Three-time champion Australia will launch its title defence on Saturday when it goes head to head against 1998 winner England in the feature match of the opening day of the ICC U19 Cricket World Cup 2012, in front of ESPN STAR Sports’ cameras at Tony Ireland Stadium in Townsville.

Also on the opening day of the event, which will run till 26 August, two-time former champion Pakistan will take on neighbor Afghanistan at John Blanck Oval on the Sunshine Coast, while Asian rivals Bangladesh and Sri Lanka will lock horns at Endeavour Park 1 in Townsville. Zimbabwe will meet Papua New Guinea (PNG) at Allan Border Field in Brisbane.

The 16 sides, including 10 Full Members and six qualifiers (Afghanistan, Ireland, Namibia, Nepal, Papua New Guinea and Scotland), have been equally divided into four groups, with the two top sides from each group to qualify for the Super League stage, and the bottom two sides from each group to compete in the Plate Championship. The Plate final will be staged on 24 August in Brisbane, while the Super League final will be held at Tony Ireland Stadium on 26 August.

Australia is the most successful team in the history of the ICC U19 Cricket World Cup, having won titles in 1988 (Australia), 2002 and 2010 (both in New Zealand). In addition to this, it twice appeared in the semi-finals (2000 and 2006) while in 2008 in Malaysia, it played in the quarter-final.

With the event once again returning to familiar territories, Australia will start off as firm favourite to win the title for the fourth time, which will also make it the second team after Pakistan to win back-to-back titles. Pakistan achieved the feat in 2004 and 2006.

Australia captain Will Bosisto said his side was under no extra pressure of having to defend the title on home turf. “I don’t see the fact that we are defending champion as any extra burden. I just think it is a great opportunity for all of us to go out and do our best. I think this will be a great opportunity for us to represent our country at this level. It is the highest honour for an U19 player to play for Australia,” he said.

Bosisto was diplomatic when commenting on the favourites tag. “I wouldn’t necessarily say that Australia is a firm favourite in any way. I think we see ourselves as having a very good chance to win the title, and hopefully we can do everything in our power to do that.

“But I know there will be many strong sides from the subcontinent, and obviously England, so we know there is a lot of tough competition out there,” he remarked.

England’s only triumph came in 1998 when Owais Shah’s side beat New Zealand in the final in Johannesburg. England’s current captain Adam Ball is hence keen to break the title drought.

“It is definitely time for England to add to that previous success,” he said, adding: “It will be very tough for us to repeat that but I feel the team has what it takes to do so. We will have to perform consistently at our best throughout the whole competition and be able to come out on top in high pressure situations.”

Looking ahead to the tournament opener against Australia, Ball said: “Australia has shown that they have a very good youth system and produce high-quality players. But we also have some talented players. So I feel the game will be very even and a hard fought encounter. I believe playing them in the first game will be perfect to get the tournament off too an exciting start.

“I think Australia have to be one of the favourites as they are playing in their own country and have won the tournament several times before. I also think that Pakistan will be a very hard team to beat even in conditions that may not favour them,” Ball said.

Pakistan captain on his side’s chances

Pakistan starts its tournament against Afghanistan and captain Babar Azam agreed that his side was one of the title contenders but emphasised that his lads will have to quickly adapt to the Australian conditions and perform consistently.

“I think we are one of the tournament favourites as we bat deep, have a couple of good all-rounders and also possess a few quality fast bowlers and spinners in the side.

“Moreover, our recent performance at international level is encouraging so I think our team could be termed as favourite alongside some other teams. However, it will all depend on how quickly we adjust to the conditions in Australia. We all know that pitches and outfields in Australia are very hard and there is extra bounce on the pitches.”

India takes on the West Indies on Sunday

India is another side that has done exceptionally well in the ICC U19 Cricket World Cups. Besides winning the 2000 and 2008 events, India reached the final of the 2006 event and also played in the semi-finals in 2002 and 2004.

India will open its campaign in front of ESPN STAR Sports’ cameras on Sunday at Tony Ireland Stadium, when it faces the West Indies, which is being led by Test opener Kraigg Brathwaite.

India captain Unmukt Chand said his side was fully prepared for the event. “The team wears a settled look. We have played three tournaments over the past few months – a quadrangular series in India, another in Australia, and then the Asia Cup in Malaysia. We won the first two tournaments, and were joint winners in the third.

“The boys are used to playing with each other, and confidence levels are very high. We also have an excellent support staff. We are looking forward to the World Cup, and hope to emulate our predecessors of 2000 and 2008.

“We are bound to face challenges, with so many quality teams in the fray. However, what might work in our favour is that we have played in Australia, as recently as April 2012. It should not take us long to acclimatise and adjust to the conditions in Australia,” he said.

