Ray Jennings’ talented U19 squad became national heroes by winning South Africa’s first World Cup. By GARETH STEVENS.
‘At U19 level inconsistency is a huge factor. Let’s just hope our bad game isn’t in the knockout stages,’ said South Africa U19 coach Ray Jennings before he and his squad departed for the UAE to take part in the U19 World Cup. Fortunately, the coach’s fears didn’t materialise and South Africa went on to lift the trophy for the first time, beating Pakistan in the final on 1 March.
‘We prepared in the same way as we have done for previous World Cups,’ explained Jennings in the lead-up to the competition. ‘The players were made aware of the standards that are expected of them. Our aim for the tournament is to play in the present, instead of trying to win the World Cup from day one. We will try to play good cricket for every ball and hopefully that will be enough,’ said the junior Proteas coach when asked for a prediction of how his charges would perform.
The policy of living in the moment alleviated the pressure and allowed the boys to express their talents. Jennings explained that his squad didn’t possess any stars, but that the side’s all-round ability would see them be competitive. This prediction proved to be spot on, as a variety of players put their hands up throughout the tournament.
After a shaky start with the bat in the team’s opening encounter, middle-order batsman and spin bowling all-rounder Yaseen Valli ground out 53 to guide South Africa to a competitive 198-9 against West Indies. Then pace bowler Kagiso Rabada rocked the Caribbean top order with early wickets, recording figures of 3-14, helping South Africa complete a 94-run victory to kick things off.
Valli then went on to claim the Man of the Match award with his 102 not out and 4-43 with the ball to ensure his team beat Canada by 45 runs, two days after their opening victory. The last game in the group stage, two days after that Canada win, uncovered two new heroes. Justin Dill, a hard-working seamer, claimed 4-35 to restrict Zimbabwe to 198 before the skipper, Aiden Markram, stroked a commanding 120 not out to ease the team to a seven-wicket victory and a place in the quarter-finals.
After a difficult start, the captain had made his mark. This is something he had alluded to when describing his style of leadership and he carried the momentum through the remainder of the World Cup.
‘I’m a democratic captain and always welcome ideas from my teammates,’ said the Pretoria Boys scholar. ‘It’s important for me to lead from the front on the field by scoring runs.’ Markram went on to say he tries to get the boys really ‘pumped’ on game day, something his side would need to overcome their nerves in the knockout fixtures.
The surprise package of the tournament awaited South Africa in the quarter-final. Afghanistan had upset Australia to secure their progress, but ran into a thoroughly efficient South African outfit. Dill was once again the spearhead of the attack, with his 4-40 taking the pressure off his batsmen, as Afghanistan were limited to 197 in their innings. Markram hit his second unbeaten century (105) to earn consecutive Man of the Match awards as his team cantered into the last four.
An old foe in the shape of Australia was the daunting obstacle between South Africa and the final. South Africa U19 had only won one of six encounters with their Australian counterparts in previous World Cup meetings, and no South African team at any age group had beaten an Australian side in the semi-final of a World Cup.
History, however, didn’t worry the South Africans as they put on a confident opening partnership of 105 before Markram fell, to an outstanding catch, for 45. His opening partner Clyde Fortuin pushed on to top-score with 74, but once the pitch slowed down, it became tough. The young Proteas managed to scratch their way to 230-9. In defence of the total, Kagiso Rabada announced himself to the world. His match-winning performance yielded figures of 6-25 and sent Australia crashing to 150 all out.
Making reference to the Caribbean greats of the 1980s, Jennings said: ‘Rabada is like a young West Indian coming through the SA cricket ranks,’ capturing how dominant his spell was.
The 80-run victory over Australia meant South Africa had qualified for their third U19 World Cup final. The last occasion was in 2008, when Wayne Parnell’s team went down to a Virat Kohli-led India. Jennings had experienced this situation before and was determined 2014 would deliver a different result. Instead of being content with their unbeaten run to the final, he was wary that they hadn’t had their one bad game yet. He therefore gave the team a sharp talking-to on the eve of the showpiece to make sure his charges would be switched on for the most important game of their young careers.
‘I really lashed into the side because I wanted them to refocus,’ Jennings told ESPNcricinfo. ‘I just sensed they were going through the motions. I called the side and told them about the satisfaction level and I turned away and said we have to practise and move on. The players got the fright of their lives.’
The reality check evoked the desired response as a fired-up South African attack dismissed Pakistan for just 131. Man of the Match Corbin Bosch, son of the late Proteas opening bowler Tertius, added his name to the list of heroes by returning figures of 4-15 with the ball. An early wobble saw South Africa reach 28-2 in reply, and many would have had the dreaded c-word in the back of their minds. The captain and official Player of the Tournament, however, was still at the crease and he led his team to their first title with a gritty 66 not out.
Jennings, somebody who has always disliked the ‘choker’ tag, was particularly pleased with the result and what it means for the country’s cricketers. ‘Now the monkey is off the back, we can move on to the next phase,’ Jennings told ESPNcricinfo. ‘Knowing SA and our players, I believe our character in the national set-up is not a choking character. We are fighters – and we fight till the end.’
The victorious squad flew back to the Rainbow Nation with hero status. They paraded their trophy at Newlands in Graeme Smith’s final Test and the media demands of the steely-nerved teenagers skyrocketed after their win. The attention is something many of them will have to get used to as their careers progress. Some of them could even draw on this experience when they find themselves in a senior ICC World Cup in the future.
Photo: Francois Nel/Getty Images/Gallo Images