Tony Becca | Future stars shine brightly
The Under-19 cricket World Cup, which was played in New Zealand recently, was billed as the "future stars" tournament, and apart from the unsavoury dismissal of a batsman for "obstruction" when he picked up a stationary ball and handed it to a fielder, and the run-out of another batsman by one of three fielders incorrectly and illegally placed behind square-leg, it was indeed a glittering parade of some of the world's best young players.
For just over three weeks, it was cricket of a high standard as the young cricketers from 16 countries did their stuff with a level of skill and maturity, and generally good sportsmanship, that was really a wonderful and glowing advertisement for the game.
In the end, India won the title for a fourth time over Australia, who fell short of celebrating their fourth victory since the inception of the age-group tournament in 1988.
The final not only brought together the two best teams over the years, and the two best teams of the tournament, but it also brought together two teams that contested Group B in the early stages.
By winning the first match by 100 runs and winning the second by eight wickets with 67 deliveries to spare, India, who went through the tournament undefeated, were unquestionably, the best on show.
In fact, India were so good that they turned the semi-final and final matches into one-sided affairs when they routed Pakistan for 69 to win by 203 runs and then grabbed Australia's last six wickets for 38 runs, dismissed them for 216, and then eased to 220 for two with Manjot Kalra hitting 101 not out.
Although India walked away with the marbles, the team that won the hearts of the fans, however, was Afghanistan, who contested the tournament without their ace leg-spinner, Rashid Khan.
Going into the hunt as underdogs, Afghanistan, one of the ICC's latest Full Members, preened themselves in New Zealand, knocking off Pakistan by five wickets, Sri Lanka by 32 runs, and in their best display, the high-riding New Zealand by 203 runs before losing, in the semi-finals to Australia.
And they did not only do well, statistically.
Playing easily and confidently, Afghanistan's batsmen batted how West Indians used to bat, and their mystery spinners - right-arm leg-spinner Mujeeb Zadran, right-arm leg-spinner Qais Ahmed, and the left-handed wrist spinner Zahir Khan, the one they call "Chinaman" Khan - bowled beautifully and brilliantly.
Their best day was against New Zealand in the quarter-finals when they rattled up 309 for six wickets and then brushed aside the bemused home team for a paltry 107 runs, the wreckage including the Kiwis top three batsmen - Jakob Bhula, Rachin Ravindra, Finn Allen - who all entered the match with hundreds behind their names and departed one behind the other.
New Zealand had also, previous to that, powered past the West Indies by eight wickets and past South Africa by 71 runs.
The batting throughout the tournament was exceptional, and in particular that of India's Prithvi Shaw and Kalra, New Zealand's Allen and Bhula, Australia's Jason Sangha and Jack Edwards, South Africa's Raynard Van Tonder and Matthew Breezke, England's Liam Blank and Will Jack, and Afif Hossain of Bangladesh, who all looked talented, well coached, well disciplined and batted with an easy elegance and confidence throughout.
They all appeared ready to go places.
Afghanistan's 15-year-old Ibrahim Zadran and 17-year-old Bahir Shah, based on their fluent, stroke-making performances against New Zealand, are also two to keep an eye on.
While West Indians Alick Athanaze and Keagan Simmons performed creditably in the opening and in the secondary Plate round matches, with Athanaze looking especially promising, the batsman of the tournament was India's Shubman Gill.
A tall right-hander, whose wristy and fluent strokes, off the front-foot and off the back-foot, were reminiscent of VVS Latchman, paraded his skills for all to see in an innings of 102 not out in the semi-final match against Pakistan before he closed with an attractive run-a-ball 31 against Australia.
For those who enjoy mayhem, however, the two batsmen who produced the most exciting and scintillating performances of the tournament were South Africa's Wandile Makwetu and Afghanistan's Azhamulli Omarzai.
Going to bat with South Africa in apparent trouble against the West Indies and playing some unbelievable and audacious shots, Makwetu cracked 99 not out while hitting one six and 12 fours as South Africa scored 102 runs off the last 10 overs.
And in a quarter-final match, Azhamulli, batting at number seven, blasted 66, three sixes and seven fours, off 23 deliveries as Afghanistan raced to 309 for six before, with Mujeeb, Qais, and Chinaman" Khan working magic, removing New Zealand for a mere 107 runs.
In a tournament parading many promising bowlers, there were some really good ones, including some tall pacers like Muhammad Musa and left-hander Shaheed Afridi of Pakistan, Kamiesh Nagarkoti and Shivan Mavi of India, Gerald Coetzee and Ishan Porelof South Africa, Jack Pennington of England, and Matthew Fisher of New Zealand who bowled with speed and bounce; and some good spinners such as left-hander Anakul Royand Shiva Singh of India, left-hander Rachin Ravindra of New Zealand, left-hander Jadede Klerk of South Africa, and Qais and Zahir of Afghanistan.
The pick of them all, however, were Mujeeb, who bamboozled all the batsmen who faced him with his mystery spin but failed, surprisingly and unfortunately, to finish with figures to match his trickery; and Australia's right-arm leg-spinner; Lloyd Pope, who, with his long hair blowing in the wind, took eight wickets for 35 runs in a magical performance in which Australia, after falling for 127, surprisingly dismissed England, who had sprinted to 74 without loss off seven overs, for 96 runs in the quarter-finals.
Unfortunately, Pope finished wicket-less against India in the final as Katla and Gill took him to the cleaners with some lovely stroke play.
India were magnificent in winning the title in such style, but maybe the performances of the tournament were Afghanistan's victory over Pakistan in the early rounds, Australia's victory over England in the quarter-finals, and India's easy victory over arch-rivals Pakistan in the semi-finals when the eventual champions destroyed Pakistan for an embarrassing 69.
It was really a lovely tournament, a tournament that gave a good peep into the future, and a tournament that, except for an early incident or two, was played in the true spirit of cricket.
It was good to see, for example, in the clash of the tournament, India versus Pakistan, many of the Pakistani players walking up, smiling, and shaking hands with Gill after his innings of the tournament.
The Under-19 World Cup was indeed a tournament that paraded future stars and one in which future stars came and twinkled, thereby suggesting that the future is bright, especially, based on their skill, attitude, and temperament, for the longer version of the game.