Ajay Sharma in elite company
The history of Indian cricket is riddled with examples of players who have run up a mountain of runs in the Ranji Trophy but whose Test careers have not matched their deeds in the first class game. Prime examples of this would be batsman like Brijesh Patel, Ashok Mankad and Ashok Malhotra. Some figures will perhaps be the best way to drive home the point.
Patel ran up the then record tally of 7126 runs in the Ranji Trophy at an average of 57.00 with 26 centuries. His Test record was a much more modest 972 runs from 21 matches at an average of 29.45 with one century. His record was surpassed by Ashok Malhotra who ultimately finished with a tally of 7274 runs at an average of 53.48 with 18 hundreds. In Tests however Malhotra's figures were disappointing - 226 runs from seven games at an average of 25.11 with no hundreds. Prior to Patel, Mankad held the record for most runs in the national competition - 6619 at an average of 76.08 with 22 hundreds. In Tests, it was a very different story. Mankad's record was 991 runs from 22 matches at an average of 25.41 with no hundreds.
Now however even the disparity of these three players has been put into the shade by Ajay Sharma. During the first innings of the Ranji Trophy Super League game against Bengal at the Eden Gardens, the 35-year-old veteran from Delhi crossed an important landmark - 10,000 runs in first class cricket. But what is even more striking is the fact that the runs have been got at an average of 68.50, which makes him the third best in the all time figures. The two above him are Don Bradman (95.14) and Vijay Merchant (71.22). And in fourth and fifth place are two other all time great Australians Bill Ponsford (65.18) and Bill Woodfull (64.99).
So Sharma is certainly in exalted company. But there is a lot of disparity between his Test figures and the statistics concerning the other three. Bradman as almost everyone knows, scored 6996 runs from 52 Tests at an average of 99.94 with 29 centuries. Merchant played ten Tests, scored 859 runs at an average of 47.72 with three centuries. Ponsford from 29 Tests, scored 2122 runs at an average of 48.22 with seven centuries. Woodfull's tally was 2300 runs from 35 Tests at an average of 46.00 with seven centuries. Sharma, on the other hand, played in just one Test - against West Indies at Madras in 1987-88 - and scored 53 runs at an average of 26.50.
The small and stocky Delhi right hander has played almost all his first class cricket in India. He went on tours with Indian teams, to West Indies in 1989, and to Pakistan and New Zealand a year later. He played only three matches in West Indies, two in New Zealand and none at all in Pakistan. This was the time when he was a candidate for the slot of utility man in the Indian team (he bowls slow left arm spinners). Indeed, Sharma has also played 31 ODI's scoring 424 runs at an average of 20.19 with a highest score of 59 not out. But over the last decade, he has not been considered fit for a recall even though he has been the heaviest run getter in domestic cricket. Four times, three in successive seasons, he has topped the 1000 run mark in first class cricket. And in 1996-97 he became only the third batsman to score over 1000 runs in a single Ranji Trophy season. His career average of just over 80 in the national competition is second only to Merchant's 98.35.
Even granting that the big scores around the domestic circuit have to be taken with a pinch of salt - given the docile pitches - it can be said that Ajay Sharma has been a bit unlucky. After all, the other players mentioned in the beginning all had a better deal from the selectors despite having a record which does not measure up to Sharma's. His 38 first class centuries - a record 31 in the Ranji Trophy alone - in 160 innings compares favourably with any other batsman, save Bradman. A gutsy player with an insatiable appetite for runs, Sharma seemed to have the temparament to clinch a place in the Indian team. But somewhere along the way, he lost his way. For long however he nurtured hopes of making a comeback because of his tremendous record around the domestic circuit. Now, more than 12 years since his only Test and over seven years since his last appearance for the country, it can be said that his chances of a comeback are remote. It is a credit to his durable qualities that he still continues to make mountains of runs even though the obvious motivation of a comeback to international cricket may no longer be there. Now, of course crossing a significant landmark and being in exalted company surely is motivation enough for him to carry on further and build upon his already superlative record.