketers have to update their daily routine – from specific practice regime to diet – to the NCA through an app. The monitoring is intense and meticulous. Over time, a batch of future cricketers evolves. And by the time that happens, preparations for the next set of cricketers are already in place.
The performance of India Under-19 over the years bears testimony to this constantly evolving process. Over time, they also helped create the strongest bench among all senior sides as well, though, for that, the India A team plays a role at least as important.
However, there is an area that can be explored.
While the Indian Premier League provides the chosen cricketers with financial comfort, not everyone makes the cut. The others, having chosen cricket as a profession, continue to play domestic cricket – which, if paid on time, provides reasonable (but not mind-boggling) income. One must remember that a professional cricketer’s career seldom lasts beyond forty.
However, a substantial part of their earnings comes from match fees, something only those who get picked are entitled to. A number of Indian domestic cricketers spend years warming benches, making sporadic appearances. By the time they quit cricket, it is often too late to switch professions. Given the demands of contemporary cricket, youngsters often find it difficult to have a backup career.
During his stint as Under-19 coach, Rahul Dravid used to insist on balancing formal education and cricket. Dravid was also among several coaches who advised the NCA on these cricketers.
In an interview with The Times of India in early 2019, NCA COO Tufan Ghosh assured that they had been trying to arrange for internships with companies, training in other vocational courses, and even facilitating jobs for young cricketers who were forced to switch careers.
At that point, the NCA had been "working towards formulating a structure before it is sent to the higher authorities in BCCI to get things going."
Given the pay disparity between the genders at all levels, and the dearth of domestic women’s red-ball cricket in the nation, the move is, perhaps, as necessary for aspiring female cricketers as well.
One can hope the wheels would be set in motion soon.