After 24 games across seven venues in nine days, the knockout phase of the Under-19 World Cup 2020 is upon us. Teams like Sri Lanka, England and Zimbabwe are already out of the running for the top honour, and on Tuesday, one of India and Australia will join that list.
Both sides found themselves under pressure in their final group game, although the circumstances were vastly different. Australia needed a final-ball win over England to set up the quarterfinal date. In a sense, it was a knockout game - they would have been eliminated had they lost. India thwarted New Zealand in a rain-hit game to finish top of the table - not knockout-level stress, but they did want the top spot.
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Can such a smooth ride through the group stage and never really having their backs to the wall actually harm India, though? That said, most of their players play either first-class or List A cricket for their states, so they are not strangers to the trials of balancing pressure and performance. And when New Zealand's batsmen briefly put India on the back foot in that game, their spinners rose to the occasion, sharing seven wickets between them, to restore order.
They have been clinical, high on intensity, and electric on the field. But only once have they had a chance to bat more than 25 overs in a game - only seven of them have batted at all so far, four of them for more than 50 balls - and leaves India's middle order largely untested.
That's perhaps where their pre-competition series against South Africa and the subsequent quadrangular series will play a key role. They have been in South Africa since mid-December, and the lessons from the games played in local conditions before the World Cup must have an effect. Priyam Garg, the captain, has struck four 50-plus scores in his last seven games in the country, Tilak Verma has hit four in his last five, wicketkeeper Dhruv Jurel has three in his last four, while Siddhesh Veer, their finisher, has consistently ended innings well.
India's bowling also looks sorted, though they might want even more from their fast bowlers. They have been quick, with short deliveries whizzing past the ears and yorkers crushing into the base of middle stumps, but few of those wickets have been of top-order batsmen. In their games against Sri Lanka and New Zealand, only left-arm seamer Sushant Mishra - who hasn't played since India's tournament opener - has taken a wicket of a top-three batsman. While the pace of Kartik Tyagi and Akash Singh, who are expected to start, has been too much for the lower-order batsmen, they are still searching for a strike with the new ball (apart from against Japan).
As for Australia, their tournament has been up and down. Their two-wicket win over England was a reminder to the rest of the teams that Australia can bat till No. 10 at least. Against West Indies, a game they lost by three wickets, luck simply wasn't on their side: two of their top-order batsmen were run-out at the non-striker's end off the bowlers' body.
Tanveer Sangha, their legspinner, is joint-second on the list of highest wicket-takers for the tournament, while the rest of their bowlers, too, have struck at crucial points. Australia's ability to take wickets across an innings did not make it easy for West Indies, and in their must-win game against England, Australia had reduced the opposition to 192 for 7 following a combined effort from their bowlers.
The bottom line is that games such as these give us major pointers for the future, give us an idea of who will go on to greater things and who might not. A sizeable crowd is expected at Potchefstroom's Senwes Park for the clash. Form makes India the favourites, but on this rare occasion, an Australian team won't mind starting off as underdogs in a World Cup knockout fixture. Barring the Japan game - when they chased 42 - India haven't batted second, and it might be in Australia's best interest to bat first, post a total and see whether India can deal with scoreboard pressure.
It was India who beat Australia in the final of the 2018 edition. Although no one from the current team featured then, payback will be very sweet if they manage to pull it off. If they can, they will also become the team to beat in the tournament.