Sandeep Sharma emerged as a vital cog in Punjab’s superb run this season but the medium pacer knows the critical phase has just started. As Punjab prepare for the Ranji semifinal clash with Karnataka- to be held later this week, Sandeep will once again hold the key to Punjab’s ticket to the finals. Sandeep has been Punjab’s leading wicket taker with 35 dismissals this season but it will be his record at the PCA Stadium, the venue for the semi-final, that will please the home side.
17 wickets, that too at a good strike, will certainly instill fear in the visiting Karnataka team, their opponent in the last four. His ability to swing the ball will keep him in good stead in the seamer-friendly conditions at the PCA Stadium.
Speaking with Sportline, Sandeep, 20, who played for India A, India U-23 and Kings XI Punjab in 2013 apart from the Punjab Ranji side, felt that Punjab has great chance to beat Karnataka at home. He said, “People have been saying that Karnataka beat us in the league stage in our away game at Hubli, so they will have an upper hand over us. However, I would like to say that the Hubly wicket on which he lost was wet since the very first day. We lost the toss and were put into to bat first on a wet wicket that led to our collapse on the first day. But as the days passed, the wicket eased out and we came back strongly to score in the second innings.”
Sandeep feels Punjab start favourites due to the home advantage: “The mood and confidence in the Punjab camp is very high. It was not easy beating Delhi, Jharkhand and then J & K in the previous games. Everyone chipped in for the team. We will give a tough fight to Karnataka in the crucial semi-final match. We are hungry to claim the title and the presence of Harbhajan paaji and Yuvraj paaji has further boosted out confidence.”
Punjab’s performance at the league stage has not been satisfactory. But once they beat Delhi, their spirits soared and suddenly Punjab, looking like a well-oiled unit, thrashed Jharkhand for an outright victory in the last league match. Openers Jiwanjot Singh and Manan Vohra have played a pivotal role in helping the team get off to good starts while Sandeep has emerged as the star in the bowling department.
Also, former India quickie VRV Singh has peaked at the right moment which augurs well for the Punjab team. Singh and Sandeep are seen as Punjab’s lethal weapon against the formidable Karnataka team in the semi-final. VRV’s showed his bowling prowess with deadly spells against Haryana and J & K and showed he still has a lot of bowling left in him despite coming back from a long layoff due to prolonged back and knee injuries. Sandeep has a brilliant average of 22.35 in the first-class games, picking up 82 wickets in mere 19 matches.
Talking about the changes he has made to his own bowling since he made his Ranji debut against Uttar Pradesh three years ago, Sandeep said, “I worked on building my strength and pace in the last three years. I bowled consistently between 130-135 km per hour this season and I have been able to swing the ball both the ways, that too at a good speed. Moreover, I have been hiding the ball from the batsman while bowling with the older ball. I have been getting the reverse-swing with much desired effect. The batsmen get confused and give away their wickets.
“The Mohali wickets should favour the seamers in such cold conditions and such conditions assist me a lot as I am a swing bowler. But you never know, what sort of wicket is being prepared because in the recently held Col. CK Nayudu Trophy match here between Punjab and Maharashtra, a plenty of runs were scored by both the teams. It was purely a batting wicket. So a lot will depend on the way the wicket in prepared.”
Punjab won the Ranji Trophy back in 1993 and reached the finals on three occasions after that — in ’95, 2005 and last year. When asked how Sandeep sees his future in terms of breaking into the Indian team, the humble Punjab pacer said, “Since I played for India U-19 in the Youth World Cup in New Zealand a few years ago, I have evolved as a cricketer. Not only have I worked on my bowling but also on my batting in the nets in order to become a useful batsman.
“I have added more pace, strength to my bowling and I don’t shy from experimenting also. I would admit my confidence is sky high after playing in the Ranji Trophy, two Youth World Cups, India A and India U-23 teams. If I deliver the goods for the teams, I will surely play for India in the future. I am sure selectors will keep notice of that. Right now, my focus is on Ranji Trophy and helping Punjab win the title would be like a dream come true. It is like now or never for Punjab.”