For a country renowned for fast-tracking youth players into the national team, India have been surprisingly reticent in handing opportunities to the World Cup winning U-19 team of 2012.
After the side won their youth title, the likes of skipper Unmukt Chand, Harmeet Singh, Smit Patel and Kamal Passi were sounded to take an already talent-rich side to the next decade. After all, the success of India’s earlier World Cup winning team of 2008 gave birth to superstars such as Virat Kohli and Ravindra Jadeja.
However, none of the players ended up following in the footsteps of Yuvraj Singh [another former winner] or Kohli. Sandeep Sharma, another acclaimed rank holder from the class of 2012. What sets the Punjab lad apart from his fresh-faced former teammates who were expected to take the cricketing world by storm is that he did get a India call-up after all, an insignificant, forgettable two-match fling against Zimbabwe in 2015. There was no signs of dissent when he was not given another audition; the 22-year-old’s name was brushed under the carpet.
Leader of a pack
Spearheading an attack came naturally for the Sandeep Sharma. It was his four wickets that set the tone for India’s win against Australia in the U-19 final in 2012.
Away from the constant scrutiny of everyday pressures of being an India pacer, and the constant demands of bowlers who can touch the 90mph on the speedometer, genuine swing bowlers have fallen out of favour in recent times.
It could perhaps be the reason why Bhuvneshwar Kumar will fail to make the cut [unless we are playing in England or New Zealand] if all bowlers are fit, despite possessing the ability to generate prodigal swing and showing solid technique with the bat. Kumar’s recent second-coming has coincided with him adding a touch of pace. The need for speed has also had an effect on the once harmless medium-pacers of Hardik Pandya, whose bowling has improved by leaps and bounds over the past year.
Sharma’s Indian Premier League career arc is not that dissimilar to Kumar’s: Operating at a moderate pace, they back their ability to swing the ball to outsmart batsmen.
Importantly, they operate on confidence and work best with an arm around their shoulder. Sunrisers Hyderabad are now reaping the rewards for elevating Kumar to bowling spearhead status. Sharma, Kings XI Punjab’s de facto new-ball specialist, is also thriving on shouldering responsibility at the start of the innings, albeit with lesser control and consistency compared to Kumar.
The manner in which the 24-year-old ran through the Delhi Daredevils top order on Sunday was a testament to the Punjab team management. They were quick to notice Sharma’s sharp dip in form from the initial games, and rested him for a game, “I was not disappointed in missing out against Sunrisers Hyderabad. Viru Paaji [Coach Virender Sehwag] had told me to take rest against SRH and go for the kill against DD. I am happy to have done well for my team,” he said, after winning the Man-of-the-Match at Mohali.
Need for swing
After setting up his side’s first two wins with fine displays in the powerplay overs, Sharma’s form nosedived alarmingly in recent games. In his last three games before the Delhi encounter, Sharma’s figures read: 11 overs, 114 runs and 3 wickets which came at a miserable economy rate of 10.36.
So, what changed on Sunday, apart from a pat on the back from Sehwag and Co.? Could it be Sharma realising how he had setup wickets in the earlier games? Sam Billings, Sanju Samson and Shreyas Iyer were caught at the crease.
The bowler too, deserves credit for pushing the batsmen onto the backfoot with movement off good length. He once again attributed his success to the former India opener, “Viru paaji told me to go into the match with a positive frame of mind and aim for swing. He knew swinging the ball both ways is my strength. His inputs helped me yield results. I enjoyed bowling in such conditions.”
The malaise that surrounds Sharma’s erratic displays may have stemmed from his own teammates failing to find form. It is surprising that that despite armed with bowlers with solid international experience under their belt – Ishant Sharma, Varun Aaron and Mohit Sharma – Punjab bowlers, for the better part of the tournament, have been picked apart.
Strangely, whenever Sandeep Sharma has delivered for his side, the bowling unit too, rallied around him, underlining the Patiala-born lad’s importance in conducting the bowling orchestra.
With the tournament entering the business end of the table, it is Sharma’s powerplay exploits will shape Punjab’s season. As for the bowler, there is no better example to emulate than Kumar’s evolution during this calendar year, firmly laying down the marker as the best in the country among the ‘swing bowler’ bracket.
Punjab’s hit-and-miss performances this season have ranged on the extreme, and there is little that suggest that they might sneak their way into the qualifiers. Especially, with Rising Pune Supergiant slowly finding their feet. The same can be said about Sharma’s form too. Maxwell, though, can now go into his side’s next game knowing how to get his best bowler at his devastating best for the forthcoming games.
Don’t underestimate Sharma’s tenacity to go on consistent run, though. He used a debilitating stress fracture in 2014 to fuel a fine Ranji Trophy season for Punjab in 2015. The jury is still out on his composure and show a bit more of a personality.