Bigger, more visible, but still a stepping stone

Famous faces relive their ICC U19 World Cup experiences (2:11)

Virat Kohli, Hashim Amla and Kane Williamson are among those who started their international journeys at the ICC U19 World Cup. (2:11)

In 1998, when the Under-19 World Cup made a return to the international calendar 10 years after the inaugural edition, the tournament was so low-key that it was largely held at university grounds in South Africa, where teams stayed on campus. Their window to the outside world was through local phone booths or through the team managers, who would often relay news to their anxious parents and vice-versa.

Players shared dormitories, live coverage was a prospect that was scoffed at because the tournament wouldn't generate revenue, video highlights on demand was a distant thought, and social media was a decade into the future. The only glamour element was in the names of the four groups the teams were pooled into: Sunil Gavaskar, Don Bradman, Colin Cowdrey and Garfield Sobers.

The Indian team was paid an allowance of USD 20 per day, which then amounted roughly to INR 750. Mohammad Kaif, who was part of the campaign, remembers reporting his scores to his parents late at night from a telephone booth outside the team's shared accommodation via the Kaif family's neighbours in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh, since they did not have a landline connection.

Today, the Indian team's allowances of USD 125 per day are at par with the senior men's team's, they fly business class - most teams do - and are accommodated in five-star hotels. Players walk around with the latest gadgets, broadcasting every inch of their journey not just back home to their families but to their stream of social-media followers.

In addition to training and playing warm-up matches, most of the top sides have also been involved in advertisement shoots, mugshot shoots and in tournament promotion and signing souvenirs, all part of the ICC's robust marketing campaign. This time around, the tournament is set to be broadcast to more than 200 countries. This is in stark contrast to when the tournament first started in 1988, when the Indian team had to collect their kits from the local vendor in Australia minutes before their first match, or when the Pakistan players split into pairs and stayed with local families.

On Sunday, Christchurch hosted an opulent cultural extravaganza that was attended by each of the 16 participating teams. Clearly, the tournament has come of age, as have the players, who are no longer stargazers but are dreaming of bigger, better and more realistic futures - particularly the players from Papua New Guinea, Kenya and Canada, who crave international exposure. In Ireland and Afghanistan, who were given Test status recently, these other Associates have a ready blueprint.

Up until 2008, the Under-19 World Cup was a small window for players to possibly break into first-class sides, and then pitch for national selection. Players from Associate teams would often hit a roadblock, as there was little to look forward to once they outgrew the age-group structure. This explains perhaps why teams would field a core group of players across two editions, sometimes, before they went their own ways.

All that has changed in the IPL era, which has brought with it that much more focus on T20 cricket, particularly since the 2016 Under-19 World Cup in Bangladesh. The successes of the BBL, the PSL and the revived BPL have further transformed the outlook of these young cricketers.

Rashid Khan, the Afghanistan legspinner, made his international debut three months before the Under-19 World Cup in 2016. But it was during the tournament that he grabbed the spotlight with his ripping googlies. Here was a teenager varying his pace and trajectory like an international veteran, making a statement to the world. Afghanistan would pick him in their World T20 squad two months later, and he would go on to become the second-highest wicket-taker in the competition.

A year later, he starred for Sunrisers Hyderabad, who picked him for an astounding INR 4 crore (USD 628,000 approx), in a victorious IPL campaign. Today, he's scorching tracks in Australia for Adelaide Strikers, not just with the ball but with the bat too. The prospect of an Afghanistan cricketer being so much in demand would have been ridiculed even six years ago.

On a similar path is Mujeeb Zadran, the 16-year-old offspinner, whose clinical dismantling of Chris Gayle and Brendon McCullum in the BPL only last month has already led to comparisons. Who knows, later this month, Mujeeb, who has already played for the senior team, could be the third Afghanistan player to get signed by an IPL team, apart from, of course, playing a key role for his Under-19 side at the tournament in New Zealand.

Television and digital media coverage too has led to a completely new system of scouting. Take the case of Pakistan's Shaheen Afridi, who bagged a lucrative BPL contract on the back of a YouTube video of him bowling rip-roaring yorkers at will, eliciting comparisons with Mitchell Starc. He picked up 8 for 39 in 15 overs in the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy, for Khan Research Laboratories in September last year, statistically the best debut in first-class cricket in Pakistan. Now, he will once again be on the world stage.

The upcoming Under-19 World Cup has already thrown up a number of possible future stars. Never before in the build-up have so many players been talked up as much, not even Virat Kohli, who led India to the title in 2008. For three months, during the build up to the 2008 edition, Kohli and Ravindra Jadeja were just any other customers at a fast-food joint they would frequent near the Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bengaluru, where the squad was training. Life hasn't been the same since they won the title. Five months on, Kohli made his India debut.

This time, there's already hype surrounding the Australian pair of Austin Waugh and Will Sutherland, partly because of their surnames. Sutherland chose to accept a multi-year rookie deal with Victoria despite being touted as a potential top pick in the Australian Football League (AFL) draft. He will now lead Australia's fast-bowling charge.

India captain Prithvi Shaw has already been touted by many as a future international cricketer. Shaw, a teenage prodigy who broke through on the back of a record-breaking 546 in schools cricket in Mumbai, already has five hundreds in only nine first-class matches. How Shaw and other players handle the pressure that comes with early fame in their quest to break into the senior team will make for interesting viewing.

Several of the coaches who will be involved in the tournament - Rahul Dravid for India, Chris Rogers and Ryan Harris for Australia, and Jonathan Trott for England, to name a few - have enjoyed fulfilling international careers and know what it takes to succeed. Having mentors of that stature around will surely help the Under-19 players, who in the past have often faded away, in one way or another, for one reason or another.

Ravneet Ricky, who opened for India during their run to the 2000 title, didn't make too much of an impact at the senior level despite playing 73 first-class games. Brett Williams, Australia's best batsman and the leading run-getter by a mile in 1988, managed to play all of four first-class games before quitting the game. Saurabh Netravalkar, the India left-arm quick in the 2010 edition, moved on to pursue a career in the corporate world after obtaining a degree in computer science; he, along with classmates, developed what they called a one-stop manager app for cricketers - CricDecode - that was listed on the Google Play store and also featured on ESPNcricinfo. (Incidentally, he might have a second shot at being an international cricketer - currently living and working in California and, having been in the USA for several years now, word is he could turn out for USA sometime this year.)

"I think a lot of these kids at the Under-19 level, by the very nature of the fact that they are here, are probably a lot more talented and just have better skillsets than some of the other kids whom they compete with," Dravid says. "And then suddenly, as they leave this level, they compete with people who have better skillsets than them, more experience, and it's just the adjustment of having to deal with that kind of thing... it's something we find is a big challenge.

"They go from being stars in their team and consistent performers at Under-19 level to men's cricket where not all of them have that level of success straightaway. Having to deal with that is one of the great challenges for a lot of these boys."

Of course there are plenty of success stories, such as Quinton de Kock, who scorched the tournament in 2012, or more recently Kagiso Rabada and Aiden Markram, both part of South Africa's title-winning squad in 2014, or Alzarri Joseph who impressed with his fiery pace and accuracy for West Indies in a championship-winning campaign in 2016. In these lie examples for players from all the teams, on how to go about using this tournament to catch the eye and then pushing on to greater glory.