Dubai, Feb 14: Future stars will get a chance to show their talent, potential and prowess in a truly global event when the ICC U19 Cricket World Cup 2014 gets underway across the United Arab Emirates today.
The tournament has provided impetus to the careers of stalwarts like Michael Atherton, Inzamam-ul-Haq, Nasser Hussain, Brian Lara, Sanath Jayasuriya and Graeme Smith as well as current stars like Ahmed Shahzad, Alastair Cook, Quinton de Kock, Shikhar Dhawan, Chris Gayle, Virat Kohli, Angelo Mathews, Shakib Al Hasan, Steven Smith and Ross Taylor among others. It is one of the most important and followed cricketing events in which teenagers get a taste of international experience, pressure and exposure, and also receive training and education on anti-doping and anti-corruption.
This year's ICC U19 CWC carries extra significance as it is taking place a year before the ICC Cricket World Cup 2015. As such, a lot of cricketers will be looking to excel in this tournament so that they can catch the eye of their national selectors and earn the honour of representing their countries in cricket's biggest extravaganza which will be staged in Australia and New Zealand from 14 February to 1 March next year.
The 16 teams in the World Cup have been divided equally in four groups.
The top two teams from each group will progress to the Super League quarter-finals, while the two bottom teams from each group qualify for the Plate Championship quarter-finals.
On the opening day, four matches will be played with 1998 champion England taking on the United Arab Emirates (UAE) at Zayed Cricket Stadium in Abu Dhabi, Zimbabwe facing Canada at Abu Dhabi Oval 1, New Zealand squaring off against Sri Lanka at Sharjah Cricket Stadium, and South Africa and the West Indies going head to head at the Dubai International Cricket Stadium in a match that will be covered live by ICC's broadcast partner Star Sports. This will be one of the 11 matches, including two quarter-finals, both the semi-finals and the final will be televised.
India will seek to defend the World Cup title in a 16-day tournament in which 48 matches will be played. India, who is also the holder of the ICC Cricket World Cup and the ICC Champions Trophy, has also previously won the crown under Mohammad Kaif in 2000 and Kohli in 2008, but unlike Pakistan, its opponent in Saturday's match at the Dubai International Cricket Stadium, it has never won back-to-back titles.
India seems to have strong credentials in this event as only a month ago in the UAE, it won the U19 Asia Cup when it defeated Pakistan in the final. Last year in July, it also won the Top End U19 tri-series, which featured Australia and New Zealand, and beat Sri Lanka in August in a bilateral series as well as winning the U19 quadrangular series, which also involved South Africa, Australia and Zimbabwe.
However, the final build-up for India has been far from ideal as it lost both its warm-up matches to Sri Lanka (by five wickets) and South Africa (five wickets).
Previewing the tournament and his side's match against Pakistan, India captain Vijay Zol said: "We are really confident about our chances in the tournament. We have won in the past and also the recently concluded Asia Cup. So, we are carrying the momentum with us. Everybody is looking in good nick and working hard, and we are looking forward to playing in the tournament.
"Pakistan is a good team. They have been doing well on the U19 circuit, but we have managed to beat them. Recently, we beat them in the Asia Cup final that was also played here in the UAE. We are very confident about playing against them."
Australia, which has won the title in 1988, 2002 and 2010, also lost both its warm-up matches to Zimbabwe (by three wickets) and Pakistan (by 38 runs). But, captain Alex Gregory was confident and said his boys were looking forward to the tournament.
"It's a very special moment for all the boys. I'm sure they've dreamt of representing their country all their lives with the final goal of wearing a baggy green, so it will be exciting to play on an international stage and see if we can perform under pressure," said Gregory, who is one of the 35 players along with Zol and Pakistan captain Sami Aslam to feature in their second successive ICC U19 Cricket World Cup.
"We have a well-balanced side of powerful hitters and skilled fast and spin bowlers, so we have the ability to perform well in this tournament. India beat us in the final of the last World Cup, so experiencing that loss has fed the hunger for this World Cup.
"To win the ICC U19 World Cup would be a huge achievement. Many of the boys have spoken about how much it will mean to them to win the title, however currently we are more focussed on the process to win each game than looking to the final result," he concluded.
Apart from India and Australia, Pakistan is the other side to have won the tournament on more than one occasion. It won in 2004 and 2006 in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh respectively, while it also finished runner-up in Australia in 1988 and in New Zealand in 2010.
Besides Sami, opener Inam-ul-Haq, left-arm spinner Zafar Gohar and left-arm fast bowler Zia-ul-Haq will also be appearing in their second World Cup.
Bangladesh has won Plate Championship title three times, while Nepal, Sri Lanka, South Africa, West Indies and Bangladesh have won once each.
Group A: India, Pakistan, Scotland and Papua New Guinea
Group B: Australia, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Namibia
Group C: South Africa, West India, Zimbabwe and Canada
Group D: New Zealand, England, Sri Lanka and UAE
Friday fixtures (first round)
England v UAE, Zayed Cricket Stadium, Abu Dhabi
Zimbabwe v Canada, Abu Dhabi Oval 1
New Zealand v Sri Lanka, Sharjah Cricket Stadium
South Africa v West Indies, Dubai International Cricket Stadium