Johannesburg - Two years ago, coach Lawrence Mahatlane and his team came back from the ICC Under-19 World Cup with their tails between their legs.
Having gone into the tournament in Bangladesh as defending champions, the South African Under-19 side failed to progress from the group stages – thanks to losses to the hosts and Namibia. Their campaign included being bowled out for 91 by Zimbabwe.
However, they slipped out of the country on Thursday confident that their nightmare wouldn’t be a recurring one in the biennial tournament, which begins in New Zealand on Saturday.
Group of death
Once there, they will play two friendlies – against India and Australia – before opening their campaign a day after the tournament begins with a game against Kenya.
Mahatlane said the reasons for the optimism were experience – both his and the team’s – and the preparation that had gone into attempting to win from the tournament’s group of death, which includes hosts New Zealand and defending champion West Indies.
“For me, the key has been experience,” he explained. “I am thankful to a lot of the senior head coaches at franchise level for giving a lot of our guys opportunities to play. Nine of them have already played for senior provincial teams.
“If you go back to 2016, only [Rivaldo] Moonsamy had played senior cricket – and that was just one game. Building this squad has taken over two years. Looking at [Akhona] Mnyaka, captain Raynard van Tonder and [Jade] de Klerk – all went on our tour to Sri Lanka 18 months ago.
“So we’ve built a bit of Under-19 international experience. We go there confident of what we can do".
Mahatlane said the gathering of experience had cut both ways, having coached in his first World Cup as head coach.
“I’ve been in the job for three years now and I’ve become a bit more streetwise".
A big part of why Mahatlane and his team are confident is how they’ve gone in their recent series and how much cricket they have played. In July, they lost a five-game series against the West Indies 3-2 after losing by two runs in the decider. Last month, they won a tri-series with Namibia and England by defeating the latter in the final.
Most encouraging to the coach is how the batting – a massive letdown in Bangladesh – has come on: “Our top order has done well for us recently. [Matthew] Breetzke and [Jiveshan] Pillay have given us a 50 partnership in nine of our past 10 games".
Mahatlane was happy with the research done on their opponents.
“Fortunately, we’ve got some footage of both Kenya and New Zealand and, with the West Indies, we know exactly who they are – 13 of their World Cup squad were in South Africa in July. It’s important to have done the homework on our opponents. But, like the old coach’s cliché, it’s more important to focus on executing our skills".
When asked who he thought were the favourites to win the tournament, Mahatlane had a few usual suspects and a surprising dark horse.
“All the Test nations are in with a shout, but Pakistan is leading Australia 2-0 in their series as we speak. At Under-19 level, anything can happen on any day. One of the surprise packages could be Afghanistan, who won the Asian Under-19 trophy by beating the likes of India and Bangladesh and they beat Pakistan in the final".
Mahatlane said he was looking to his more experienced players, including 2016 World Cup squad player Wandile Makwetu (wicketkeeper), the dashing Breetzke and regular first-class player Pillay, to lead the side.
Among the bowlers, he said he expected Mnyaka, who was the youngest player to be drafted for the postponed Global T20, to lead the attack.
“We all want to win the World Cup, but there’s a process in place to follow,” Mahatlane said.
“The most important game to us is our warm-up game on Tuesday – you have to treat every game with the respect it deserves. Sometimes we lose sight of living in the moment because we’re looking too far ahead.”