“When a defining moment comes along, you either define the moment or the moment will define you.”
Chetan Sharma, the indefatigable medium pacer who plied his trade as Kapil Dev’s lieutenant during the 1980s, will find resonance to this line immortalised on celluloid by Kevin Costner in the sports drama Tin Cup. Looking back at his decade-long international career that comprised 23 Tests and 65 ODIs, Sharma had not one, but two such defining moments.
The first came in April 1986, during the final of the Austral-Asia Cup against Pakistan in Sharjah. In a pulsating, see-saw battle, India held the edge for most of the game. However, they had no answer to Javed Miandad, who navigated an arduous chase, bringing the equation down to four runs from the final delivery. Captain Kapil trusted Sharma to deliver. He ran in to bowl a yorker. Instead, it turned out to be a knee-high full toss that was hoicked by Miandad over the mid-wicket fence for a six. Pakistan won under the most thrilling circumstances, but the thud of that shot left a deep wound in the minds of Indian fans.
India-Pakistan matches in the 1980s were tense, high-octane affairs. This was where reputations were enhanced and confidence destroyed. Sharma was painted as the ‘Match ka Mujrim’. He was arguably India’s best bowler in that match and did well to claim three wickets, up until that final ball.
The events could have dealt a mortal blow to the psyche of most cricketers, but Sharma hardly displayed any long-lasting after-effects. If anything, he went from strength to strength to become India’s go-to bowler across formats. He played a crucial role during India’s triumphant tour of England a few months later, claiming 16 scalps, including a 10-wicket haul at Edgbaston.
“You know how India-Pakistan matches are, but I did not lose sleep over that one delivery. Thankfully, I had seniors who supported me. Personally, I was at my peak and some of my best performances came after that match,” Sharma told The Indian Express.
Nevertheless, India’s cricket-loving public hadn’t forgiven Sharma. It seemed Sharjah 1986 would leave an indelible mark and sully his career.
Luckily, Sharma got a second chance. This would be his second defining moment, and came 18 months after his first, in a 1987 World Cup match in Nagpur. India had to defeat New Zealand by a substantial margin to qualify for the semifinals as group toppers and avoid a trip to Pakistan for the last-four clash. Sharma proved to be India’s hero, prising out Ken Rutherford, Ian Smith and Ewen Chatfield off successive deliveries to claim a hat-trick — the first by an Indian in international cricket — thus paving the way for an emphatic win. For all his exploits in Nagpur, it was scarcely believable to note that Sharma was not a certainty for the World Cup.
Two weeks before the 1987 Reliance World Cup, Sharma injured his finger while playing a friendly match against Pakistan in Delhi. Scans confirmed his biggest fears —he would have to miss the entire World Cup. It was a bitter pill to swallow. “I can’t tell you how devastated I was that day. Playing in a World Cup meant everything for me, more so because it was being staged in India. Over the previous 12 months, I had worked hard and was really looking forward to this event when this injury happened,” Sharma recalled.
The selectors began scouting for Sharma’s replacement. But skipper Kapil Dev was adamant. He wanted his trusted lieutenant in the squad. “I don’t care about his injury. Chetan is a match-winner and I want him in my team,” Dev had told one of the selectors. The Indian captain had his way and Sharma was included despite the injury. “I will forever be indebted to Kapil paaji. Without his backing, I would not have played that World Cup,” he said.
Sharma sat out of the first two matches and hardly bowled at the nets. When Dev summoned his services for the crucial encounter against Australia in Delhi, the pacer looked out of sorts. “I took painkillers before playing that match. Obviously, there was considerable pressure on me since it was my first World Cup match. But more than anything else, I wanted to vindicate the faith of my captain who had supported me,” Sharma explained.
He went wicketless on his World Cup debut, and four days later, finished with 2/41 against Zimbabwe in Ahmedabad. Next up, India were pitted against New Zealand in a must-win encounter. Sharma, though, was waging a battle of his own. “For some reason, I had never managed to get Martin Crowe out, be in Tests or ODIs. I have bowled to several world-class batsmen like Allan Border and Viv Richards and have also dismissed them. But Crowe always found ways to score against me.”
In Nagpur, Crowe slammed Sharma for a brace of boundaries, prompting Dev to give his bowler a break. “I was really tense coming into that match and in the very first spell, I was up against Crowe. He drove me for a couple of boundaries and Kapil paaji removed me from the attack,” the former pacer remembered.
