The evening Ishant Sharma hurt his right ankle when appealing for an lbw in a Ranji Trophy fixture against Vidarbha at the Kotla, the Delhi support staff were skeptical of his recovery in time for the New Zealand tour. “Looks like a grade-three tear. Minimum six weeks. It would be a miracle if he makes it. Even if he’s declared fit, it could be a big risk,” a senior support staff had said. In two days, he was flown into the National Cricket Academy for further diagnosis, where he underwent the rehabilitation and was passed fit just six days before the Test match.
Reaching Wellington two days before the match, it was widely expected that he would miss the first Test and come back for the second, as he had little game time or proper practice other than the 21 overs he had bowled at the NCA nets. But surprisingly, he was picked for the first Test—his experience was too strong a temptation. The biggest fear was whether he would break down in between the Test, which would have severely hamstrung India. In the past, there had been multiple episodes of Zaheer Khan breaking down on the first day of the game and India trudging through the match with a bowler short. But Ishant, though jet-lagged and sleep-deprived, not only played the entire match but also was India’s most potent bowler picking five wickets for 68 runs in the first innings, looking as sharp as he had been before getting injured.
But the ankle injury, apparently, recurred, and he complained of pain on the ankle after the Wellington Test. He was in visible discomfort during the net session on Wednesday too, not bowling at full tilt and not bowling lengthy spells as he likes to. And on Thursday, it was learned that he is likely to miss the Christchurch Test, leaving India considerably weakened in their bid to restore the series. More so as Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami had looked quite ragged in Wellington, picking just two wickets between them.
In all likelihood, he would be replaced by Umesh Yadav, not a like-for-like replacement, but nonetheless quite experienced. In the last couple of years, he has emerged as India’s most penetrative bowler at home. However, his performances abroad, the last Test he played outside India was a year ago in Perth, is still far from presentable. In 17 Tests away from home, he has eked out only 46 wickets at a middling average of 42.19, the worst among India’s quartet of seamers. Moreover, he has been quite expensive too, bleeding 4.15 runs an over. However, he’s India’s best option in a crucial Test as this, where it would be harsh to throw the callow Navdeep Saini into the deep end.
But if the Hagley Oval surface do assist swing, as it historically has, Umesh could be an asset, as he’s India’s only genuine swing bowler. Shami and Burmah are more in the hit-the-deck seam-bowler mould, whereas Umesh could swing the ball, especially away from the right-handers at good pace. If he can ally his craft with discipline, as he had been at home, he could he be a handful on the strip. So it’s not quite a doomsday scenario, though irrefutably the experience, guile and effectiveness of Ishant will be sorely missed. For, he has not just been a terrific bowler, but the leader of the pack, under whom Bumrah and Shami have blossomed.
But the handling of Ishant’s injury rakes up the whole debate as to whether he should have been on the tour in the first place. If so, should he have been hurried into playing the Wellington Test, before his body had fully acclimatised to the conditions as well as the rigours of Test cricket. Though he bowled well in the nets, though he himself thought his body was tuned up, it was an ill-advised move. What could be worse is his injury aggravating and him spending more time in the rehab. It was exactly what some of the support staff members had feared when he got injured that afternoon. And it’s exactly what it could turn out to.
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