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England prepare for the start of the U19 World Cup in New Zealand

Thursday 14th January 2010

By Charles Randall

There is an overwhelming temptation to predict that England will not reach the final of the ICC Under-19 World Cup, let alone win the tournament that starts in New Zealand on Friday, but if there is hope, it lies in the venue.

The New Zealand authorities were asked to host the event at short notice last summer when the ICC decided Kenya could not fulfil their obligations, and Christchurch will once again be the focal town as in 2002. That year produced the only occasion an Asian country has failed to win or even reach a final since Rob Key’s era, when England won the inaugural tournament in 1998.

The current England squad contains an experienced nucleus, and in Kent’s Adam Ball (pictured)they have an all-rounder eligible for the next tournament in two years’ time, but they are handicapped by playing out of season. The value of training at Catterick camp, Manchester United, Cardiff sand dunes and Loughborough High Performance Centre in winter would hardly compare with practice under a hot sun in South Island.

The warm-up matches in Christchurch contained few pointers for the main event before England’s opener against Hong Kong on Saturday. The eight-wicket demolition of Papua New Guinea at Elmwood Park was as expected, and a heavy defeat by New Zealand was a setback with little relevance apart from suggesting that the host nation had a team capable of beating anyone. Ball bowled five overs against PNG for 12 runs and did not play against New Zealand.

Afghanistan, in England’s group, were still struggling to adapt to life away from rolled mud when they suffered a seven-wicket defeat by Ireland at Redwood Park. The Irish look much stronger than in 2008 in Malaysia when they lost every game. This time they can field key players with county contracts in all-rounder Paul Stirling and wicketkeeper Stuart Poynter, of Middlesex, and the highly regarded Warwickshire seamer Shane Getkate, of South African ancestry. Andrew Balbirnie hit a century against the Afghans, so that South Africa and Australia would be foolish to take them lightly in Group D at Queenstown.

The Bert Sutcliffe Oval at Christchurch, named in memory of the dashing New Zealand batsman, has a pitch with English characteristics, offering bounce and sideways movement for seam bowlers. Situated in the Lincoln University campus about 10 miles outside the city it is a splendid venue with a white wicket fence around the boundary surrounded by blue gums and poplars. The big drawback, as the head groundsman likes to mention, is that these are indigenous trees of Australia…

Here England will have to defeat champions India, having lost all four previous encounters over the years. The 234-run defeat suffered by Moeen Ali’s halpess team in Colombo in 2006 remains the biggest thrashing of all time. So Azeem Rafiq’s men have a blot on the history books to erase when they meet India in the final group match at Lincoln on January 21.

Provided England can see off Hong Kong and Afghanistan in the earlier games, they should qualify for the quarter-finals even if they lose the big match, but they might meet the Indians again in the semi-finals, again at Lincoln. This tournament might be all about India. It usually is.

In 2002 Australia, led by Cameron White, won the final at Lincoln with a seven-wicket victory over Hashim Amla’s South Africa. The good news was that India were eclipsed in the semi-finals; the bad news was that England under Nicky Peng suffered a shocking tournament, beating only Nepal and Papua New Guinea.

Ireland have an outside chance of progressing into the quarter-finals, with the presence of Stirling, a batsman good enough to have hit 30 off 26 balls for the senior team at No 3 against England at Belfast last summer. Their venue, the Queenstown Events Centre, sits below the stunning backdrop of The Remarkables. Many a fielder’s attention has wandered while the gaze slides up to the sawtooth crags, and this is not far from those dark location shots used in Lord of The Rings. Beautiful.. but no excuse for a dropped catch. This tournament is more about individual development for the Irish.

In 2008 Ireland, with Stirling in his first tournament, lost to England, Bangladesh and Bermuda in Malaysia. That was embarrassing, certainly the Bermuda part, though Bangladesh can be formidable at this age level, competing in Group D with Pakistan, West Indies and Papua New Guinea at Palmerston North over the water in North Island. They are possible finalists, and England might concur after losing one-day series home and away in 2009.

Pakistan’s opponents will breath a sigh of relief that the left-armer Mohammad Aamer, at 17 one of the fastest bowlers in the world, is playing Test cricket in Tasmania, but they have to face leg-spinner Usman Qadir, son of the great Abdul. This group has special interest for England, producing their next opponents if they qualify for the quarter-finals.

England, optimistic as ever, will have had two weeks of acclimatisation by the time they start the tournament against no-hopers Hong Kong. Their next match two days later against proud qualifiers Afghanistan is a potential banana skin at the Queen Elizabeth II ground in the New Brighton sea-side suburb. If England lose against a side drawn mainly from refugee areas in Pakistan, the India match on January 21 becomes a battle for survival.

Azeem Rafiq (Yorks, captain), Adam Ball (Kent), Michael Bates (Hants), Paul Best (Warwicks), Danny Briggs (Hants), Nathan Buck (Leics), Jos Buttler (Somerset), Chris Dent (Gloucs), Matthew Dunn (Surrey), Ateeq Javid (Warwicks), Jack Manuel (Worcs), David Payne (Gloucs), Joe Root (Yorks), Ben Stokes (Durham), James Vince (Hants).

Group A (Christchurch): India, England, Afghanistan, Hong Kong
Group B (Queenstown): South Africa, Australia, Ireland, USA
Group C (Christchurch): New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, Canada
Group D (Palmerston North): Pakistan, Bangladesh, West Indies, Papua New Guinea