Abhishek Sharma led India Red to Challenger Trophy title this season. © Raj Kumar Sharma

Abhishek Sharma led India Red to Challenger Trophy title this season. © Raj Kumar Sharma

Abhishek Sharma has a streak of the mischievous about him, like any regular 16-year-old kid. Son of Raj Kumar Sharma, a former age-group cricketer for Punjab and now employed with Bank of India in Amritsar on the sports quota, he speaks mostly in monosyllables. He loves watching Quinton de Kock bat, and playing snooker and football. He has a weakness for pizzas but sticks to sandwiches, as that’s a healthier option.

Abhishek, captain of India Under-19 at the Youth Asia Cup that starts in Colombo on Thursday (December 15), will become more media savvy and his tastes and preferences will change with time. But for now, all that matters to him is continuing to make an impact on the cricket field, like he has done all through his short career.

He first burst into public consciousness last season when he led Punjab from the front in their successful defence of the Under-16 Vijay Merchant Trophy. He had also played crucial roles in Punjab finishing runners-up in 2013-14, and lifting the title in 2014-15.

While 1200 runs at 109.09 and 57 wickets with his left-arm spin at 10.56 are statistically overwhelming at any level of cricket, Abhishek rates two performances highly, displays that established his stature at the junior level. In the opening game against Himachal Pradesh in Bilaspur, he made 102 from No. 4, and then returned figures of 15 for 19, including 9 for 7 in the first innings, to set up an innings win. Then in the quarterfinal against Gujarat in Alur on the outskirts of Bangalore, he gave a glimpse of his temperament.

Chasing 412 after conceding the lead, Punjab were 34 for 2 at stumps on the third day when Abhishek called up his father for inspiration. Raj Kumar stressed that the real fun was when performances take the team to victory from difficult positions. The following morning, after his team was reduced to 40 for 3, Abhishek made 174 and shared a 352-run stand with Shubham Gill in Punjab’s five-wicket win.

Abhishek’s graduation to Under-19 is organic, but that he will be one of the youngest India Colts captains is because of a policy decision taken by the Board of Control for Cricket in India in June this year, restricting players to just one Youth World Cup appearance.

Abhishek himself has only enhanced his reputation further. Aided by a basic but crucial piece of advice from WV Raman, the head coach at the National Cricket Academy who told him to first concentrate on watching the ball before playing his natural game, he marked his Punjab Under-19 debut with a century in the Vinoo Mankad Trophy, then led India Red to the Challenger Trophy title in Bilaspur in front of the junior national selectors.

The positive feedback about Abhishek being a fast learner, motivated Raj Kumar to be fully dedicated in making his son a cricketer. © Raj Kumar Sharma

The positive feedback about Abhishek being a fast learner, motivated Raj Kumar to be fully dedicated in making his son a cricketer. © Raj Kumar Sharma

To understand the rapid rise of Abhishek, it is important to get a sense of Raj Kumar’s pain. A left-arm spinner, he was a contemporary of Maninder Singh. He rose through the ranks to represent North Zone Under-22 in the 1985-86 Vijay Hazare Trophy final, but never made the cut at the next level.

Frustrated, Raj Kumar left for the United Arab Emirates to explore the possibility of representing them in international cricket. On being told that he was not eligible, he returned to Amritsar and represented his bank till 1996 before becoming a full-time coach for Amritsar Game Association at the Gandhi Sports Complex Ground, an international venue till 1995.

“I think I deserved a chance in the Ranji Trophy,” Raj Kumar, a former Punjab junior selector, tells Wisden India. “I took a lot of wickets at age-group level and was once called for a national Under-19 camp. Those days, youngsters never used to get chance.”

Abhishek, the youngest of three siblings, was born on September 4, 2000 and was gifted a plastic bat when he was three years old. He started accompanying Raj Kumar to the ground from then on.

Raj Kumar taught Abhishek the tricks of his trade, showing him how to hold the ball and deliver religiously every evening on matting pitches against Under-13 batsmen. At the ground, Raj Kumar got positive feedback from others about Abhishek being a fast learner. That motivated him to be fully dedicated in making his son a professional cricketer.

“He flighted the ball, and he had a natural grip for a left-arm spinner,” Raj Kumar remembers. “Once in an Under-12 tournament in Amritsar, when he was eight or nine years old, the coach made him bowl and he took three wickets. Everyone was shocked to see a young boy bowl with good pace from 22 yards. That was the start.”

Abhishek was taught the virtues of discipline and hunger through bedtime stories of Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman. © Raj Kumar Sharma

Abhishek was taught the virtues of discipline and hunger through bedtime stories of Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman. © Raj Kumar Sharma

Soon, Raj Kumar was informed that Abhishek batted comfortably against the bigger boys in the nets. So he once again threw his son into the deep end.

“One day at the Under-14 nets, I asked him to bat and he was so stylish, playing with a straight bat,” the father adds. “He is God’s blessing to our family. From that day, I started training him to be an allrounder.”

As is the story with any child prodigy, Abhishek’s performances at every level left onlookers stunned and opened bigger doors. Abhishek himself got a big boost during an Under-14 tournament in Srinagar where Bishan Singh Bedi, then the coach of the senior Jammu & Kashmir team, spoke highly about his loop, turn and smooth action. “Abhishek also scored a century in that game, and Bishan paaji told then that he could be a good allrounder,” goes on Raj Kumar.

Even as things progressed gradually on the field under the watchful eyes of Raj Kumar the coach, Raj Kumar the father, did his bit at home too.

Abhishek was encouraged to study and maintained a score of 80% in Class X at the Delhi Public School. He was also taught the virtues of discipline and hunger through bedtime stories of Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman, among other cricketing legends. Also every time the family wanted to gift Abhishek anything, all he wanted was a bat. So, over the years Raj Kumar got “20 to 25 English willow” bats from either Jalandhar or Meerut before Bhajji Sports endorsed Abhishek.

“While the entire family has been supportive, credit also goes to all the coaches at the Punjab Cricket Association and MP Pandove, who always takes care of the interests of junior cricketers,” Raj Kumar says. “I always tell him that the game will respect back those who respect the game.”

The PCA have been so protective of its Under-21 cricketers since 2012 that they denied Abhishek a chance to be a part of the training squad of Delhi Daredevils, lest the fickleness of the Twenty20 format should influence him negatively so early in his career.

Thanks to Raj Kumar’s position within the PCA system, a young Abhishek has many photographs with the likes of Tendulkar, Yuvraj Singh, Harbhajan Singh, Karsan Ghavri, Yashpal Sharma, Suresh Raina, VRV Singh and Saurabh Tiwary, to name a few.

Bachpan mein ek shauk thaa (It was a desire during my childhood),” says Abhishek of the snaps. Colombo could be his first step to graduating to the other side of the fence.

India squad: Abhishek Sharma (capt), Prithvi Shaw, Shubhman Gill, Priyam Garg, Ayush Jamwal, Rahul Chahar, Kamlesh Singh Nagarkoti, Shiva Singh, Himanshu Rana, Salman Khan, Yash Thakur, Harvik Desai, Het Patel (wk), Vivekananda Tiwary, Heramb Parab.