Abhishek Sharma knows all about good starts.
He had a great start to his sub-junior career. He dominated the Vijay Merchant (under-16) trophy, helping Punjab to two titles and three finals in the three years he was in the team. His 2015-16 season was especially dominant: he was highest run-getter with an even 1200 runs, almost 500 runs clear of the No. 2. He was the leading wicket taker as well, with 57 wickets, again 20 wickets clear of his nearest competitor.
Then he had a great start to his India under-19 career. India picked a fresh batch of players after the 2016 World Cup, in line with a new policy, and their first tournament was the under-19 Asia Cup in 2016. Abhishek’s talent was earmarked early when at just 16, he was anointed captain of that squad.
In his debut series, he led India to the final, against hosts Sri Lanka. After India set a target of 274, Sri Lanka were cruising at 158 for 2 in the 30th over. Abhishek’s left-arm spin wrested the match back though; he dismissed both set batters at crucial junctures, and India eventually cantered to the title by 34 runs.
Abhishek was Player of the Match for his 4 for 37.
He had a great start to his first-class career as well. He was handed his Ranji Trophy debut just short of his 17th birthday, and almost made a century, scoring 94. He followed that with 49 runs and four wickets in a losing cause against eventual winners Vidarbha.
But good starts are not good enough in Indian cricket.
Abhishek’s father, Raj Kumar Sharma, was a left-arm spinner himself, who played age group cricket in Punjab. While Raj Kumar could not fulfill his own ambitions of playing higher level cricket, he was quick to spot the talent in his son. Raj Kumar turned to coaching after his playing days, and quickly realised that his son had the potential to be an all-rounder, in more ways than one.
“He showed the ability to throw equally well with both hands at a young age”, Raj Kumar Sharma told Firstpost. Under Raj Kumar’s tutelage, Abhishek blossomed into a dependable left-arm spinner and a graceful left-handed batsman.
Amol Muzumdar — who once held the record for the most runs in the Ranji Trophy — was batting coach at a National Cricket Academy camp that Abhishek was part of, and had a close look at his precocity. “He’s an extremely talented kid, very graceful; an all-round cricketer”, he told Firstpost.
Muzumdar was particularly impressed with the good positions Abhishek got into, even while facing fast bowling. “He’s blessed with that extra bit of time while batting. (He’s) Very easy on the eye. It’s just a question of transforming that into big scores.”
The last line is a fair summation of Abhishek’s last six months though. Since leading India to the title in Sri Lanka, Abhishek has failed to convert many of his good starts into big scores. On under-19s tour to England in July this year, he was left out of the 'Test' squad. He did play a winning hand in a rain-affected chase in the one-day leg though.
The under-19 Asia Cup held last month was the perfect platform to reaffirm his credentials, with a number of first choice players busy with first-class cricket. But he returned scores of 14, 27, and 9 in the tournament, picking up only 2 wickets. India, defending champions, suffered a shock loss to Nepal, and were beaten by Bangladesh as well, crashing out of the tournament.
“Abhishek is very talented”, said Muzumdar, “but to a certain level it could be about talent. After that, it’s about performance. It’s important he converts those starts into big ones. That’s been missing in the last one year.”
So Abhishek came into the Challenger Trophy — the selection tournament for the World Cup, held in November — with a point to prove. His spot in the Indian side, a certainty as the year began, was suddenly under pressure. Abhishek responded like all good player do: with runs.
A brisk, unbeaten 38-bll 52* in the first game was followed by 89 in the second.
“He has set a goal”, said his father Raj Kumar, “to score the highest runs for India and win the World cup.”
Abhishek said this to his father after the disappointment of the Asia Cup. And he has started his journey positively. He finished just 20 runs short of being the highest scorer in the Challenger Trophy, ending his tournament on a high. Abhishek Sharma goes into this World Cup with a point to prove: that he is just as capable of
good finishes as he is of good starts.