Touched by Dravid's greatness, gifted with Yuvraj's technique, Abhishek Sharma sets his sights on international success
Making it to the Punjab under-16 side, getting promoted to the under-19 level, representing the India under-19 side and captaining the team in the Asia Cup; all this happened in the space of a year. What else could a young 16-year-old all-rounder from Punjab, Abhishek Sharma, have asked for?
Even though he has played under-16 cricket since he was 14, Abhishek first gained attention when his all-round show helped Punjab successfully defend their Under-16 Vijay Merchant Trophy in 2016. In addition to that, he also played a crucial role in Punjab lifting the title in 2014-15.
The 2015-16 Vijay Merchant Trophy belonged to Abhishek as he was far and away the best player in the tournament. He scored runs with the bat, took wickets with the ball and showcased his potential in those three months before being promoted to the under-19 side.
The Punjab all-rounder, who bats left handed, ended the tournament with 1200 runs, the most by any batsman, in 12 innings, with an average of 112.33. With the ball, the slow left-armer bagged 59 wickets in just seven matches at an average of just over 10 and emerged as the highest wicket-taker.
These numbers are excellent for any cricketer in a tournament irrespective of the age group and the case is no different with Abhishek. There has been no turning back for him since then. He was promoted to the under-19 age group level, where he won the Zonal under-19 tournament and led India Red to the title in the Challenger Trophy before donning India's blue jersey.
"That was a breakthrough tournament for me. I am really happy that I managed to do well in that tournament. I got picked for the under-19 teams only after the tournament. I was supposed to go and join the under-16 camp at the NCA, but I was promoted to the under-19 team.
"I was selected for my zone team and I performed really well as I scored a century and three fifties in four matches. From there, I was chosen for the Challenger Trophy as the captain of India Reds and from there, I was selected for the Indian under-19 team as the captain.
"It was a great feeling. It was a dream come true. In one year, I tasted a lot of success, thanks to my performances in the Vijay Merchant trophy. In simple words, the Vijay Merchant Trophy changed my career, " he said.
Abhishek had the knack of getting out after getting good starts. This was something that hindered his growth for a while. Enter Rahul Sharad Dravid.
The moment he moved into the under-19 side, he was taken under legendary Indian cricketer Rahul Dravid's wing. Dravid is the coach of the Indian under-19 team. During the Asia Cup, the same problem came back to haunt the all-rounder, who turned 17 last week, and it was then that the former Indian skipper Dravid approached him with some advice which, according to Abhishek, made him more responsible with the bat. He also acknowledged the role of former India cricketer WV Raman, who helped him during his time at the NCA and during the recent tour of England.
"Rahul Dravid sir is one of the legends of the sport. He, along with WV Raman sir, are the best coaches I have played under. Rahul sir is a very organised person. I used to talk to him a lot about my game. Both Rahul sir and Raman sir gave me a lot of inputs regarding my captaincy (only Dravid), batting and bowling," he said of the role Dravid and WV Raman played in his career.
Talking about the advice Dravid gave him during the Asia Cup, Abhishek added, "During the Asia Cup, I got out in the 40s twice. So, he came to me and said, 'don't give your wicket away like this when you are batting on 30-40. That is a bigger mistake than getting out early because you can improve if you get out early, but if you get set, you know the conditions of the wicket and you should try to take your team through.' I think this is the best advice I sought from Rahul sir because that made me more responsible as a batsman."
He might have achieved a lot at the tender age of 17, but success didn't come very easily for the youngster, who started playing cricket after getting inspired by the trophies his father won during his playing days.
Abhishek's father, Mr. Raj Kumar Sharma used to represent Punjab in age group cricket, following which he moved to UAE to represent their national team only to return to India after finding out that he wasn't eligible to do so.
But, his achievements inspired his son and when Abhishek started playing cricket, Raj Kumar helped him with the basics of the game and became his first coach. Raj Kumar was also a former Punjab junior selector and is currently the full-time coach of Amritsar Game Association at the Gandhi Sports Complex Ground.
"My dad played age group cricket for the state. I used to see his old trophies. When I was 7-8, I used to go with him to the academy and I was like 'I should play this game' and I started playing there. As I grew up, I got passionate about the sport. When I started taking the sport seriously, he became my coach," he admitted.
Growing up, Abhishek had both financial and moral support, but one area in which he struggled was academic commitments. Scoring good marks was not an issue for him, but attending classes was. Thankfully for him, his school gave him a long rope in that regard. Abhishek stated that he used to attend just 6-7 days in the whole academic year and then take up his exams. In the 10th grade, he also faced a dilemma as to whether to take up cricket or his exams.
