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Feature

Abhishek Sharma ready for reboot, with a little help from Lara, Dravid and Yuvraj

His numbers aren't great but they are on the rise, and the transition to the higher levels could well happen soon for the allrounder

Himanshu Agrawal
11-Oct-2022
Abhishek Sharma appears fidgety at first glance. As we speak, he constantly tosses a bottle from one hand to the other. His eyes wander, too. And he gestures with his hands a lot.
But as we talk, it's clear that there is great clarity of thought in the young man. He talks about his goals. One of them is to win titles for Punjab; Abhishek is one of the key players of the Punjab team, and was their captain in the last Ranji Trophy.
"Obviously, the ultimate goal is to play for India," Abhishek says. "But I am also setting short, small goals for myself - like winning the [T20 Syed] Mushtaq Ali Trophy."
Abhishek started out as a left-arm spinner, like his father Rajkumar Sharma, a former cricketer. But his son's multi-dimensional skills made Rajkumar work on Abhishek's batting too.
"Slowly, when he realised that I can bat as well - I must have been eight or nine - I started with batting," Abhishek says. "My dad was the one who recognised my talent." So we got Abhishek Sharma, the allrounder - a big-hitting lower-order batter who bowls accurate left-arm spin.
But being a lower-middle-order batter in domestic cricket can be thankless. You are not always on the selectors' radar, you rarely get enough balls to score big, and your failures tend to be amplified. But all those are things of the past now. Abhishek is now an opener for Punjab.
In his second first-class match for Punjab, he was batting alongside his idol, Yuvraj Singh. Before that, Abhishek had scored 94 on debut against Himachal Pradesh to earn plaudits from Yuvraj. Too tongue-tied then, Abhishek has struck an excellent rapport with Yuvraj since. These days, Yuvraj plays mentor to Abhishek and several Punjab players, even conducting camps and batting sessions in an unofficial capacity for them.
"Yuvi paaji knows me in and out," Abhishek says. "When I look at the way I have been developing myself, I realise that his tips have been really helping me. Everything he tells me - starting from my stance, about [playing] short balls, my intensity throughout, and my strength - have helped me a lot."
And, like Yuvraj, Abhishek is clear that he wants to have an impact with the ball too.
He has a good backspinning legcutter that leaves the left-hand batter, and he has been trying to expand his repertoire.
"I have been working on variations because I think if I want to play all three formats, I need to work really hard on my bowling," Abhishek says. "It was only last year that I started bowling with the new ball, and I felt really good. These were the factors I wanted to develop."
During this off-season - he was not a part of the India A side that faced New Zealand A and was also not selected for the Duleep Trophy or the Irani Cup - Abhishek experimented with a variation he learnt from a very successful offspinner.
"Two years back, Mohammad Nabi taught me a particular ball, which is almost like a swinging ball. I understood it, but wasn't able to bowl it as well as he does," Abhishek says. "So I have tried that, and I think I have been doing well. With the new ball, I am currently working on three or four variations, which I think will be very useful."
Batting and bowling aside, there's also the captaincy factor - not to forget, he is just 22.
Abhishek has led Punjab at age-group levels and also captained India Under-19 in the run-up to the 2018 World Cup. How different is it to lead the senior Punjab side?
"It isn't, because I had been playing with some players in the Punjab team right from our Under-16 days," he says. "But you also have seniors in a top-level side. That's where your challenge is: how do you handle them, and create that atmosphere? Captaincy made me a more mature batsman and leader."
And, like with so many youngsters these days, there are icons of the game all around, ready to help if asked. When he was part of the 2018 Under-19 World Cup-winning side, Rahul Dravid was the coach of the team. Last December, he had an opportunity to pick Brian Lara's brains after he was brought on as Sunrisers Hyderabad's strategic advisor and batting coach.
"Lara sir and I had a very good tuning too. We always talk about cricket, and when there is a match going on, we text each other to discuss how someone is batting"
Abhishek Sharma
"Rahul sir always told me to trust myself," Abhishek says. "He never asked me to change anything about my batting; he always wanted me to bat till the end. He is one of the most positive persons I have ever met."
What about Lara, who has now been appointed Sunrisers' head coach?
"He was calling every batsman for a one-on-one meet," Abhishek says. "He asked me, 'What was common between openers who have done well over the past two years?' I said, 'They are all good players who play good shots'.
"But he actually wanted me to play 30-35 balls every innings. Whenever I went out to bat, he told me, 'I'll see you in the [Strategic] Time Out'. So that stuck in my mind. When someone like Lara sir has faith in you, you get that confidence."
Abhishek had a good IPL 2022 with the bat. His 426 runs from 14 innings - at a strike rate of 133.12 - were the most for Sunrisers.
On a day-to-day basis, though, Abhishek doesn't get to speak to Yuvraj or Dravid or Lara, but a close circle of friends and seniors he trusts for inputs.
"One is Shubman [Gill, an Under-19 World Cup team-mate], another is our ex-player Sharad Lumba, and also Gurkeerat Mann," he says. "Lara sir and I had a very good tuning too. We always talk about cricket, and when there is a match going on, we text each other to discuss how someone is batting."
Abhishek is now into his fifth season as a domestic cricketer, having started out as a 16-year-old. He is at a stage where he is ready to make the big leap. His close mates from those Under-19 days - Prithvi Shaw, Gill and Arshdeep Singh - have all gone on to represent the senior team. Abhishek, however, has found the transition tougher.
After 13 first-class matches, Abhishek averages only 29, with a highest of 98. His List A numbers are slowly on the rise, even if not up there: an average of almost 31 after 30 innings. And while he looks forward to pushing them up this season, there is a much bigger goal on his mind already.
"Holding the World Cup for my country - for sure!"
There is some way to go for that, but holding aloft a major domestic trophy isn't impossible. And it could be the start of many good things.
October 11, 1300GMT - The feature erroneously mentioned Abhishek Sharma as Punjab captain for the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy. The error is regretted.

Himanshu Agrawal is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo