Ishant Sharma and Mohammed Shami skipped the Indian team’s pre-Test training session. They stayed back at the team hotel. Umesh Yadav did turn up but hardly bowled. He seemed to be missing his pace partners. With the Holkar Stadium pitch expected to have ‘carry’ and ‘pace’, Ishant, Shami and Yadav were likely to be in the playing XI. Zaheer Khan, a mentor to all of the above, in his pomp, also believed that the trip to the stadium a day before the Test was a waste of time.
This was cricket’s version of intermittent fasting, the latest dieting fad that advocates long gaps between meals. The 48-hour long bowling-abstinence was expected to keep the bowlers fresh and hungry for the Test. It also gave a peek into the collective mindset of this pace department.
These days Indian speedsters are way too prepared. They have put in the hard yards, they don’t leave anything for late, they no longer believe in last minute revisions.
They also walk with a swagger. The only other time the Indian pace department had anything vaguely resembling this aura was during the 2003 World Cup when Javagal Srinath, Ashish Nehra and Zaheer repeatedly clocked in the 140s kph range and bowled out oppositions.
That was the era when pacers, for the first time, started sporting sleeveless vests. The world needed to know the kind of time they spent with weights at the gymnasium.
These days they go shirt-less. Pace poster boy Jasprit Bumrah — who is recovering after an injury these days — frequently puts out updates of his six-packs on Instagram. Last year he was the highest wicket-taker across all formats. 2018 also saw the trio of Bumrah, Shami and Ishant become the most successful pace attack in a calendar year in Test cricket history. The world was talking about the India’s fast bowlers.
This no longer was a land of only wily spinners and crumbling tracks. Visiting teams no longer prepared for the India tour on under-prepared tracks, they revved up bowling machines to 150 kph. The Indian pace bowling pool was deadly and deep.
But despite the stiff competition to secure the few spots in the playing XI, there was harmony on India’s Planet Pace. They were a close-knit unit. This is a legacy that several Indian pace departments have meticulously preserved over the years. Unlike in Pakistan, India’s speedsters famously got along. While India’s star-studded batting line-up was nursing wounds of bitter ego battles; laughs and banter have continued to emerge from the pace huddle.
Some time back, Ishant had spoken about a connect shared with his new-ball partners. “Bas ek doosre ka mazaak bahut udaate hain. Ab woh nahi poochna kaise udaate hain,” he said. But he did go on to talk about how Bumrah pulls his leg when he seems to be tiring during a spell by saying, ‘Bas bhai thak gaaye aap”.
And in reply Ishant taunts the young pacer about how at Bumrah’s age he could bowl fast for longer spells than him. Mimicking Shami’s laidback way of talking, and his general relaxed approach to life too is a frequent topic of discussion after plans to counter the opposition batting line-up are put in place. The bowling group meeting is a mix of brain-storming sessions and intense ribbing.
At 31, the senior-most in the entire team, Ishant has been the connecting link between Kohli’s New India team and Galacticos of the last decade. When he was the baby of the team, he had Zaheer and Munaf Patel as his mentors. He was never bullied or ragged. Ishant has spoken about how he would constantly pester Zaheer with questions, to the point that the senior would ask him to lay off. “Zak used to get frustrated and say, ‘bhai zara mera peechha chhod,” he had said. But it would be followed by a very patronising — ‘Thoda relax kar, enjoy kar’.
“The things I learnt while playing with Zak I would have never have learnt anywhere. Just watching him was enough,” says Sharma, his words dripping of genuine affection and gratitude.
Ishant still recalls the fun time he had with Munaf, who he calls as a life-long friend, full time comic and a great human being. “Me and Munnabhai really bonded. I am still in touch with Munnabhai. He is such a funny man. During an Irani Irophy at Rajkot, I was his room partner. It was a vegetarian hotel but Munnabhai loves his non-veg. They just had eggs. Me and Munnabhai had a 25-egg bhurji and ate 20 tandoori rotis between us,” he says.
Following the same tradition, the pace department still breaks bread together. Though, 25 eggs and 20 loafs of carbohydrates wouldn’t quite make it to the tables of this group of vegans and calorie watchers.
Virat Kohli today had high praise for Ishant. He says the team’s senior pacer, given the quality and diversity that the Indian pace attack boasts, understands that there will be games where he would have to sit out. Like it happened in the second Test at Ranchi against South Africa.
Kohli said the bowler he has known since the time they were teenagers on the Delhi junior circuit is at peace with his place in the side. “We’ve played cricket together since Under-17, so he knows when I go and say something to him it’s purely based on what the team requires. There’s a lot of trust between us,” he says.
So before the Ranchi Test, where Ishant made way for Umesh, it was an easy conversation between the men who once knew each another as ‘Lambu’ and ‘Cheeku’, two of Delhi’s brightest young stars.
“He took it really well. At Pune (the venue for the first Test) there was more help for him (Ishant) and the communication was simple — that Ranchi was going to be dry and Umesh and Shami probably become more lethal options when it reverses a bit, which he also understands. Ishant’s strengths are different — when the ball’s seaming and swinging, he’s right among the top two contenders. I think that trust, that camaraderie, that belief is pushing this team forward,” Kohli said at the press conference today.
Now, with the conditions suiting Ishant’s kind of bowling, he seems all set to play again. On match eve, the mild breeze, a hint of winter, cloudy sky and a grassy pitch were signs that hinted that this was an Ishant kind of venue.
Besides, Bangladesh is expected to have three left-handed batsmen — captain Mominul Haque, Shadman Islam and Imrul Kayes — in the playing XI.
Ishant has a knack of troubling lefties. In the past, he had spoken about that one ‘round the wicket’ ball that has given him success against left-handers.
“I take the ball away from the left-hander. So when I am bowling close to the wicket and round the wicket, the batsman thinks that the ball is close to me. And if the ball is swinging a bit and moves off the wicket at the last moment the batsman feels ‘oh shit, I am in trouble’,” he had said.
At Holkar Stadium, the ball will swing and is expected to move off the wicket. Ishant and India’s bunch of merry pacers are eager and hungry.
More laughs and banter is expected to emerge from the huddle of men in sleeveless vests who walk around with a swagger and miss pre-Test net sessions.