Last year, he was at the NCA while his twelfth standard exams were going on and hence the all-rounder had to fly from Bangalore to Amritsar to write his exam and then return to Bangalore the same day.
"I was studying in the tenth standard and at the same time, I was playing for Punjab Under 16s. Both were very important to me and I didn't know what to choose. It was very difficult for me to attend school. I attended just 6-7 days in the whole academic year, covered all my syllabus in that duration, and gave the exams. I was at the NCA during my 12th standard exams. I used to take a break for just one day, come home for exams and then leave for the NCA again," he conceded.
Just like any youngster, his long term goal is to play for the Indian team, but at the moment, he has set his sights on the 2018 Under-19 World Cup. He is also confident that his team will do well in the tournament as their preparations are on the right track.
Abhishek, who idolizes Indian skipper Virat Kohli, is, without a doubt, one of India's trump cards going into the 2018 Under-19 World Cup. A good run in the tournament irrespective of the end result will put him within touching distance of the national team.
But, he must make sure he doesn't get carried away by the spotlight and instead, work hard and try to improve his game further. If he manages to do that, the national call-up will automatically come his way.
Indian cricket has seen a lot of talented youngsters losing their way after performing well in the Under-19 World Cup. So, it is important for someone like Abhishek, who will be just 17 when the World Cup takes place, to remain grounded and work on his game irrespective of what happens in the tournament.
"Short-term goal is winning the World Cup. I just want to make this World Cup very good for me because it can change everything if we [India] win the tournament. And obviously, the long-term goal is to play for India in the future. I am trying my best to achieve both these goals."
"Our preparations are on the right track. We had two full series against England (one in India and one in England) and we are also supposed to play the Asia Cup later this year. All the players are geared up for the tournament and I hope we can lift the World Cup this time," he said regarding the 2018 Under-19 World Cup.
Abhishek had a decent outing when India toured England recently. Switching between numbers 5 and 6, he scored 98 runs at an average of 33 and with the ball, took seven wickets in four matches at an average of 17 and an economy rate of 4.15. To be fair, he batted way down the order and didn't get enough time to truly showcase his skill.
Despite all that, he failed only once in the series (first ODI when he got out for just 1) and played a match-winning knock in the fourth ODI, with his unbeaten 45 taking India home in their chase of 151.
With the ball, he did reasonably well as he struck at regular intervals and kept things tight in the middle overs. He admitted that he got some assistance from the wicket which aided the spinners, surprising since the United Kingdom often provide green tops.
"In England, we were expecting grassy wickets. That wasn't the case. The bounce one usually gets in England was there and the climate suited the pacers. But, there wasn't as much assistance from the wicket for the pacers as we expected. We were given flat decks and the pitches were good to bat on. Sometimes, we were given wickets that were used a couple of days before for county matches. So, we got one or two used wickets as well. We got to play on flat decks, turners and on wickets that assisted fast bowling. That was a great experience," he admitted.
Despite being a top-order batsman, he has been asked to bat at 5 or 6 by the team management and without any hesitation, the all-rounder from Punjab, who is capable of playing shots at will, has put his team first and taken up the challenge.
The recent tour of England also saw him getting out on a couple of occasions after getting good starts. It is one area which he is working on and he also revealed that he is learning the art of finishing innings.
"My strength is playing my shots whenever needed. I can go after the bowlers from ball one. I have been able to do that comfortably throughout my career. With the ball, my strength is flighting the ball and deceiving the batsmen. One area I would like to improve is spending some time in the middle when I go to bat. Also, I am learning to finish off the innings for my team," he added.
One thing that helped him receive a lot of attention is his playing style. According to people who have watched him play, Abhishek's batting resembles his Punjab teammate and Indian legend Yuvraj Singh. When asked about this comparison, he was quick to deny it.
"Many people have said this to me. But, I don't feel like that. This is how I have been playing since my childhood. I have been watching him [Yuvraj] play since my childhood and I am grateful to have played alongside him," he concluded.
The next few months will be crucial for the 17-year-old as he is set to be named in the Indian squad for the upcoming Asia Cup and the 2018 Under-19 World Cup in New Zealand. As mentioned earlier, he should not get carried away by success if he does well in the tournament.
Abhishek is just 17 and he needs to be patient and concentrate on his game rather than letting success go to his head. If he continues to do what he is doing now consistently, his dream of representing the national team will become a reality.