Belligerent Abhishek arrives with a bang

Jul 8, 2024

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Abhishek Sharma. (Source – Zimbabwe Cricket)

The afterglow of India’s T20 World Cup triumph dimmed when a spirited Zimbabwe drubbed them in a low-scoring meet in Harare on Saturday. On Sunday, India riposted callously despite the tight turnaround and proved that the preceding day’s blip was merely an aberration.

Abhishek recorded a four-ball duck as he top-edged a Brian Bennett half-tracker to deep backward square while trying to open his account with a six on Saturday. On Sunday, he deposited the same bowler in the same region to become the third Indian to get off the mark in T20Is with a maximum. The events show how fickle sport – and life – can be.

Abhishek’s belligerent 46-ball century – the joint-third-fastest for India in T20Is – ensured that Sikandar Raza and Co.’s elation was ephemeral as India romped home with a 100-run win to level the series.

There was a sense of familiarity with the onslaught. After all, it was this belligerence with which he lit the 2024 IPL up, tallying 484 runs in merely 132 balls, striking at 204 and belting a chart-topping 42 sixes. He was half of the season’s most destructive opening pair (alongside Travis Head) and redefined T20 batting as Sunrisers Hyderabad shredded record books to pieces. Before that, he was pivotal in Punjab’s titular triumph in the 2023-24 Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, where his 485 runs came at a strike rate of 192.46, the best with a cut-off of 120 balls faced in the tournament. 

What Abhishek brings to the table is enough to entice anyone: he is a fearless left-handed striker with a propensity to be aggressive from the get-go; he can float seamlessly in the batting order and doubles up as an accurate left-arm spinner with some unique variations. He is the kind that makes T20 MVPs.

That said, accomplishing what he did during the domestic grind or the IPL at the international pedestal is a different story. But if he looked nerveless while replicating that at this stage, it was, as per him, due to the IPL.

“I think IPL plays a big role in this because as a youngster, as a debutant, we didn’t feel much pressure when we came to represent the country,” Abhishek said. “It’s always a great motivation once you are playing for the country. Unfortunately, it didn’t go well in yesterday’s game, but my mindset and intent [were] the same.”

He wreaked havoc in Harare, but the construction of this knock differed from any of his efforts with the Sunrisers in 2024, primarily because the surfaces at IPL were a batting paradise while the one in Harare was anything but. On the tracks overwhelmingly titled in the batter’s favour like those in India during March to May this year, the life of intent monsters like Abhishek becomes easy. But when the bowlers extract bounce and seam movement off the surface, biding time is not a choice but a requirement. Abhishek did that to display a different gear in his batting. 

The start was not fluent, but he kept rotating the strike and didn’t let the scoreboard stagnate despite Shubman Gill’s early dismissal and No.3 Gaikwad struggling for timing. He was 27 off 23 when he got the first of his two reprieves as Wellington Masakadza dropped a skier off Luke Jongwe near mid-off. He would be later dropped by Tendai Chatara off Sikandar Raza on 77 off 40.

Abhishek made Masakadza and Zimbabwe regret the blunder on just the first ball of the next over as he pulled Raza for four and then danced down the track to deposit him over wide long-off for a maximum. He went into overdrive soon, ransacking 72 off his next 23 balls. He clinically dismantled Dion Myers’ medium-pace with a volley of 4, 6, 4, 6, 4 in 28-run over and piled more misery on Masakadza, whacking three consecutive sixes off him in the 14th over, the last one of which – a wayward, low full-toss on leg which he flicked over fine leg – brought up his century off 46 balls. 

It was an exhibition of aggressive yet assured batting. Assuredness is Abhishek’s thing: his batting blueprint has no vacancy for half-measures and fear of failure. He watches the ball like a hawk, has a sturdy base, an impeccable bat swing, and sufficient power to clear any boundary with ease. The power element in his batting does not mean his willow work is all brute force; he has the gift of both timing and balance and of course, the mythical elegance of a left-hander.

And there is every reason for him to possess these traits, having been honed and tutored by two of cricket’s finest southpaws: Brian Lara, whom he worked under at SRH, and Yuvraj Singh, his unofficial mentor since the early days in Punjab.

Also read: ‘Proud’ mentor Yuvraj Singh wants many more tons for Abhishek Sharma

Unsurprisingly, Yuvraj was one of the two video calls he made following his century. The other, of course, was his family.

“I called Yuvi Paji yesterday [after the first match]. I don’t know why but he was very happy that I was dismissed for zero. He was like ‘That’s a good start’. I think he must be proud today as well, just like my family. So, I am really happy, and it is all because of him as well, the hard work that he has put on me. For 2-3 years, he has been working really hard on me. Not just cricket[-wise], even off the field as well. So, it’s a big moment,” Abhishek said.

“I spoke to him yesterday as well. I don’t know why but he was very happy when I got out for 0. He was like, ‘That’s a good start’, but I think he must be feeling very proud, just like my family. It’s all because of him. The hard work he has put in me for years. He has been working really hard on everything; I wouldn’t say it’s just on cricket. Off the field as well.”

Abhishek credited his father Rajkumar Sharma for developing his habit of taking the aerial route. “Special thanks to my dad who always encouraged me to play lofted shots even when I was a kid. Usually, coaches don’t allow you to play lofted shots much. My dad used to tell me that if you want to play a lofted shot, it should go out of the ground. For me, it’s always been there from my childhood that if I’m confident, I like to express myself.”

The successive lofted shots against Masakadza took him from 82 to 100, making him the first Indian to reach the triple-digit mark in international cricket with three consecutive sixes. He celebrated with his arm stretched wide, fists clenched, and a guttural roar. Abhishek Sharma had arrived with a bang.

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