Moments later, Crowe was caught behind off Mohammad Azharuddin’s bowling for 21. Opener John Wright and captain Jeff Crowe were dismissed, before a 59-run fifth-wicket stand between Dipak Patel and Martin Snedden threatened to take the game away from the hosts. When Ravi Shastri accounted for Patel, Dev sensed an opening. He brought back Sharma into the attack. “Get me wickets,” was his demand.
Sharma knew that he could not afford another awry spell. Everything, from the conditions and his bowling form, was stacked against him. This was another defining moment in his career. Unlike Sharjah 1986, he wanted to make this moment his own.
As Sharma hustled in, the stars aligned, helping him execute those three magical deliveries. First up, he removed Rutherford with a booming inswinger that rattled the middle stump. He followed it up with a similar delivery to Smith that dismantled the off stump. He was still not aware that a hat-trick was around the corner. Amidst the high-fives and hugs, Dev came up to him and said: “Look at this guy (pointing to next batsman Chatfield), he is completely shaken. He is wearing a helmet with a visor on while coming to bat on this flat wicket.”
This emboldened Sharma even more. Another inswinger followed, and it sent Chatfield’s leg stump for a walk. The VCA Stadium erupted in joy. The 21-year-old Ludhiana native had etched his name in the record books. “This hat-trick was unique because all the three wickets were bowled — first middle stump, second off stump and third leg stump. Such a thing has never happened before or after,” Sharma claimed.
— Mumbai Indians (@mipaltan) October 31, 2015
Later that evening, as he was boarding the flight to Bombay, the venue for the semifinal, the entire Air India crew clapped and cheered for him. The next morning, when he saw his photographs splashed across the front pages of national dailies, the enormity of the achievement sunk in.
For die-hard Indian cricket fans, Sharma’s hat-trick was not the only takeaway from the win over New Zealand. India’s chase was built upon by Sunil Gavaskar, who tore into the Kiwi attack, smashing 10 fours and three sixes in his unbeaten 88-ball 103 — his lone ODI century that incidentally came in his penultimate international outing. Never before had world cricket seen such manic aggression from the legendary Indian opener, who typified solidity and risk-free batting. In ODIs, it was his opening partner Krishnamachari Srikkanth, who generally played the role of the aggressor. That afternoon, however, it was a role reversal.
Sharma gave a key detail about what transpired in the dressing room during the innings break. “We had to get 222 in around 44 overs to top the group. Today, this doesn’t seem a daunting ask. But back then, anything over five runs per over could put pressure on the chasing side. Usually, it’s Srikkanth who preferred to take charge, but that day, I remember Sunny bhai said he wanted to go after the bowling. It was the most sensational display of hitting that I had ever seen. Because of that, we managed to knock off the target in 32 overs… I had never seen him so charged up,” he remembered.
What Sharma cherished more than the hat-trick was the chance to share the Player-of-the-match award with Gavaskar. He also attributed his development as a batsman to the legend’s constant encouragement. “As a senior, he always told me to improve my batting. Whenever I got out playing a rash shot, he would chide me. Had it not been for him, I would not have scored a century against England in an ODI,” he said.
During the semifinal, moments before India went down to England by 35 runs, Gavaskar told Sharma and Maninder Singh that this would be his last international match. “He told Maninder and me, ‘bachchon, yeh mera akhri match hain (Boys, this is my last match).’ At first, we thought he was joking with us.” The next day Gavaskar announced his retirement.
Sharma continued for a few more years but could not match the heady highs of Nagpur. He looks back at those two manic afternoons— Sharjah 1986 and Nagpur 1987 – with a tinge of nostalgia. “For all the wickets taken and runs scored, people still remember me for those two matches. As far as Sharjah 1986 was concerned, it was one bad delivery, because if you look at the rest of my spell, I was the best Indian bowler, which was why my captain had the confidence to let me bowl that final over. With regard to Nagpur 1987, getting a hat-trick was something I had never dreamt of in my life. But I didn’t see that match as my redemption,” he concluded.
It’s true that these two matches were Sharma’s defining moments. But he was more than that. A wholehearted cricketer, who in his pomp was arguably India’s second-best bowler, behind only Kapil Dev.
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