Australia’s cricket teenagers are one step away from emulating their seniors – by lifting the Under-19 World Cup in a final against India.
The teenage lads, spearheaded by their record-breaking pace gun Tom Straker and guided to victory by cool head Raf MacMillan, battled into Sunday’s showdown in South Africa in the most dramatic fashion, pipping Pakistan by just one wicket after a nerve-shredding semi-final in Benoni.
MacMillan hit the winning boundary off the first ball of the last over from Mohammad Zeeshan in Thursday’s (Friday AEDT) topsy-turvy affair, a fortuitous inside edge that just missed his leg stump and flew away to the boundary.
“Never in doubt!” laughed the Australians’ captain Hugh Weibgen, who was barely able to watch the nail-biting drama unfolding from the pavilion balcony at Willowmoore Park.
“We had full faith in Vids [No.11 batter Callum Vidler] and Raf to get the job done. There was quite a bit of emotion in the dressing room. I was quite tense and excited too. I still don’t know what really happened, but it was awesome!”
What happened eventually was that, having taken too long over their deliberations in the field, Pakistan were forced to employ an extra fielder inside the circle for the last over, with three runs still needed.
It was to prove crucial as the fielder brought up from the fine leg boundary was beaten by MacMillan’s inside-edge boundary.
It set up a final at the same venue on Sunday for the young Aussies against an Indian side who, like them, have gone unbeaten so far in the South African tournament and will probably be slight favourites to retain their title.
Of course, it’s a junior version of the 2023 men’s World Cup final in India, won by Pat Cummins’ Australians – and Weibgen’s side will be looking to become the first teenage Aussie outfit to lift the trophy since 2010.
“India are a class team, they’ll come out and compete really hard – we’ll love that challenge, we’ll love that fight – we’re really looking forward to it,” said Weibgen, recognising how his side really showed their character against Pakistan.
In that victorious team 14 years ago were Josh Hazlewood, who took four wickets, and captain Mitch Marsh.
This time, it was Straker, in the Hazlewood mould, who was Australia’s matchwinner, taking 6-24 and helping skittle Pakistan for 179 after Weibgen had opted to field.
They were the best figures in an under-19 semi-final or final, beating Kagiso Rabada’s 6-25 for South Africa against Australia in 2014.
Australia’s chase proved complicated amid blistering pace bowling from Pakistan’s 15-year-old sensation Ali Raza (4-34).
“Every time we thought we were on top, we lost a wicket, but we just kept fighting,” said Weibgen.
Left-handed opener Harry Dixon (50), with his third half-century of the tournament, and 17-year-old replacement player Ollie Peake (49), proved the mainstays.
But when Raza got rid of Peake and Straker in the 46th over, it looked like the Australians were doomed at nine down with 16 still needed.
Step forward, MacMillan, who guided Australia to the final on 9-181 with an unbeaten 19 off 29 balls, helped by a dogged and invaluable couple of runs off nine balls from their last man, star quick Callum Vidler.