Saharan, Dhas lead India into ninth final with epic partnership

India Under-19s 248 for 8 (Dhas 96, Saharan 81, Maphaka 3-32, Luus 3-37) beat South Africa Under-19s 244 for 7 (Pretorius 76, Seletswane 64, Limbani 3-60, Musheer 2-43) by two wickets

India’s title defence at the Under-19 World Cup met its sternest challenge from hosts South Africa in a pulsating semifinal clash in Benoni. Then Uday Saharan, the captain, and Sachin Dhas put on a game-changing 171-run stand that set the tone for a come-from-behind victory. India are now into their fifth straight final, where they await the winner of Thursday’s semi-final between Pakistan and Australia.

For the first time in the tournament, India decided to chase. And at 32 for 4 in their chase of 245, they were on the rack. South Africa’s pace attack brought fire, hostility and plenty of thrills to an engaging opening burst where every ball was an event of its own. It needed Dhas’s ice-cool temperament and Saharan’s steel to bail India out with a record fifth-wicket stand at men’s Under-19 World Cups.

Yet, despite the record partnership, India had late jitters when Dhas, Aravelly Avanish and Murugan Abhishek fell in quick succession. India needed 18 off 16 with three wickets in hand. Raj Limbani, the swing bowler who had landed the early punches with three massive strikes, then flicked his first ball for six over deep midwicket to take India within touching distance.

Saharan nearly saw India home but was run out with India needing one run. It took him an eternity to walk off, distraught at not being able to finish the job, but he wasn’t to be denied as Limbani belted a boundary off Nquobani Mokoena to trigger joyous scenes in the Indian camp. South Africa were crestfallen, wondering how they let India escape after Kwena Maphaka and Tristan Luus had cut through their top order in near-unplayable opening spells.

Maphaka removed Adarsh Singh off the first ball of India’s chase with a lifter that he gloved to the wicketkeeper. At the other end, Luus peppered Musheer Khan with a series of inswingers before having him fend a short ball into the slips. Musheer’s wicket was massive considering he had been the glue holding India’s batting together all tournament.

Arshin Kulkarni, known for his big hitting and pulsating starts, shelved all that aggression in an effort to dig in, until he threw his hands at an away-going delivery to be caught in the slips, while Priyanshu Moliya’s loose drive was pouched by keeper Lhuan-dre Pretorius. By now, the bands were playing and the home fans roared.

Dhas and Saharan ducked and weaved their way away from the short balls to begin with, seemingly unperturbed by being made to look ugly by South Africa’s pace attack. And then as they slowly ate into the daunting target, they found their feet and timing. Saharan was industrious and Dhas a little more enterprising as he kept picking boundaries off every loose offering.

Dhas had cut his teeth as a finisher during the run-up to the World Cup. Until Tuesday, he’d only once faced over 20 deliveries in an innings in the tournament. But this was his opportunity to deliver, and he embraced the challenge. Last week against Nepal, Dhas and Saharan had bailed India out of a similar position after they’d lost three early wickets. Here the stakes were higher, and the quality of bowling several notches higher, perhaps even the tournament’s best, which is why their fightback was all the more commendable.

Before India’s batters led the way, their plethora of spin options strangled South Africa after Limbani had made the ball talk with his big inswing. From 46 for 2, Pretorius and Richard Seletswane went about repairing the innings with a 72-run third-wicket stand, but consumed 22.1 overs in the process to put immense pressure on the lower middle order for momentum.

Pretorius fell searching for big runs in an effort to make up for Seletswane’s slowdown – he was on 25 not out off 75 balls at one point. This pressure slowly crept up on South Africa’s lower order, helping the spin duo of Musheer and Saumy Pandey dictate terms. In all, spin accounted for figures of 31-2-120-3.

Juan James, the captain, and Luus struck some big blows towards the end to help South Africa nudge towards 250, the last five overs producing 49 runs. This gave South Africa more than a fighting chance, which their fast bowlers built on significantly, before they ran into Saharan and Dhas.

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