A young and vibrant Punjab team is on a roll this Ranji Trophy season. On Tuesday, they routed defending champions Rajasthan by nine wickets for their fourth outright victory in five matches. Jiwanjot Singh - who cracked his third century since in his debut season - and Sandeep Sharma – who chalked up eight wickets in the match - were the chief architects of Punjab's win on Tuesday.
Punjab team is the most inexperienced and young team in the Ranji Trophy and not much was expected from them before the tournament kicked off, but they have surprised by putting up a spirited show and toppling teams like Bengal and Rajasthan. Sandeep has 29 wickets in five matches – the highest by any bowler as yet - and vindicated the promise he demonstrated at this year's Under-19 World Cup where he was India's highest wicket-taker. His ability to swing the ball prodigiously drew high accolades from Wasim Akram and Ian Chappell. He speaks to Cricketnext about his and Punjab's success this season.
What is the reason behind Punjab's resounding success in the Ranji Trophy this year?
We are the youngest team in the tournament and each one us is determined to carve a niche for himself. We're mighty motivated to do well. All of us want to make a statement and instill a sense of trepidation in other teams. There's great camaraderie among the team and we enjoy each others' success. We toiled relentlessly during our preparation camp before the tournament and the hard work is reaping rich dividends now. Mandeep Singh is a very fine captain. His approach towards the game is positive and aggressive. Unlike other teams, we play to win matches, not to scratch out a draw.
Another prominent reason is the rich talent pool of Punjab. Jiwanjot, Siddarth Kaul, Gurkeerat Singh, Mandeep and I played with each other for Punjab's U-19 team and we dominated that domain for a couple of years. Now that cluster of youngsters has graduated to the first-class level. There's a deep understanding of each other's strengths and failings. We back, support and encourage each other.
You're the highest wicket-taker so far, 29 scalps in five matches. What was your strategy going into the tournament?
My game plan is simple; pitch the ball consistently in the corridor of uncertainty and let the batsman make mistakes. My mantra is: bore the batsman out and flummox him suddenly with a corker; he's bound to make mistake. My experience of the last season, when I played three matches, also came in handy. I picked up a few tricks of the trade which kept me in good stead. The pitch at Mohali offers good movement to seamers and I keep the ball up and invite batsmen to drive.
Is there a gulf between U-19 and first-class cricket?
Of course, there's a massive difference. In U-19 cricket, most batsmen are greenhorns and are not very mature. They could throw their wickets away at times. In first-class cricket, one has to earn every wicket. Batsmen are seasoned and compact. You have to be very patient at times as there would be patches when wickets won't come your way. Batsmen would pile up runs. You might not get any wicket in a day, and then suddenly fetch wickets in heaps the other day. The crucial point is to stay clued in and grab opportunities when they arise. I've bagged 18 wickets in the last two matches, but last season I bashed away with little reward. You have to keep upgrading your set of skills to survive in first-class cricket. This format of the game grooms and polishes you to become an accomplished performer.
All the members of U-19 World Cup squad are doing very well this season...
This is brilliant for Indian cricket, no? Unmukt Chand, Baba Aparajith, Hanuma Vihari, Smit Patel, Rush Kalaria and Prashant Chopra have all cracked centuries. For all of us this is either the debut or second season. We need to prove our credentials in this form of cricket to be taken seriously as cricketers. We keep in touch with each other and make sure to congratulate whenever any of us performs well. It's a great feeling that we are able to emulate our U-19 World Cup form in first-class cricket. But this is just a beginning; our aim is to represent India together as the next breed.
What about your interaction with Harbhajan Singh?
Bhajji paaji will always remain a special person in my life. He was my captain when I made my first-class debut last year against Uttar Pradesh. Like any youngster, I had jitters but he quelled them by showing immense warmth. He made me feel at ease and told me to come to him if I face any problem. He told me to just concentrate on cricket and shut out extraneous factors. He encouraged me to give inputs in team meetings and made me feel a part of the team. I never felt that I am playing with someone of his stature - a man who has more than 400 Test wickets to his credit. He behaves as if he's like any of us.
Coming back to the Ranji Trophy, how are you looking forward to the season ahead now that it's almost certain Punjab have qualified for the quarter-finals?
Our aim is to take each game as it comes and focus on winning every match. I'm not thinking too far ahead about quarter-finals or semi-finals. If we play good cricket, we'll obviously cruise through. We're striving to up the ante with each passing game.