In a pragmatic tone, his index finger drawing zig-zag lines on the table, Ishant Sharma turned philosophical: “Getting injured is a destiny. You can slip in the toilet and break your leg.” He was referring to the ankle injury that he incurred during a Ranji Trophy against Vidarbha last month. It was a blow that put his New Zealand tour in jeopardy.
At Kotla that day, Ishant had twisted his ankle while he was animatedly appealing. Once on the treatment table, a support staff member had put a very practical question to the team’s star pacer: Why you appeal so vociferously? Ishant would reply: “Aur kaise appeal karega?”
Later that evening, the word from the dressing room was that Ishant would be out a minimum six weeks. “Uska pair football jaisa ho gaya hai,” a member of the support staff had said. The X-rays revealed that it was a grade three tear.
There was skepticism when he was picked for the New Zealand tour. A volley of doubts whirled: How match fit will he be? Later, Ishant’s inclusion for the Wellington Test too was questioned, even as Virat Kohli kept reiterating his pacer’s expertise and reliability. And so was his selection in the Playing XI, precisely three days after he landed in Wellington, barely the time to knock off jet-lag.
But Ishant knew he was match-ready. “Before I came here, I tested myself. I bowled 21 overs in two days in Bengaluru and then I got to know that yes, I am fit. That’s why I came here and bowled one and a half hours here to check that I am alright,” he said.
Had he not been India’s standout bowler on the second day, whose diligence and craft are the chief reason India are still clinging onto the match, the team management would have been groping for hollow excuses. Ishant looked the sharpest and fittest bowler on show today.
Each of his three strikes came at junctures when the match seemed to drift away to a point of no return for India. There was a touch of fortune with the first scalp, when the doughty Tom Latham gloved a leg-side-bound delivery to the keeper. But Ishant was incrementally building the pressure on him, stifling the runs and treading tight lengths on a sun-baked surface that was blinking gleefully at the batsmen.
Twenty-five overs later, in his third and most riveting spell of the day, he nabbed Tom Blundell, who along with Kane Williamson was building a stable alliance. Comprehending that this wasn’t a pitch where you could bowl magic-balls, Ishant went for the double-bluff trick. He softened Blundell with a number of away-seamers at good length, before sneaking the full-length nip-backer that ripped through the tiny gap between his bat and pad.
The third, and the most influential, blow he inflicted was the Ross Taylor wicket in the second session. Taylor and Williamson were on cruise mode, not only looking solid but adding runs swiftly. New Zealand had just sneaked past India and the pair was rattling four runs or thereabouts an over. All wicket-taking avenues seemed blocked – Bumrah was erratic; Shami disoriented and Ravi Ashwin bereft of rhythm. It seemed to turn out to be that kind of a session in away Tests that encapsulated all that’s going wrong for the team. If India were to lose the series, it could have been one of the reference points. In the 17 overs, when he wasn’t bowling, New Zealand plundered 61 runs.
But Ishant turned up for another spell, his fifth of the day. Instantly, he extracted more response from the strip. Suddenly, there was more bounce and movement, though the seam of the Kookaburra was no longer prominent. The extra bounce off a good-length delivery deceived Taylor. He was comfortably defusing balls of similar length from Bumrah, around the knee-roll. But Ishant’s struck a couple of inches higher. Later, he laughed off when asked about the height factor: “That’s why tall bowlers are always in demand. You need them for the bounce they can extract.”
Leading the way
The impact of Taylor’s dismissal couldn’t be emphasised more. For it changed the dynamics of the match. Suddenly, India gathered their collective voice. There was more spunk and vibrancy on the field, fielders lunging and leaping around. There was a sense of belief that they would still claw back into the game. Runs dried out and the boundary-flow stopped, culminating in Williamson’s departure. Gradually, Ashwin and Shami grew more threatening, and New Zealand endured a few anxious moments to ensure that they didn’t lose another wicket on the second day.
It was another instance when Ishant’s leadership stood as much as his skills. He always downplays his leadership skills, but like a true leader, he not only covered up the vulnerabilities of his colleagues on an off-day but carried them under his wings. Seldom do you see him more involved in the game, always beside the bowler, especially if it’s Shami or Bumrah, encouraging and advising them.
At the end of the day, he looked utterly fatigued. All he wants is to catch up with some sleep. “I could only sleep for 40 minutes yesterday night. The night before that, I slept for only three hours. I was struggling a lot. The more you can recover (from jet lag), the better effort you can put in on the ground. There’s no better recovery than sound sleep. The sounder your sleep is, the better your body will respond on ground,” he says.
The memories and worries of that January night seem gone long ago. Or it would make his Wellington memories warmer.
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