New Zealand finished 10th in the Under-19 World Cup in 2014. Things only became worse two years later when they finished 12th in the 2016 edition in Bangladesh.
The build up to the 2018 edition seemed bleak too. From the end of the 2016 Under-19 World Cup to the end of 2017, New Zealand’s U-19 side didn’t play a single international game. The team got together only three weeks prior to the tournament when the squad was announced. Their only preparation for the World Cup began 10 days before the event began, when they hosted Pakistan for a couple of games. One of those was washed out.
In the meantime, most other sides went full throttle with their preparations. India and England played two full series against each other – home and away – in 2017. Australia had one home series against Sri Lanka, while Windies had a tour of Zimbabwe and South Africa. Even Zimbabwe traveled to India where they took on age-group teams in Vidarbha.
The reason for the lack of preparation was quite obvious – budget. It’s no surprise, given the New Zealand Test team didn’t play a single overseas Test in 2017.
But a week into the World Cup, New Zealand are already among many people’s favourites to go long in the tournament. They’ve made the quarterfinals as the top team in what was supposed to be the toughest of groups, having beaten Windies, South Africa and Kenya convincingly.
“It was always a bit of an unknown. We hadn’t played many games against other nations leading into it,” begins Paul Wiseman, their coach. “We had a pretty small build-up in terms of games. You’re never quite sure what the opposition are like or how strong you are against them. To come in here, win all three and win them well is pleasing.”
Playing at home has obviously helped, but the work into building a squad without any game-time took plenty of effort.
“The programming has been set up around our talent identification. We’re working with our associations, we have six major associations and six coaches, who I keep in regular contact with,” explains Wiseman. “They’ve been fantastic with their communication. We have worked with 13 in a squad for the last 18 months or so. They have five camps during winter for a week (each) and we always try to get them to know them better.
“The guys have gelled together really quickly. You just don’t know how they’re going to stand up under pressure in these sorts of games. We’ve just tried to learn as much as we can about the guys that have been in our squads, the sort of characters and the skillsets we thought we might need. There are some smart cricketers in there which is good, we’ve got some ability in there as well. One of the key characters which has come out in the last few games…it takes time to see those. We’ve got a bit of fight about us. A couple of times we’ve been put under pressure but we’ve managed to soak it up and put it back on the opposition. So pleased with that side of things.”
Apart from these challenges, New Zealand also have a unique issue to deal with. Kids in the country grow up playing multiple sports, and it’s only around the late teenage years that they decide which way to go.
Kaylum Boshier, their captain, is a junior rugby player and is yet to decide on his future. Jordie Barrett, the All Blacks fullback, would have played the 2016 U-19 World Cup if not for an untimely injury.
“He just missed the cut in the last World Cup,” reveals Wiseman. “From my mind, he has made the right decision because he is a quality All Black and its’ great to see him doing what he’s doing.
“I think guys at the end of the day will work out where their heart lies and where they think they’ve got the best future, which game they love, and we’ll encourage it. Obviously, we push cricket but we’ll completely understand if they go elsewhere. We might lose one or two along the way but I think we’ll end up with pretty good athletes.
“We try to make sure the players have balance and get an education. We try to fit things around that as much as we can – have camps during school or university holidays and things like that. We think that’s a very important part of growing the person. If we have a more all-round person we’ll get a better player as a result.”
In short, New Zealand aren’t in a hurry to fast-track kids and are more than happy to allow them to become more mature before they take on the rigours of international cricket. It perhaps shows in their U-19 World Cup fortunes – they’ve never won the title and have been runners-up only once – but Wiseman stresses that World Cup titles mean little in the long run.
“The whole concept isn’t just around the performance side of things. We view this as development,” he says. “If you perform well in it, that’s a bonus but we’re really trying to develop cricketers for first-class and hopefully Blackcaps. So we’re looking at the whole picture, not just performance.
“These World Cups are brilliant but they’re not a career-defining experience. As long as they go away and learn from them and become better from there, it’s fantastic. And it’s the same for a number of players who’ve missed out but are very close to the side. At the end of the day, they’ve missed out on a great experience but it’s not a career defining one. So we try to keep everything in balance and the whole thing is learning and development. It doesn’t really matter if we come 12th in the World Cup or 1st, at the end of the day it’s how many Black Caps we can produce and how many players that we can make better.”