Sitting in the New Zealand dressing room, a padded-up Tom Latham looked like a lamb at the slaughter when he was caught on the camera doing a bit of anxious leg-shaking. The 21-year-old was making his Test debut on Friday, filling in for Ross Taylor who is away on a paternity leave. But that was not what was making Latham a bundle of nerves. Just then the screen cut to what was perhaps the primary cause of his concern. It flashed Ishant Sharma’s face as he steamed in to bowl at Peter Fulton.
Let’s pause here, and just consider Ishant Sharma’s appearance when he runs in. The lanky 6’5’’ frame, the unruly hair all over the place, the fiery eyes exuding aggression, the arrow-like goatee, which in fact kind of points towards his very pointy Adam’s apple. Suffice to say, it’s a scary sight.
For almost two-and-a-half years, however, between July 2011 to December 2013, his appearance was the only menacing thing about his bowling. In that period, that 15-odd-stride run-up would mostly degenerate into rather harmless bowling, either too short or too full to be threatening. During this time, he played 17 Test matches and took 32 wickets, at an average of 58.18. It will be an unfair comparison, but just to give some perspective: Vernon Philander took all of his 105 wickets in a roughly overlapping period, having played just three more Tests.
The long rope finally snapped last year and Ishant was dropped from the Test team for the West Indies series. He came back with a bang in South Africa, struggled again in the ODIs against New Zealand but produced nine wickets at the Eden Park Test last week, only to be dismissed as lucky. He was then dropped from the Asia Cup ODI team and fetched a rather underwhelming Rs 2.6 crore (as compared to a few of his peers) at the IPL auction in the lead up to the Wellington Test.
He had a massive point to prove.
Now, let’s go back and play again from where we had paused. Watch his menacing run-up, watch him hop and uncoil. Watch the fuller length ball land and nip back. The tentative Fulton prod. The ball rapping the pad. The finger going up. Watch, in short, Ishant at his formidable best.
Rise and shine
Fulton was his second wicket on Friday morning. Ishant was required to bowl rather early after Dhoni, having won the toss and put New Zealand in, saw his new-ball bowlers Zaheer Khan and Mohammad Shami threatening to squander the advantage.
Ishant replaced Shami in the 8th over, and almost immediately troubled the batsmen with his awkward bounce from a length and just back of a length on a pitch that had a good carry. In his second over, he gave Dhoni the much needed breakthrough. His effort ball, banged in just short, exploded, and the left-handed Hamish Rutherford, in trying to fend it off from in front of his face, nicked the ball to Murali Vijay at first slip.
Twenty-three for one in the 10th over became 26 for two in the 12th with Fulton’s wicket, and Latham finally walked out amid what were not the not the most conducive circumstances to make your debut.
The left-hander nearly edged the first ball that left him sharply. Ishant’s follow-through ended somewhere near Latham’s face. It being a Valentine’s Day, sweet-nothings, perhaps, were whispered in his ears. Three balls later, Latham duly nicked one to wicket-keeper and walked back with a zero on debut.
On a rampage
In three overs, Ishant had taken three wickets. It left one wondering if he could be ever be taken off the ODI roster completely, and preserved for Test cricket. If India can aim to groom Test specialist batsmen, why not have bowlers who are fresh and have a fire in their bellies?
Despite the triple blow, New Zealand were not panicking yet. They has been in a similar situation last week, but went on to post 503, thanks to Kane Williamson and Brendon McCullum. The duo were batting together again and faced some serious inquisition from the Indian pacers. McCullum, after playing and missing a few balls from Shami, was caught at mid-off trying to go for an ambitious drive off the bowler.
The Rs 4.5 crore man, Corey Anderson, came next and played, well, extravagant shots as he tried to hit his way out of trouble. He missed most and connected a few before inside-edging Ishant onto his pads and to Virat Kohli at gully. The bowler then had his second five-for in as many Tests when he induced an edge off BJ Watling to leave New Zealand at 86/6 in the 36th over. In the same over, he almost made it 86/7 but Kane Williamson’s nick to Cheteshwar Pujara at short leg came off what, after a second look, turned out to be a no ball. Bizarrely, it was the second time on Friday that Williamson had survived in such a manner, after his previous reprieve against Zaheer Khan. His luck finally ran out when he nicked a Shami out-swinger to Rohit Sharma at slips three runs short of a half-century. The crowd shouted “no ball.”
Jimmy Neesham and Tim Southee used the long handle to make run-a-ball 33 and 32 respectively to take the team close to 200, but Shami and Ishant polished off the tail, eight runs short of the mark.
India lost Murali Vijay early on as he looked to leave a Tim Southee ball but couldn’t withdraw his bat in time and nicked it to the keeper. But Shikhar Dhawan carried on from where he left off in Auckland and brought up a half-century with a couple of cracking fours off Neil Wagner before sensationally upper-cutting him over third-man boundary for a six.
With Cheteshwar Pujara, Dhawan took the Indian reply to 89/1 when Trent Boult trapped the former lbw off a vicious in-swinging delivery. Out walked Ishant Sharma as nightwatchman. For the second time on the day, he found himself in the thick of things earlier than expected.
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