As Australia arrive at training ahead of their Under-19 World Cup opener against India in Mount Maunganui, a familiar stance, backlift and fidgety movements catch the eye as one gazes towards the dressing room. Jason Sangha is being filmed as he imitates Steven Smith. “Not as good as Maxi, but I’m getting there,” he laughs. Then he goes on to twirl his bat and play that whip off his hip.
Back at the Australia nets, there’s energy bursting at the seams. The Under-19 group is set to play together for the first time in over two months. The entire squad, barring Will Sutherland, who missed the domestic Under-19 championships in Hobart, was rested for the bilateral series against Pakistan last month to gear up for the tournament. But Sangha couldn’t get cricket out of his mind. A couple of times, he was spotted on the road imitating a bowling action or practising a cover drive. “So much, excitement,” he says. “Indian roots. How could I not be mad about cricket?”
As a 16-year old, Sangha was picked to play for Australia at the previous Under-19 World Cup in Bangladesh, but the team pulled out because of security concerns. Now, he’s been given the additional responsibility of also being captain.
“Most of the guys were quite emotional about it, they knew how much it meant to actually not play that World Cup. From there, I had the extra desire and hunger to be a part of this World Cup”
Jason Sangha on missing out on the 2016 edition due to security reasons
“For a young guy, it was a new experience. It was the first major thing I’d accomplished in my cricket career, something I’ve cherished since. For me, it was difficult. I would’ve loved to be in Bangladesh, but I knew I had another World Cup coming up,” Sangha says of the disappointment from 2016. “Most of the guys were quite emotional about it, they knew how much it meant to actually not play that World Cup. From there, I had the extra desire and hunger to be a part of this World Cup.”
Sangha has already led Australia Under-19s in a bilateral series against Sri Lanka at home in April. He made news in November when he became the youngest first-class centurion in the country since Ricky Ponting in 1992-93. It was a pre-Ashes warm-up fixture and Sangha was facing an attack that included Chris Woakes, Craig Overton and Moeen Ali. He held firm to bring up a superb century, one he says gave him oodles of belief.
“It was still quite a competitive game, they wanted to win but so did we,” he says. “It was a great experience. You don’t really get to play those oppositions that often. Especially as a young kid it’s awesome to get the opportunity to play against an international attack. To get that hundred against England absolutely meant the world to me, a lot of preparation went into that. I’m just glad it happened.”
His form leading into the game helped too. Playing for the Randwick Petersham Cricket Club in Sydney, which gave David Warner and Usman Khawaja to Australia, he smashed two big hundreds in the New South Wales Premier Cup. He looks back on these knocks fondly and though he is happy with where his game is at, he is eager for more success.
“For me, I don’t feel I’m there in cricket yet,” he says when asked about having to choose between cricket and university. “Obviously signing with the New South Wales and Sydney Thunder is good, but I always think I can always get better. So I feel I still haven’t quite made it yet into where I want to be in cricket. The Under-19 World Cup is obviously a massive pathway for me to showcase my skills for the future.”
Sangha loved netting three-pointers and slam dunks as he grew up. He also played a bit of soccer, but was only convinced of cricket as a career option when he made it to the Australia Under-16 side five seasons ago. “That was probably my first major milestone and that’s when I thought I’ll try and pursue cricket a fair bit,” he says. “The best thing about Australia is that there are so many different sports that we play.
“I’m one to always love playing not just cricket, but also basketball, baseball and soccer. Those sports are some which everyone in Australia love. You see someone like Will Sutherland, he was pretty much giving it in his AFL career and ended up choosing the right one, which is cricket. So it’s good for us. That’s the best thing about our team as well, we have guys who not just love cricket but also other sports as well. We’re lucky to be in a country like Australia, where you can pursue a career in whichever direction you want to go.”
Sangha and co have come through the system that has carefully been streamlined by Greg Chappell, who heads Cricket Australia’s national talent management wing, and are now under the care of two players who were, only four years ago, celebrating a 5-0 Ashes triumph.
“We have someone like Ryan Harris [head coach] and Chris Rogers [batting coach] who just came out of the Australian system and they know what it’s like to be an Australian cricketer, the messages they have been taking from the actual Australian team, they’ve tried to implement here,” Sangha says. “In these competitions sometimes you can get too confused. When you’re in high pressure moments, you need to have a bit of clarity. In those high pressure moments, need to be a bit relaxed and have a simple mindset. That’s where they have helped.”
Australia’s route to the Under-19 World Cup has taken shape over a two-year period in which the selectors have persisted with a core group that they identified at Under-15 level. “It hasn’t been a six-month planning. It’s honestly been for about two-three years, knowing this batch of age-group cricketers was going to be ready for the World Cup in 2018,” Sangha says. “It started with the Under-15s tournament. It’s been about consistent training, having a squad going to the NCC up in Brisbane and train there during the winters and the season. It’s honestly been a long process, but I believe this is the best squad we’ve got and I’m confident we can go all the way.”