Abhishek Sharma shows his all-round prowess to prove that he belongs

Back at the top of the order, he scored a quick fifty and later chipped in with a wicket, making a persuasive case to be given a longer rope

Karthik Krishnaswamy
Moody: Abhishek's boundary-hitting abilities a real threat

Moody: Abhishek's boundary-hitting abilities a real threat

The Sunrisers opener hit 54 of his 67 runs in boundaries against Delhi Capitals

Abhishek Sharma is just the kind of player you'd want in and around your T20 squad: clean striker of the ball, left-handed, capable of batting in multiple positions, and a useful left-arm spinner with interesting variations.

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He's also the sort of player, however, who has been thrust into an existential crisis this season, thanks to the Impact Player rule: a batter of promise but not one with a settled role, and not enough of a bowler to merit selection for his secondary skill.

Assessing the Impact Player's effect on the IPL on ESPNcricinfo's T20 Time:Out, Tom Moody had referenced Abhishek when he expressed his concern over the development of all-round players.

"I still struggle within me as a former allrounder to see some players that have all-round skills sort of suffer with opportunity," Moody said. "We've seen plenty of them. And one of them [who] recently voiced it in the media, I think, is Abhishek Sharma, the left-hander from Sunrisers.

"He's put so much work into his left-arm spin for Punjab in the off-season and performed really well - he doesn't even look like getting a bowl [in the IPL]. So that concerns me with what's happening with the future of those allrounders."

Abhishek bowled 30 overs in ten T20 games for Punjab during the 2022-23 Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, picking up ten wickets while going at an economy of 5.10. In an interview with ESPNcricinfo before that tournament, he had spoken about developing variations that would help him bowl with the new ball. As it turned out, he ended up bowling the first over in every game Punjab played, including their semi-final at Eden Gardens, where he dismissed both Himachal Pradesh openers.

Having done all that, Abhishek hasn't bowled a single over in his first five games of IPL 2023.

Sunrisers Hyderabad aren't obliged to do what's best for Abhishek's long-term growth, of course. They, like any other IPL team, are in it to win matches and tournaments, and it's a feel-good byproduct if they happen to develop young talent in the process. Every team would use a frontline bowler ahead of an improving part-timer if a new rule gave them that option.

On Saturday night, however, Sunrisers felt the need for Abhishek's bowling. They were defending 197 on a pitch where the slower ball was stopping on the batter and the spinners were getting a bit of grip, but where on-pace deliveries from the fast bowlers were sitting up to be hit.

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Abhishek came on when Delhi Capitals were 85 for 1 in eight overs; he was replacing Umran Malik, whose pace was proving to be just what the batters needed on this surface - Phil Salt and Mitchell Marsh had hammered him for 22 in his first over.

Malik wouldn't bowl another over in the match, with Abhishek sending down three overs while going at below nine an over. He took his time finding his length - he allowed the batters to attack him off the back foot and went for a four and a six off his third and fourth balls - but settled into a reasonable rhythm thereafter, and even managed to chip in with a wicket when he spun one past the advancing Manish Pandey to have him stumped.

It was a competent display, and a valuable one for a team needing to fill a hole that had opened up without warning, and it was a useful reminder that there can still be a place for a less-than-genuine allrounder in the Impact Player era.

But that place only exists if the allrounder is really pulling his weight with his primary skill. Abhishek had done far more than that on Saturday. Long before he did what he could with the ball to help Sunrisers close out a hard-fought win, he'd set the game up perfectly with an innings of unusual poise on this unusual surface.

"It was a bit low, slower balls were coming a bit low, and it was stopping a bit," was Abhishek's assessment of the conditions when he was interviewed by the broadcaster between innings. "Our plan was just to look for balls that we can hit. Just don't try anything fancy, just play according to the ball and react to the ball."

Watching his innings in isolation, it felt as if Abhishek batted in exactly the manner he described. He stood still at the crease, waited for errors in line or length, and put them away while making full use of the powerplay field restrictions.

Watching the game in its entirety, though, the fluency of Abhishek's ball-striking seemed extraordinary. At the halfway point of Sunrisers' innings, he was batting on 57 off 31 balls, and he'd hit ten fours and a six. By that time, the batters at the other end had scored 23 off 29 for four dismissals, and hit one four and one six.

You often hear of gifted batters having an extra split-second at their disposal. Here, because of the slowness of the surface, every batter had an extra split-second, but it was an unwelcome split-second for most of them, a split-second that disrupted the rhythm of their movements and bat flow.

Somehow Abhishek seemed to be able to hold his shape through that extra split-second and meet the ball on his terms, striking it only when it entered what AB de Villiers refers to as the "box". It allowed him to swing compactly through the line without reaching for the ball and losing his balance. And he did it ball after ball, whether flat-batting over extra-cover or swatting over mid-on, giving you the illusion of simplicity and effortlessness.

Abhishek Sharma had Manish Pandey stumped  BCCI

A few things went his way, of course. On this day, it seemed to help him that he was the only left-hander in Sunrisers' top order, and that the Capitals bowlers fed him width that his right-handed colleagues only rarely got. But batters can't choose the bowling they get to face; given a choice, anyone would pick bowling that allows them to free their arms.

Abhishek just happened to possess the eye and balance to take full toll even when the ball wasn't really coming onto his bat. It surely can't be as easy as he made it look.

Along the way, and over the rest of the night, Abhishek seemed to show Sunrisers that this was perhaps where he belonged.

This was his 42nd IPL game in his sixth season, and he's batted nearly everywhere in that time: it was his 19th innings as opener, but he's also batted 17 times at Nos. 5 and 6. You can see why teams have used Abhishek everywhere: in the IPL, he strikes at 134.63 against pace and 145.95 against spin, while averaging in the 20s against both styles. He's shown his ability wherever he's batted, but he's shown it in cameos rather than 70s and 80s, and those sorts of players take longer to establish themselves in a role.

Abhishek seemed to settle into the opening role last season and began IPL 2023 there, but he missed Sunrisers' second and third games with an injury. When he returned, he was down at No. 5 again, scoring 32 off 17 while Harry Brook, who had taken his place at the top, smacked an unbeaten century.

With Brook scoring 9, 18 and 7 in his next three innings, all in Sunrisers defeats, he swapped roles with Abhishek again. Here he was once more, then, up top, and his game just seems to belong there: the stillness, the timing, the ability to find gaps, the willingness to go over the infield.

It's anyone's guess whether this sense of belonging translates into a longer run in the role, but he's done what's within his power, and made a persuasive case for it. Along the way, he may even have convinced his team to give him a bowl every now and then.

Karthik Krishnaswamy is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

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