Two-time champion Pakistan, strong contender Sri Lanka, fast-improving Afghanistan and Canada make Group B the toughest preliminary round in the ICC U19 Cricket World Cup which will be played in Bangladesh from 27 January to 14 February.
The biennial 16-nation tournament features nine Test-playing nations and seven Associate and Affiliate Members – Afghanistan, Canada, Fiji, Namibia, Nepal, Ireland and Scotland. 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.
Pakistan won the title when Bangladesh hosted the tournament for the first time in 2004 and repeated the feat two years later in Sri Lanka, becoming the only nation to retain the trophy. The talented Pakistanis reached the final in the last edition in the United Arab Emirates in 2014, but were defeated by South Africa in the title clash.
Pakistan’s captain Gohar Hafeez was keen to avoid past mistakes and insisted he had the team to go all the way.
“We have had the opportunity to excel at this level, but we missed out on quite a few occasions,” Gohar said. “This time round, we would like to make amends.
“We have a very balanced team which has been staying together and training under the supervision of high performance coaches at the Pakistan Cricket Board’s National Cricket Academy in Lahore.
“Our strengths are that we have two capable all-rounders and two solid opening batsmen, and given the conditions in Bangladesh, we are well-equipped in the spin department with a leggie, a left-arm spinner and an off-spinner.”
A drawback will be the limited exposure the Pakistani boys have got at the international level in the recent past, but a tri-series against Australia and New Zealand in the UAE in January has helped them prepare for the World Cup.
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.
“Our first target is to top our group,” Asalanka said. “We have a well-balanced side to suit any type of surface. We all look forward to enjoy this great event.
“We have prepared well for the tournament over the last six months and are confident of going the distance this time. To participate in the ICC U19 Cricket World Cup as the captain of a nation so passionate of cricket gives me great honour and tremendous responsibility to lead the team towards glory.”
Afghanistan’s senior team has been the success story of world cricket over the last decade and the war-ravaged nation’s under-19 side also does not want to be left behind. The Afghan boys will be participating in their fourth successive tournament, having secured their best-ever finish of seventh place two years ago.
Skipper Ihsanullah Janat said his side was determined to qualify for the quarter-finals again — and perhaps take a step further – despite facing stiff opposition from Pakistan and Sri Lanka in the group.
“It is a moment of pride for us to play on the big stage and this time we are aiming to not only make the semi-finals but also go on to be the champion side of the tournament,” he said.
“Our targets in the group are obviously Pakistan and Sri Lanka because if we manage to beat either one of them, we will qualify for the next round. There is no reason why we can’t defeat Pakistan, Sri Lanka, or any of the other big sides.”
Afghanistan will get an early chance to test its mettle as it is drawn to meet Pakistan in the first match in Sylhet on January 28, before facing Sri Lanka next two days later at the same venue.
Ihsanullah said his team was inspired by the performance of the senior side which qualified for their first-ever ICC Cricket World Cup held Down Under last year. “That was a great achievement for the development of cricket in our country and motivated thee junior side to do well too.”
Canada will be taking part in its fifth tournament since making its debut in 2002, its best finish in past four appearances being 11th in New Zealand in 2010.
But Canadian captain Abraash Khan said his team was not going to Bangladesh just to make up the numbers.
“To play and compete against some of the best junior talent in the world is exciting and a challenge,” Abraash said. “The tournament is a platform where we Canadians can showcase our talent and prove that we are able to compete at the highest level.
“We are going into this tournament with the intent to win. There is no point of us competing if we aren’t looking to win. The main goal for us is to finish in the top eight.
“We will approach every game as a must-win and put our bodies on the line to make it happen. Many of us are of Sri Lankan or Pakistani background, so beating these two sides will mean a lot to us.”
Pakistan – Gohar Hafeez (capt.), Muhammad Asad, Saif Ali, Saif Badar, Sameen Gul, Salman Fayyaz, Shadab Khan, Hasan Khan, Irfan Liaqat, Hasan Mohsin, Umair Masood, Zeeshan Malik, Arsal Sheikh, Ahmad Shafiq. Mohammad Umar.
Coach – Muhammad Masroor
Sri Lanka – Charith Asalanka (capt.), Sammu Ashan, Kaveen Bandara, Jehan Daniel, Avishka Fernando, Asitha Fernando, Wanidu Hasaranga, Lahiru Kumara, Kamindu Mendis, Charana Nanayakkara, Thilan Nimesh, Vishard Randika, Lahiru Samarakoon, Damitha Silva.
Coach – Roger Wijesuriya
Afghanistan – Ihsanullah Janat (capt.), Zia-ur-Rehman Akbar, Zahir Ahmadzai, Qais Hassan, Karim Janat, Ikram Ali Khail, Shamsurrahman Wali Khail, Zahir Khan, Muslim Musa, Nijat Masood, Parwiz Malikzai, Nasir Omar, Naveed Obaid, Waheed Shafaq, Tariq Stanikzai.
Coach – Dawlat Ahmadzai
Canada – Abraash Khan (capt.), Bhavindu Adhihetty, Thursaanth Anantharajah, Akash Gill, Abdul Haseeb, Prushoth Wijayaraj, Suliman Khan, Arslan Khan, Mamik Luthra, Miraj Patel, Shlok Patel, Kurt Ramdath, Sarbot Sivia, Harsh Thaker, Amish Taploo.
Coach – Errol Barrow
Group B schedule:
28 Jan: Pakistan v Afghanistan, Sylhet; Sri Lanka v Canada, Sylhet
30 Jan: Sri Lanka v Afghanistan, Sylhet; Pakistan v Canada, Sylhet
1 Feb: Afghanistan v Canada, Sylhet
3 Feb: Pakistan v Sri Lanka, Mirpur