Yashpal Sharma © Getty Images
Yashpal Sharma © Getty Images

Gutsy, improvising Yashpal Sharma was born August 11, 1954. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at one of the key men behind the triumph of Kapil’s Devils of 1983.

Some thrive on expansive strokes with their ability able to rip any attack into shreds; some others are blessed with supreme technique that helps them wear down the opposition bowlers; some others are busy men, improvising as per the match situation and helping build up innings that turned out be extremely important given the context of the match but didn’t necessarily contribute to personal records in the long run. Yashpal Sharma belonged to the third kind.

On the other hand, he had attributes that had more than made up for these shortcomings: he was courageous enough to take on the fastest of bowlers; he was disciplined enough to curb his strokes when the situation demanded; he had a heart big enough to stretch himself beyond his usual limits for his team; and he had the stamina to play long innings. Mohammad Azharuddin called him “gutsy, fit, and competitive”.

His innings were not built on picturesque shots; if anything, he was the exact antitheses of the cavalier stroke-maker; he thrived under pressure, nudging a ball here for a single and pushing the next for a well-planned brace. As Sunil Gavaskar in wrote Runs ‘n’ Ruins, “send him at 220 for 2 and he would struggle”. He was the man whom Gavaskar called a crisis man — which was perhaps one of the greatest compliments any batsman could earn.

He never cared about whether he looked ugly while batting. If anything, he was keen on ensuring that the scoreboard didn’t look ugly while he batted. However, he was a fierce hitter of the cricket ball, and was reputed for the ability to change gears at will: as Sujit Mukherjee wrote in his Matched Winners, he “could switch within the space of an over from half-cock strokes to full-steam strikes”. He added that Yashpal “generally startled onlookers with the ferocity of blows which he interspersed with spells of dour batting”.

Despite being a great improviser Yashpal’s numbers do not make excellent reading. 1,606 runs at 33.45 from with 2 hundreds from 37 Tests or 883 runs from 42 ODIs at 28.48 and a strike rate of 63 do not make excellent reading. His ability to adapt, his improvisational skills, and his sprints between wickets that were way ahead of his time in Indian cricket, however, were crucial in India’s success story in the World Cup of 1983.

In domestic cricket, however, his numbers went up significantly, despite playing for the weaker teams of the era — Punjab, Haryana, and Railways. He managed to score 8,933 runs at 44.88 with 21 hundreds; picked up 47 wickets at 33.70 with his effective medium-pacers; and even played as a regular wicket-keeper if required.

Early days

There are ambiguities regarding Yashpal’s middle name. Most sources do not mention there being any, but some others, like Mukherjee in his Matched Winners, referred to him as Yashpal Baburam Sharma. He had a slightly, er, unconventional accent that had led to several anecdotes in later years.

Anshuman Gaekwad narrates an incident: Yashpal once ran into the dressing room, yelling and complaining that he had a burning sensation. When Gaekwad asked for the details Yashpal responded with “STD ho gaya hai. Ye mujhe pehle kabhi nahin hua hai.” [“I’m down with STD. This has never happened to me before.”]

It took a bemused Gaekwad some time to realise that Yashpal actually meant acidity. Even Kapil Dev, who belonged to the same region, said “we still don’t understand much” while referring to Yashpal’s jokes in as late as 2008.

Yashpal first sprung into prominence when he scored 260 for Punjab Schools against Jammu and Kashmir Schools in 1972. Soon afterwards he made his way to Punjab University and almost instantly scored a 139 against Guru Nanak Dev University. The match drew the attention of the selectors, and shortly afterwards he made his Ranji Trophy debut against Services at Jalandhar. He failed in the first innings but scored 60 not out in the second, adding an unbeaten 159 with Mohinder Amarnath.

Playing for one of the weaker sides meant that Yashpal got to play almost all matches for Punjab. He did not make a great impact, not scoring a single hundred from the 18 matches he played in his first four seasons. Despite that he was picked for the Duleep Trophy semi-final against South Zone in 1977-78.

The arrival

The match was packed with international stars, and despite that Yashpal proved his worth among the very best: he walked out to bat at 154 for 4 and hung around with Surinder Amarnath, adding 95 for the fifth wicket. Once Surinder got out, Yashpal launched himself into an attack consisting of Abid Ali, Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, EAS Prasanna, Srinivas Venkataraghavan, and Narasimha Rao, and scored 173 in 313 minutes with 23 fours — hit mostly between mid-on and square-leg.

It was unfortunate that not all selectors were present on the ground that day, and missed an innings that was lauded by all eye-witnesses. As a result, Ashok Mankad and Brijesh Patel got selected, and Yashpal had to be content with domestic cricket.

