One of the chief reasons behind Punjab winning its first-ever Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy in the ongoing 2023-24 domestic cricket season was the fantastic performance from all-rounder Abhishek Sharma.
The left-handed bowler, who also sends down some overs of handy left-arm spin bowling, was named the Player of the tournament for making 485 runs in ten innings in the competition, including a 45-ball 77 in a thumping semi-final win over Delhi to successfully chase down 184.
Sharma, a member of 2018 Men’s U19 World Cup winning side, hit two centuries and three fifties at an average of 48.50 and strike-rate of 192.46, while also slamming 35 fours and 39 sixes and taking two wickets with his bowling.
In an exclusive interaction with IANS, Sharma speaks about Punjab’s triumph, the targets he set out to achieve in the competition, the influence of Yuvraj Singh, the learnings he picked from Brian Lara while at the IPL for Sunrisers Hyderabad, and more. Excerpts:
Q. How has been the feeling for you of playing a pivotal role in Punjab winning its first-ever Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy title at its home ground, Mohali?
A. It's a great feeling to contribute to your team, especially when the team really wanted it. It's been quite a few years now since I’ve represented the Punjab team and I always wanted to contribute my best and win the matches for Punjab. Luckily it happened this year. So I think hard work paid off and I'm very happy about that.
Q. What were your targets before the competition began and now after being named Player of the Tournament in the competition, how do you look back on your performances from this victorious campaign?
A. I think it was in my mind that I wanted to be the top scorer or probably the best performer for my team as well. Because I knew that's how I'm going to win the matches for my team and that’s what happened. I always wished to be the main man for my team. My target was very simple- I wanted to win every game for my team, in every situation.
So that's how I worked, that's how I practiced before the tournament. That was the plan with Yuvi Paji (Yuvraj Singh) as well. He gave me some targets and I really wanted to achieve them, and I successfully achieved them all in the end, so I am very glad.
Q. Has there been any communication from the senior men’s selection committee during your good run in the tournament?
A. With the selectors, I’ve always had this chat about my bowling and they wanted me to bowl in all formats, which I did this time, so I was pretty much happy with it. But in the end, it's not in my hands (national team selection), whether I am bowling or batting. I just wanted to do my best in both stations. I always wanted to contribute as much in bowling as well and it happened this year, so it's good since I've been working hard on my bowling.
Q. As of now, the Indian team has a lot of opening options, which means that not all can be fitted in those two positions. How has been your work towards being a flexible batter, as well as being a useful spin bowler, for whatever team you represent at any level?
A. The ultimate goal is to represent the national team, and whenever I get the chance, I certainly won't have any batting number in mind. I will always want to win matches for my country, so it doesn't matter. But if I get to bat at the top order or probably open for the team, I would, maybe perform better. Yet, I won't say that I can't bat at any number. I can and I did it because I've been working hard at that position. So let's see, let's hope for the best.
Q. Could you provide an insight into the work you are putting in your bowling skills?
A. As far as bowling is concerned, I’m working a lot on my consistency, which is very important in all the formats. My dad has been a left-arm spinner, so I’m working really hard with him on bowling.
I feel that, especially in T20s and white-ball cricket, I have few varieties which can help me more with the new ball, so I’m working on that as well. I’m also researching more on my varieties and most importantly focusing on my consistency, because I know I have to bowl well and I love bowling.
Q. You started off as a middle-order batter & are now making big runs as an opener. Can you explain how that transition was initiated & the process which is now giving you great results as an opener?
A. So, I started as a top-order batsman only, but somehow I ended up in the middle/ lower order, because in the Punjab team when you have players like Shubman (Gill), Prabhsimran (Singh), and senior players like Mandeep Singh, you can't be like asking for your preferred batting order or batting number.
I was very keen on the fact that I wanted to contribute to the team in any situation and position. But somewhere in the back of my mind I always wanted to open for my team, because I knew that I could win matches from there.
At number six, I feel it's a very difficult position for anyone. But somehow I was playing my best there as well, so I was trying my best there. You can't just bat at number six and seven without practicing, so I was practicing hard for that as well. Somewhere I knew that if I got a chance at the top order or the opening position, I was going to score better and win the matches.
Q. It’s pretty well-known that Yuvraj Singh has been a mentor and a big brother figure for you, Shubman Gill, Prabhsimran Singh & Anmolpreet Singh in the last few years. Can you explain about how it has been having a legendary figure like Yuvraj helping you in elevating your game, especially with both of you literally having the same skill sets?
A. It's been really great because I've always idolized him, since I started playing this game and when I first shared my dressing room with him, it was one of my best moments and slowly we became very close.
Then he had organized a camp in the lockdown for the four of us, which I think, literally changed our game. For me especially, I really wanted something like that because I wanted to upgrade my game, but didn't know how to do that. But somehow he knew, and told me everything about it.
He was there for everything, for all of us, not just me. He used to be there for almost 3-4 hours everyday, standing there with us, helping us practice, making us do strength sessions, running sessions, fielding, bowling. I think that was the turning point for all of us.
Q. Can you give an example of how a training day under Yuvraj’s tutelage would look like and how that has changed your outlook towards practice, preparation, fitness & mindset in terms of playing the game?
A. If you look at the progress for all four of us, it's been going great till now and I'm sure it's only gonna go upwards. The things he told us were from his experiences. It wasn't just about his cricket, but off-cricket as well, which I would say was really important for us, because that's where we're gonna learn more commitment towards the game, our lifestyle and how we're gonna manage everything. So these were the things he made us better at, which has affected our life in a positive way and I think all of us needed that.
Q. In the last two seasons of the IPL, you had the opportunity to pick the brains of Brian Lara at Sunrisers Hyderabad. What have been the standout points from your interactions with him, which have stayed with you till now?
A. With Brian Lara, I was very grateful that I got a batting coach and batting mentor like him after Yuvraj Singh, because I think, somewhere they both are very similar in their tactics and techniques, they both had a similar way of teaching me.
So I was very lucky that someone was there for me in the IPL as well, not just to teach me but for everything, like even if I have any doubt or something. The main thing, I think, was the way he remembers the numbers.
It’s all about the tactical energies or probably his tactics like how to focus on your batting, how you gonna score, which bowler you wanna target, on which wicket you should play more shots in the power play, or play a bit slow or take more time, I think that was there with him and the same with Yuvi Paji as well. So I think they both were very similar and that's why I felt very much at home with him.
Q. Apart from on-field stuff, who are the people who keep you grounded and focused when you are off the field and how crucial has been the support from them in your growth as a person?
A. My family is always there for me and my Dad is my first coach. But even he knows that I have Yuvi Paji, Brian, and other senior players like Manpaji (Gurkeerat Mann). Whenever I feel anything I just talk to all of them, especially Yuvi Paji.
I talk a lot with him and luckily he’s experienced enough that he can share my problems and give me a solution. So I think, that is the time actually when I wanted everything to be really happening and in a good manner.