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Uganda is a little baby in international cricket, expectations from the team should be realistic: Abhay Sharma [Exclusive Interview]

Abhay Sharma

Former India fielding coach Abhay Sharma is set to shepherd Uganda in the upcoming T20 World Cup 2024. This will be the East African country’s maiden appearance at a senior men’s World Cup in any format.

Sharma took up the coaching role of Uganda last month and his first assignment will be the T20 World Cup, where Uganda are placed in Group C alongside two-time champions West Indies, New Zealand, Afghanistan, and Papua New Guinea.

After retiring as a player in 2003, Sharma has been coaching different teams at the junior and senior levels. He has been associated with the senior India men’s and women’s teams as well as the India A and the India Under-19 men’s teams. The 55-year-old has also coached Delhi and Rest of India.

In an exclusive interview with CricTracker, Sharma spoke about his cricketing journey, his plans for Uganda in the impending marquee event, improvements in India’s fielding standards in recent years, and much more.

Excerpts:

What is going to be the biggest challenge for Uganda in T20 World Cup 2024?

The biggest challenge is that sides like Uganda have not played against top international teams like India, Australia, England West Indies. They haven’t seen those kind of players, they haven’t played against them and you never know how they will react under pressure. But we are trying to prepare ourselves very nicely. We are in Sri Lanka at the moment and have played three games. But the pool [of players] is very, very limited. I would say, Uganda is a little baby in international cricket. We have to be realistic. Expectations shouldn’t be sky-high. 

I’m trying to work on their skillsets, their mindsets – how we have to progress in the tournament, and how we have to prepare. We are trying to focus on processes to follow. This is the first time they are playing the ICC tournament. The environment is going to be different because I have been part of a few international sides. So, I know whatever cricket they have played, they have never experienced that kind of a thing. But, I’m hoping things will fall in place and we will make a mark in this World Cup.

When you were the coach of the Delhi team in 2022, you had to deal with a lot of injury concerns with the pacers. How do you deal with player injuries in the middle of tournaments?

I’m trying to focus on how to keep them fresh with the help of other support staff and and I’m trying to monitor their workload also, so they are ready for the coming matches. I’m trying to create a rotation policy to keep them in top shape.

Once you work with such a side [associate team], you also become a better coach. I have worked with international sides, the experience was good there, but there are certain things which are easily provided to the top sides. In Uganda, [resources are] a challenge. At the moment, we have been practicing in Kampala, which has got only three wickets. There are no lights. This tournament [World Cup] is going to be played under lights. This is a little disadvantage to us. But we are trying to find ways to do it and when you work with associate sides, you try and find your ways. We are having an indoor session under lights. So, we are trying to find ways to get the players used to certain things.

We saw a massive change in the fielding approach of the Indian women’s team during your coaching. No one can forget Harmanpreet Kaur’s sensational catch against England. How was the experience of coaching the team?

We worked for those kind of catches when I was a part of the women’s team. I innovated few new things and introduced new drills, so that girls start adapting. Initially, it was tough because there is a difference between a male cricketer and a female cricketer. But I can tell you from my experience, the Indian women’s team, they are very good girls. If they understand what you are trying to achieve with them, they follow it. It was a great journey We created a world record during that series. We executed four run outs in one innings. You’re talking about the catch, so, yes, it was very, very satisfying experience, whatever opportunities I got.

Girls are still in touch with me. Other day, when I was part of WPL (Women’s Premier League), Harmanpreet asked me, “Sir, where are you? We were really looking forward.” So, it feels good when you worked with the girls, or any player, they remember you and respect you for the work you have done.

You were with the 2020 Under-19 Indian team. There was a huge chaos after Bangladesh beat India in the final as the players got involved in heated arguments. How did the team react to it later?

At the Under-19 level, you face that excitement, and people react in different ways. That is why it is called Under-19 cricket. In [senior] men’s cricket, you hardly see all those things. Yes, definitely it was not a good moment. But after the match, everybody calmed down. We sat, spoke to them and said that this is not expected. We are not saying that we are wrong or you are wrong.