He responded with a deluge of runs: after scoring heavily throughout the season he saved his best for the pre-quarterfinal against Uttar Pradesh. Coming out at 11 for 2 he scored 157 out of a team total of 287 (Deepak Chopra with 60 was the only other batsman to have scored more than 16); then, after Uttar Pradesh acquired a 120-run lead, he once again scored over half his side’s runs. The 142 came out of a team score of 275 (he had come to bat at 39 for 2) and nobody else crossed 38. He finished the season with 762 runs at 76.20 with 3 hundreds. As a result he was named an Indian Cricket Cricketer of the Year.

He started the next season with a 99 (run out) against Karnataka in the Irani Trophy; he was picked for the Pakistan tour but came back without playing a single Test.

Back home he was among the runs again: he played an outstanding innings for North Zone against the touring West Indians. After North Zone was 20 for 2 (effectively 20 for 3, since Surinder Amarnath was retired hurt) Yashpal scored 135 not out, putting up 264 with Mohinder for the third wicket. The opposition attack consisted of Vanburn Holder and a young Malcolm Marshall. He followed this with a crucial 89 that helped North Zone lift the Duleep Trophy, and was on the flight to England that summer.

Test debut

Yashpal adjusted to the alien conditions quickly. Though he did not pass 60 in his first five innings he still managed to score 250 getting out only thrice. His 110 not out against Minor Counties (where he also kept wickets and effected the first stumping of his career) was not considered as a significant performance, but he followed it up with 111 against Somerset at Taunton. The innings was enough to earn him a Test cap in the second Test at Lord’s with India already down 0-1 in the series.

Yashpal did not make a significant impact on debut but was retained following his 111 against Essex. In a match punctuated by rain India were reduced to 12 for 3 when Yashpal walked out to join Gavaskar. The conditions were extreme in the Headingley gloom: the ball was moving around dangerously, and England had in their line-up the dangerous trio of Bob Willis, Mike Hendrick, and Ian Botham.

Yashpal batted for 133 minutes in that innings, keeping Gavaskar company. He showed extreme caution, hitting only two boundaries in 125 balls, and helped Gavaskar add 94; when he eventually fell for 40 India were in a comfortable position and the Test was drawn. He also played two cameos at The Oval.

Despite his moderate display in the Tests, Yashpal was impressive in the tour matches. In all he scored 884 runs at 58.93 with 3 hundreds, topping the averages and finishing second in terms of runs (next to Gavaskar, who eventually went past Yashpal thanks to his 221 at The Oval).

Yashpal Sharma smashes on at The Oval, 1979. When stumps were drawn India needed 9 runs with 2 wickets in hand. © Getty Images
Yashpal Sharma smashes one at The Oval, 1979. When stumps were drawn India needed 9 runs with 2 wickets in hand. © Getty Images

Maiden hundred

Yashpal had returned to India as a hero after proving his worth in testing conditions. Up against Kim Hughes’s Australians he had two ordinary Tests followed by a pair at Kanpur. The selectors, however, kept faith in him (probably because they did not want to break the winning combination), and he paid them back in the next Test at Delhi.

Coming out to bat at 267 or 3 was easy, especially with Gundappa Viswanath for company. After a slow start Yashpal switched gears, and eventually brought up his hundred in 239 balls with 10 fours and 3 sixes. This was bettered by a top-notch innings in the next Test at Calcutta.

India were left to chase 247 runs in 245 minutes, and after an opening partnership of 52 they suddenly slid to 70 for 3 when Yashpal came out to join Chetan Chauhan. From the very onset he wanted to win the Test. With Chauhan holding fort at one end he launched himself into the Australian attack.

Even after Chauhan became Geoff Dymock’s fourth wicket Yashpal carried on. In the end the Test was called off with India requiring 47 runs in 22 balls with 6 wickets in hand when Yashpal himself appealed for light. He remained unbeaten on a 117-ball 85 with 10 fours; had the match been played to a finish it would probably have been remembered as one of the more famous chases by India.

The middle years

Yashpal became a regular feature in the Indian side thereafter, playing in almost every Test for India despite not scoring heavily. On the 1980-81 Australia tour he played a brilliant innings against Victoria at Geelong. After the hosts declared at 267 for 7 India were reduced to 23 for 2 when Yashpal walked out.

He added 119 with Chauhan (who scored 68 and was the only other one to score a fifty) and went on to score a career-best 201 not out before Gavaskar declared the innings closed. The tourists won the match by 10 wickets.

By this time he had started bowling longer spells; in the match against Delhi in 1981-82, he picked up 3 for 108 bowling a marathon 44 overs. Then, with Delhi requiring 87 to win in the scheduled 16 overs he shared the new ball with Satish Kumar and immediately jolted Delhi by removing Chauhan and Raman Lamba. He bowled eight overs and picked up 2 for 25; Delhi did not reach their target.

Some indifferent form, however, saw him being out of the Indian side. He was dropped in New Zealand and did not come back till the fifth Test against England at home with India already up 1-0 in the series.

The marathon partnership

Already in the lead Gavaskar wanted to stick to the safe policy of trying to draw the remaining five Tests. Keith Fletcher put India in, and the openers were dismissed by the time the score of 51. Vengsarkar and Viswanath then added 99 before the former ducked into a low bouncer from Willis and had to retire. Out walked Yashpal.