Though West Indies captain Kraigg Brathwaite picked Australia as his favourite, he believed his side was equally capable of winning the tournament. “Australia will be the favourite because they won the last World Cup and now they are on their home turf.

“I believe we can win the event. We just need to believe in ourselves, go out there and play as a team and to our full potential. We are motivated and it would be great to win the title for the people of the West Indies,’’ Braithwaite said.

“As a team, we will be looking to show the world our talent and that West Indies cricket has a bright future. Every team will be looking to win the event and our approach will be the same. There is a lot to play for,” concluded the Test opener.

South Africa looks ahead to its opener against Bangladesh

South Africa plays its opening game against Bangladesh on Sunday 12 August at Allan Border Field, and captain Chad Bowes is confident his side is ready to produce some strong performances.

“This squad has been on a two-year progression plan for this event. We have arrived in Australia to play good, solid cricket and we believe that we have the potential to be the first South Africa side to win an ICC U19 Cricket World Cup.

“You can never take any team for granted especially at a World Cup as no game is an easy,” Bowes said.

Bangladesh captain Anamul Haque, whose side will meet Sri Lanka at the Allan Border Field in Brisbane on Saturday, said his side will be aiming for consistency. “The objective is to settle down quickly. I am putting emphasis on focus as many of our boys haven’t toured that much and I have seen that some may actually get overawed by the experience. We are also looking for consistency which is still not there in our performance. We have been making the odd contribution but not doing it as a group on a regular basis.

“I am sure everyone has set personal goals but we all have the common desire of seeing ourselves in the final,” Anamul said.

Saturday’s fixtures:
Group A – Australia v England, Tony Ireland Stadium, Towmsville
Group B – Afghanistan v Pakistan, John Blanck Oval, Sunshine Coast
Group C – PNG v Zimbabwe, Endeavour Park 1, Townsville
Group D – Bangladesh v Sri Lanka, Allan Border Field, Brisbane

Teams (to be selected from):
Afghanistan – Mohammad Javed (captain), Afsar Khan, Aftab Alam, Fareed Malik, Hashmatullah, Mohammad Yamin, Mohibullah, Najibullah, Nasir Jamal, Noorulhaq, Rahim Mangal, Rashid Khan, Sayed Shiraz, Shabir Ahmed and  Younas Khan.

Australia – Will Bosisto (captain) Ashton Agar, Cameron Bancroft, Meyrick Buchanan, Harry Conway, Sam Hain, Travis Head, Joel Paris, Kurtis Patterson, Jimmy Peirson, Gurinder Sandhu, Mark Steketee, Nick Stevens, Ashton Turner and Jack Wildermuth.

Bangladesh – Anamul Haque (captain), Abu Haider, Abu Javed, Asif Ahmed, Dewan Sabbir, Liton Das, Al-Amin, Naeem Islam Jnr, Noor Hossain, Salman Hossain, Mosaddek Hossain, Nasum Ahmed, Nurul Hasan, Soumya Sarkar and Taskin Ahmed

England – Adam Ball (captain), Shozair Ali, Daniel Bell-Drummond, Ben Collins, Alex Davies, Ben Duckett, Ben Foakes, Brett Hutton, Aneesh Kapil, Tom Knight, Jamie Overton, Craig Overton, Reece Topley, Kishen Velani and Sam Wood.

Pakistan – Babar Azam (captain), Azizullah, Ehsan Adil, Faraz Ali, Imam-ul-Haq, Mohammad Nawaz, Mir Hamza, Saad Ali, Salman Afridi, Sami Aslam, Shahid Ilyas, Umar Waheed, Usman Qadir, Zafar Gohar and Zia-ul-Haq.

Papua New Guinea – Chris Kent (captain), Charles Amini, Dogodo Bau, Sese Bau, Nigel Boge, Albert Geita, Raymond Haoda, Ratu Maha, Kabua Vagi Morea, Alei Nao, Lista Oala, Vagi Oala, Lega Siake, Toua Tom and Norman Vanua

Sri Lanka – Sanitha De Mel (captain), Amila Aponso, Nirosha Dickwella, Anuk Fernando, Shehan Fernando, Angelo Jayasinghe, Tharindu Kaushal, Ranitha Liyanaarachchi, Lahiru Madushanka, Chamodh Pathirana, Jason Perera, Pulina Taranga, Kasun Vidura, Pabasara Waduge and Sandun Weerakkody

Zimbabwe – Matthew Bentley (captain), Kyle Bowie, Ryan Burl, Atishsinh Chouhan, Kieran Geyle, Kevin Kasuza, Malcolm Lake, Campbell Light, Luke Jongwe, Wellington Masakadza, Luke Masasire, Nyasha Mayavo, Curthbert Musoko, Andre Odendaal, and Peacemore Zimwa