Cricket: Young come of age

David Llewellyn looks at the England Under-19 team ready for a world party today
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The Independent Online
FOR THE last nine weeks a group of youngsters has been flying the flag for their country in far flung corners of foreign playing fields. The England Under-19 party has become something of a forgotten army since leaving these shores last November to do battle with their South African counterparts, preparatory to taking part in the Under-19 World Cup, to which the Republic has played host.

The time away will have been an invaluable experience, and not merely in cricketing terms; any prolonged absence, with its concomitant bouts of homesickness and culture shock can help shape everyday lives. But it has not been an easy learning curve.

The performances have been at times frighteningly inconsistent, rolling over without so much as a whimper in the two one-day internationals against South Africa. And, despite drawing both Tests, they had a struggle to hold on in the first and it was only after following on in the second that they finally got their act together to make a fist of it.

Nevertheless under the guidance of the manager, Phil Neale, and the coach, John Abrahams, things have improved steadily since the start of the World Cup and they now find themselves in the final, where their opponents will be the New Zealanders. They qualified only after a bizarre run-in, though, which saw them lose inexplicably to the no-hopers Bangladesh, then beat the tournament favourites Australia in a remarkable match where they had to score the 148 runs for victory in fewer than 30 overs and they did so with four balls to spare.

Neale was happy with what had been achieved on the tour even before the World Cup began. "We always felt we were a match for South Africa," he said. "Earlier on they were a little bit tougher mentally, but in the Super League stage of the World Cup we have played exceptionally well.

"At the start of the tour I would have settled for us just getting to the final. But now we are there I want them to win it."

There is no doubt that this has been one of the most demanding periods in these young cricketers' lives. And for two of them indeed it does not stop today. The captain, Owais Shah of Middlesex, and Essex's Jonathan Powell fly off to Sri Lanka to link up with England A and the rest of that troubled tour.

Neale acknowledges that it has not been easy. "I think it has been a long tour for such a young group, although they are coping quite well, and it's been a frustrating one, because we know what they are capable of. Perhaps what we have suffered from has been the inconsistency of youth, but the talent is there.

"We have been disappointed with some of the performances. Too often we have got ourselves behind, then have produced our best cricket to fight back. The intensity of focus at the start of the match is lacking."

But Neale feels the positives outweigh the negatives. "It is a fantastic experience. There is a hard core of talent and the fighting quality is certainly there."