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When South Africa Under-19s coach Ray Jennings spoke before the World Cup began, he got one prediction right and another wrong.
He was confident his team would make the final, which they have. He also expected to meet India in it. He was wrong on that count.
Their opponents are Pakistan, two-time winners of the U-19 World Cup and practically on ‘home’ turf in the UAE.
The defending champions India being knocked out in the quarters hasn’t devalued the rest of the tournament by any means for the final promises a close contest between two good bowling sides.
It’s been a bowlers’ tournament and the player Pakistan will be keeping an eye on is Kagiso Rabada. He was at his optimum best against Australia in the semi-final with 6 for 25 and had rattled West Indies at the start of the tournament.
Rabada’s strength is raw pace and bounce and his impact has been all the more telling because he has felled teams that would have faced bowlers of his speed in the nets back home on bouncier pitches.
Pakistan’s batsmen would have faced raw quicks back at home too, but doing so in a tournament final is a different story.
Rabada’s their quickest and their other seam options include Justin Dill and Corbin Bosch, slower in pace but effective.
The captain Aiden Markram called Dill a “clever cricketer” who can “assess batsmen quickly.” Yaseen Valli’s left-arm spin lends variety and the South African attack appears better all-round. Markram too has been leading from the front with two centuries at the top.
Pakistan’s strength is spin, with their duo of Karamat Ali and Zafar Gohar expected to be a threat on a used pitch in Dubai. Zia-ul-Haq leads the pace attack and it was his accuracy that stood out in the semi-final against England.
Pakistan have been powered by strong starts by their openers Sami Aslam and Imam-ul-Haq, who have added stands of 109, 125 and 177 in this tournament.
However, their middle order hasn’t been tested as much and could be exposed if the top order has a rare failure, like in the semi-final. It came down to Gohar and Amad Butt to cover the slack.
While it reflected the team’s depth, the middle order would want to step up.
South Africa have never won an U-19 World Cup and their only world title remains the ICC knockout in 1998 in Bangladesh.
Having not dropped a single game so far, a defeat in the final will bring up the dreaded ‘chokers’ tag.
Though it’s a tag that has been used time and again with the senior team, Markram said the juniors could do their bit to get rid of that dubious honour.
“The tag is unfortunate with the senior team,” he said. “But it really hasn’t fazed us, in fact it motivates us to we can get rid of that name from our country.”