Though Unmukt Chand walked away with the kudos by cracking a fine hundred in the ICC Under-19 World Cup final against Australia, Sandeep Sharma's contribution to India's thumping triumphant was no less significant. He prised out both the Australian openers in his first and third over to dismantle their top order, a blow from which Australia didn't recover. An opening spell of 5-2-8-2 was crucial to victory, but it was not just a one-off performance.
Sandeep snapped up 12 wickets in the tournament and finished as India's highest wicket-taker. In the quarter-final against Pakistan, he cut a swathe through Pakistan's battling line-up and bagged three crucial wickets, including opener Sami Aslam, who hammered two centuries against India in the U-19 Asia Cup, and Imam-ul-Haq in the first over of the match to set the momentum for India. Later in the match, he walked in at No. 11 when India still needed 10 runs and held his nerves to help steer India to a thrilling one-wicket victory.
He spoke to Cricketnext on arrival from Australia. Excerpts...
India's leading wicket-taker at the U-19 WC opens up on his success, being praised by Akram and the career ahead.
Has the feeling of being world champions sunk in?
Yes, and it's an unbelievable feeling. I am feeling as if I'm on the top of the world. To win a World Cup is a monumental feat and it means a lot for all of us.
How did you prepare yourself for the final? Did you plan separately for every batsman or did you stick to the general credo of bowling in the right corridor?
I had performed well during the tournament, so my confidence was high going into the final. My rhythm was good and I was able to bowl in the manner I envisaged in the mind. I studied the strengths and weaknesses of Australia's premier batsmen and charted out a strategy. But one must be flexible as you need to make adjustments while executing the plan on the field. I'm delighted that I picked up two early wickets in the final and the tactics I deployed reaped me rich dividends.
When Australia racked up a total of 225, were you confident of India's victory?
Of course. Our bowlers did a wonderful job to restrict Australia to 225. It wasn't a big score on this wicket and I knew that we have batsmen in our side who're capable of attaining this target.
Were there some tense moments in the dressing room during the chase?
The mood was a bit sedate when we were 100 for 4 but Unmukt Chand was batting with poise, so our hopes were pinned on him. When Chand and Smit Patel added 30-odd runs, we decided that every member of the team be seated at the same place, in the same position till the match would finish. When one of my team-mates stood up later, we all hollered at him and made him sit immediately.
How was the celebration after the match? Which member of the team was most boisterous during the celebration?
We're a bunch of boisterous boys who play matches with utmost earnestness but celebrate with even more exhilaration. All the members of the squad, even the support staff, were overjoyed. Everyone was pouring water at each other and later the celebration turned more rollicking. We brought the house down.
Talking about your performance, you ended up as the highest wicket-taker from India in the tournament. Wasim Akram waxed lyrical about your in-swingers.
I didn't listen to what Wasim Akram said as I was bowling when he was commentating. Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to meet him as we, as a team, were wrapped up in the preparation. Thank you for letting me know. Coming from the 'Swing of Sultan', this is a huge compliment, the best I've received so far. I'm elated with my performance but the most satisfying part is that my good show helped the team win matches and the coveted trophy.
You took your game several notches higher against the two most toughest opponents, Pakistan in the quarter-final and Australia in the final. Before which game were you jitterier?
I wasn't nervous before the final against Australia but I must admit I did feel pre-match jitters against Pakistan. But after I grabbed two wickets in the first over of the match, jitters turned into an adrenaline rush. Playing against Pakistan always gives you an unmatched high and a sense of inexplicable excitement.
Sami Aslam had caned two back-to-back centuries against India in the U-19 Asia Cup. He was a major threat for India but you nipped him out on the first ball of the match in the quarter-final.
I saw the videos of his both innings against us in the Asia Cup and deduced that he's slightly vulnerable to outswingers. The first ball I bowled to him pitched on the right length and slanted across him. It induced an edge and he was caught in the slip cordon. His dismissal was crucial and set the tone for us.
When you went to bat in the quarter-final as a last batsman, India needed 10 runs to win. Did anyone in the dressing room tell you something or advised you when you were going to the crease?
Everyone was shell-shocked when the ninth wicket fell. There was absolute silence in the dressing room and the mood was gloomy. No one said a word to me. I said to myself that I would play as many balls as I could and not to think about runs. I knew that if I could hang around, it would put pressure on Pakistan and they were bound to make some lapse. Matches against Pakistan are always nerve-shredding and the team which stays composed till the end wins.
Which was your most prized wicket of the tournament?
I castled Kraigg Brathwaite of West Indies in the league match. This wicket is cherished for two reasons. First is that he's a Test batsman who has represented his country and second is that I cleaned him up with an outswinger. I think that was the best ball I had bowled in my career.
How is Unmukt Chand as a captain? What are his most impressive attributes?
Unmukt has proven his leadership skills. His biggest strength is that he leads from the front. If you look at his record, he has performed well in all the big matches. In the finals of the last three tournaments, he smashed centuries in all of them. This inspires the whole team. Also, he's a shrewd tactician and reads the game very well.
Who is your favourite fast bowler?
James Anderson. I like the way he moves the ball both ways.
Which is the most deadly weapon in your bowling armoury? You bowl at around 130kmph. Are you working to scale up your pace?
My most deadly weapon is my inswinger. This comes naturally to me. I've developed an outswinger as well but I need to polish it. It is important to have variety as a fast bowler to create doubt in the mind of a batsman. To be honest, I don't focus on pace much. I would like to increase my pace to 140-145kmph and it'll come with age. But I'm not over-enthusiastic about bowling fast and breaking 150 or 160kmph barriers.
Who is your favourite batsman? Which batsman from international cricket you would like to scalp?
My favourite batsman is Sachin Tendulkar. I think Jacques Kallis is the toughest batsman to snare. He puts a high value on his wicket. It'll be great if I could pluck him out someday.
What is the road ahead for you from here? This is just the beginning of my career and dream. There's a huge gap between U-19 and first-class cricket and my immediate goal is to cement a place in Punjab's domestic side. I shall work hard rather than getting carried away by the U-19 World Cup glory. Few cricketers from U-19 have gone to become successful cricketers and I'm aware of this fact. Like any cricketer, I will like to represent my country successfully at an international level. It'll take a lot of blood and sweat but then high honours require extraordinary efforts.