When Moeen Ali took his eyes off an Ishant Sharma ‘out-of-the-blue’ rising ball on the final day of the second Test on Monday, a number of things happened.
One, the ball flew into the hands of the short-leg fielder. This was followed by skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni flashing an ‘I-told-you’ smile, Duncan Fletcher feeling vindicated, Sharma getting an instant aura and, since it was the last ball before lunch, the catering staff getting more time to lay out the table for the players, who took time to leave the field after a longish pitch-celebration.
Like all bouncer-induced wickets, where the batsmen get physically hurt by a 6-foot and above pacer, this too caused collateral damage by way of its resonance in the English dressing room.
Post-lunch, Sharma got three more wickets, all from balls that were pitched well short of the good-length. In the context of the Test, the dismissal of the dangerous Joe Root and Matt Prior — two batsmen who were mysteriously loyal to the pull shot and blind to the fielders at mid-wicket, square leg and fine leg — were gold dust to the desperate Indians.
But equally significant for India’s bowling unit in this five-Test series, and even the away tours in days to come, was Stuart Broad’s wicket and the way Sharma bowled to the other England tailenders — Liam Plunkett and James Anderson.
The 25-year-old’s match-winning, gut-busting effort is sure to make Dhoni and Fletcher more relaxed and better-equipped when they leave the war room just before Sunday’s third Test at Rose Bowl.
Sharma’s final spell was the kind that was never seen before in this series. It was the first time England’s last four batsmen finished with single digit scores. At Lord’s in the second innings, the home team didn’t have a half-centurion in the lower part of the scoreboard. That’s because never before has a bowler intimidated the lesser-batsmen like Sharma did.
Before Monday, this was a series of late-order revivals. Bowlers were forcing the world to see them as all-rounders. With stubborn and solid knocks, Bhuvneshwar Kumar (58, 63, 36, 52), Mohammed Shami (58), Stuart Broad (47) and James Anderson (81) had enhanced their reputation with the bat.
The effort was genuinely applauded but the pragmatic among fans were making a valid point. They blamed the constant ‘tail wagging’ on the missing tearaway pacer or a mystery spinner in both the teams.
During the last Ashes series, England’s best effort for the final four-wicket partnerships was — 25 (7th), 41 (8th), 27 (9th) and 57 (10th). Tim Bresnan, James Anderson, Chris Tremlett, Graeme Swann, Monty Panesar and Stuart Board had a conventional tailenders’ single-digit average. The reason was Australia’s 37-wicket taker, the bowler with the handle-bar moustache — Mitchell Johnson. He would charge in, press the speedometer to clock high 140s, bang the ball short and make the batsmen quake in their shoes. Johnson triggered collapses on the field and panic in the dressing room.
Those in England, the old Duncan Fletcher watchers, say the Indian coach loves Johnson kind of bowlers. Who doesn’t? you ask. And that’s the reason they were surprised to see Stuart Binny in the Test squad. About Binny, the all-rounder, some other day. Now back to Sharma, who said, after his deadly spell, that Fletcher felt he should bowl more bouncers.
When on the field, it is skipper Dhoni who keeps repeating the ‘bouncer’ request. Speaking to BCCI.tv, Sharma revealed his ‘short’ story in detail. “In my first spell, the batsmen got beaten quite a few times and the ball moved. So I thought the ball would still be reversing, which didn’t happen,” he says. So Dhoni suggested a new game plan.
“He said let’s open up the whole field and bowl only bouncers. This is the last over (before lunch) and you never know what could happen. The plan worked and we decided to continue with it after lunch. We persisted with the old ball because with the new ball the batsman can judge the bounce with ease, while with the old one he cannot gauge the bounce as some might take off and an odd one will keep low.”
After getting Moeen to glove the ball, he foxed the left-hander Stuart Broad with the unpredictable bounce of the old ball. Once again another England batsman was out while failing to fend a ball that rose menacingly. Besides gaining the reputation of a tailender’s bully, Lord’s showed that Sharma has finally emerged from the Zaheer Khan shadow.
He can now be seen coaching Mohammed Shami from mid-on and running to indulgently ruffle Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s hair after he would get a wicket. The ‘Lord’s 7’ also showed that he is Dhoni’s Man Friday in a tough situation and someone who would never shy away from a fight. The sight of an exhausted Sharma in the middle of the huddle and relishing the shower of praise from his team was reassuring for Indian fans.
Now all Sharma needs to learn is to think on his feet and not wait for Dhoni to force him to bowl a bouncer.