India were 178 for 2 with Viswanath on 64 and Yashpal on five at the end of Day One. The same pair walked back a day later, on 181 and 102 respectively. They had added 217 in the day’s play, and were only the ninth pair in history (the third Indian pair) to remain not out throughout a day’s play.

Yashpal accelerated on Day Three, and hooked Paul Allott for consecutive sixes before he was snared by Botham. He had added 316 with Viswanath, then the highest Indian partnership for the third wicket (it has subsequently been bettered by Virender Sehwag and Sachin Tendulkar’s 336 in 2004).

It also remains the record for the highest partnership in India-England Tests. It was also the highest third-wicket partnership on Indian soil till Inzamam-ul-Haq and Younis Khan added 324 at Bangalore in 2004-05 (which was again bettered by Hashim Amla and Jacques Kallis’ 340 at Nagpur in 2009-10).

Yashpal scored 140 in 298 balls with 18 fours and 2 sixes, and the partnership had lasted 497 minutes. Had Vengsarkar’s contribution been included it amounts to 415 — which would have been the world record at that point of time.

On the West Indies tour that followed Yashpal began with a gutsy 63 at Sabina Park, adding 107 for the eighth wicket with Balwinder Sandhu; in the next Test at Port-of-Spain he was hit by Marshall on the head but came back to bat in the same innings, and later helped save the Test with a gritty 50.

The rest of the series went eventless barring the fact that he shared the second new ball with Madan Lal at St John’s when Kapil Dev had left the field. He broke a 296-run opening stand at St John’s by having Desmond Haynes caught at long-leg by Ravi Shastri; it would remain his only Test wicket.

On top of the world

After the substandard performances in the past two editions of the tournament nobody gave India a serious chance in the 1983 World Cup. Yashpal was picked for the tournament, but with 556 runs at 30.25 he wasn’t really expected to contribute to the Indian causes.

India began the tournament on a high: they were 76 for 3 when Yashpal walked out and were soon reduced to 141 for 5. Yashpal then top-scored with a 120-ball 89; he ran very fast between the wickets, and the 73-run partnership with Roger Binny changed the complexion of the match. India eventually finished with 262 for 8 and won the match by 34 runs: it was West Indies’ first defeat in a World Cup match, and Yashpal was awarded the Man of the Match.

After a few ordinary matches Yashpal came to form again in the last league match against Australia at Chelmsford. Once again India were in trouble, and once again Yashpal bailed them out, top-scoring yet again with a 40-ball 40. They were bowled out for only 247, but Binny and Madan Lal routed Australia to win the match by 118 runs.

After England scored 213 India were off to a cautious start; they were in some sort of trouble at 50 for 2, but Yashpal and Mohinder took control of the match, adding 92 for the third wicket. Yashpal top-scored for the third time in the tournament, scoring a 115-ball 61 with 3 fours and 2 sixes; one of the sixes was an exceptional one. “Arrested on the back-foot by an intended yorker on the middle-stump, Yashpal turned and swung the ball over the square-leg boundary,” Mukherjee recalled.

India duly won the World Cup, and Yashpal finished with 240 runs at 34.28. The numbers may not seem huge in 2016, but they were impressive in 1983, more so because the Indian fairytale run was mostly due to their bowlers. As has been the story of Yashpal’s career, he had helped India win three crucial matches, top-scoring in every one, and went unnoticed.

Also, to put things into perspective, despite the average, Yashpal’s 240 was the second among Indians (after Kapil’s 303, which was bolstered by his 175 not out) and the 10th in the tournament.

The abrupt end

Despite returning as a World Cup-winning hero, Yashpal’s career came to an abrupt end. He underwent a mysterious lapse of form and played in only four more Tests, never scoring more than 16 in the 6 innings he played. He also lost form in the ODIs and played 7 matches — 4 of them as late as in 1984-85, but after that he was shelved permanently.

He moved to Haryana in 1987-88 and in his third match for his newly adopted state he picked up 5 for 106 — his only First-Class five-for. Even as late as 1988-89 he scored 452 runs at 90.40 but it was evident that his days were over.

He was not picked by Haryana in 1990-91 but he shifted to Railways next season and slammed consecutive hundreds — 144 against Vidarbha and 100 against Rajasthan. In the second match he helped Railways win by an innings with the amazing figures of 10.4-6-4-4. He called it a halt after playing 2 matches the next season.

Later years

Yashpal coached Uttar Pradesh during at turn of the millennium. PCB awarded him a benefit match at Mohali on April 26, 2000, that included players like Azhar, Tendulkar, and Javagal Srinath.

Yashpal had a turbulent stint as a selector from 2003 to 2006; the outspoken man that he was, Yashpal was vocal against Greg Chappell and Kiran More for the axing of Sourav Ganguly. He was recalled for a longer term in 2008.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in. He can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)