But the thing is, we are brand ambassadors of cricket. Remember that there are a lot of youngster who are watching ICC Under-19 tournament. Yashasvi Jaiswal was a part of that tournament. See where he is now. Boys understood that and after that, they regretted it. Everything went well after that and we had a great chat with Bangladesh team also. After the match, we sat in the evening and we congratulated them. The boys understood and they are different cricketers now. They have grown up.

From 2016, you toured with the Indian team and played a part in their improvement as a fielding unit. Are you satisfied with how India is fielding or you feel that there are areas of improvement?

Fielding and wicketkeeping are areas where there is always room for improvement. Whatever you do, you always feel like the other team is doing well and you’re always chasing things. Because all 11 players are not of the same skill set. At times, people presume that a certain player is slow. Look at Rohit Sharma, people say he is [slow] but look at the way he takes the catches. His hand-eye coordination is top class. So, rather than comparing,, I’ll say, from 2016, the journey is still going on. The team is improving but we need some more improvements. Because in ICC events, we have een some missed chances by the team. So, rather than reflecting on the past, I wish the Indian team good luck form the coming World Cup also. My heart is with India but my mind is in Uganda.

Rohit Sharma has been criticsed for his fitness but he has proven himself time and again in the Yo-Yo tests and other drills. Is it time to stop questioning the Indian captain’s fitness?

Look, cricketers have a different level of fitness. The Yo-Yo is a parameter and other tests are also parameters. But look at his cricket fitness, look at his cricket mind, look at his cricket performance. He is not slow on the field at all. He is one of the better fielders of the team. Look at the number of catches he has taken. Have you ever seen him drop a catch? No! He has got safe hands. He is only fielding inside the 30-yard circle and only good fielders, with good reflexes, field there. Being captain, he has extra pressure but he is still taking all the catches. Hats off to him, he is doing really well. People should support our captain and our team.

Also read: 8 fittest cricketers and their yo-yo test scores

You said that Sanju Samson is the future of India when you were coaching the India A team. Do you stand with that assessment?

Definitely, without any doubt. If I’m not wrong, I said this in 2014 because I saw something. Although, it’s a bit late, I predicted it 10 years ago because I could see some talent in him. I will definitely say that he is the present of Indian cricket and he has got a very cool head, which is required in wicketkeepers. 

Who do you think is now the future of Indian team?

I spoke about Dhruv Jurel last year before he was selected anywhere. I spoke about him to some senior coaches and look at him. He is one guy who is going to wonders for Indian cricket. There is another wicketkeeper, not many people know him – Kumar Kushagra. He is from Jharkhand. I can say that he is the future of Indian wicketkeeping skills. At present, Ishan Kishan is there, Rishabh [Pant] is coming back. So, there is a good pool of wicketkeeper-batters.

As far as other skills are concerned, there are many players. Like Avesh Khan, he played the World Cup in 2016 with us. Don’t write off Prithvi Shaw, I’m sure he will come back and next year, you could find him playing for India. The way he is working out now, because I have been in touch. Once a while, we speak and I know how determined that cricketer is. [Shubman] Gill is there, Arshdeep [Singh] was part of 2018 World Cup. There are a lot of Under-19 guys who played in 2016, 2018, and 2020 World Cup and there is a big lot. Another player I want to name is Riyan Parag. He was a part of 2018 World Cup. Didn’t get much chances in that World Cup. But mark my words, he is one player who is going to do wonders for India in the middle order.

Also read: India Squad for T20 World Cup 2024

There are some big names missing in India’s T20 World Cup squad. Are you happy with the team announced? 

I’ll say, selectors and team management have done a good job. The ones who didn’t get picked must have been informed of the reasons. The selectors and the team management must have had their reasons for not picking certain players. In Indian cricket, there are a lot of players who select themselves. There is no need for selectors to select them. So, if the selectors have excluded someone, they must have had their reasons. It is a very good squad, and I wish them all the best. At the moment, my focus is on the Uganda team. But definitely would like to have Uganda and India playing together. Maybe, you never know. It’s a tough route for Uganda and we are ready for that.

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