Ishant Sharma takes a long pause before he utters a barely audible “I think”. Actually, he hasn’t yet thought it through. He is merely buying time. He pauses again, thinks more. “I think … that was the first time … hmm … I cried because of cricket.” He goes silent again, gathers himself, clears his throat and finally the words jump over his very prominent Adam’s apple. “I didn’t cry for just one day … I cried for 15 days at least.” How many runs did you concede in that over? “30,” he replies recalling his career’s biggest trauma, the to-hell-and-back episode that he simply refers to as the “Faulkner over”.
He is talking about a 2013 India-Australia ODI where James Faulkner, in just one over, changed Australia’s winning target from an unchaseable 44 runs from 18 balls to an unloseable 14 runs from 12 balls. All because of Sharma’s 48th and Faulkner’s 4, 6, 6, 2, 6, 6 slogging. It wasn’t quite the Miandad over but the memes did talk about the common second name of the last action villain of 1986 and the latest ‘match ka mujrim’. Sharma was hurt, not because of the trolls, but for letting his team down.
“I have always been hard on myself; I am not someone who just pushes things under the carpet. I lost a game for India,” he says as he revisits the worst days of his career.
The strain on the face fades soon. Interestingly, he is now smiling. Sharing a sweat-breaking nightmare the morning after is therapeutic; its narration often amusing. That classic comforting line, staple of all agony aunts, the one about troubles being transient — “One day we’ll laugh about it” — rings so true.
It’s that “one day” at Sharma’s four-storeyed South Patel Nagar residence. He is back home from Australia. The pace department he heads is being hailed as the best in the world. He along with Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammad Shami and Umesh Yadav are being compared to men who went by the monikers of Whispering Death and Big Bird.
Dressed in North India’s favourite winter wear, track pants, Sharma looks fresh after an afternoon nap. He says he sleeps close to 10 hours a day after landing in Delhi. After bowling close to 700 first-class overs and many more in net sessions last year, he needs rest and recovery.
The ‘Faulkner over’ has snuck up unannounced. It came up when he was talking about his dramatic u-turn from the cliff edge and how wife Pratima and friend Rajeev Mahajan played the prefect navigators. “I was literally in depression,” he says. “I was dating my wife at that point, and she told me: you can do two things — sit home and cry or go out and work hard.” It might sound like simple advice but it proved, as Sharma says, “life-changing”.
Pratima has more details about the hours and days that followed the “Faulkner over”. The former India basketballer, youngest of the famous Singh sisters from Varanasi, all international players, has just finished work at Bennett University where she is a Sports Officer. She has been married to Sharma for a couple of years but they have known each other for close to seven now.
You tell Pratima about Sharma’s “life-changing” quote and she expresses surprise. It seems her husband hasn’t told her this bit, about her words being the light during those dark days. “My god, wow, that’s so good to hear.”
Pratima flashbacks to the event that followed the 30-run over. She hadn’t seen the game since she was at a friend’s place for a function. The friend’s brother broke the news about the 48th over disaster. She tried reaching him but he didn’t reply. Her messages too went unanswered. It was finally late in the night that Sharma called. “Never ever had I even seen his eyes getting moist. And here he was crying, I can never imagine Ishant crying,” she says.
For someone who had to deal with a serious injury early in her career, Pratima was familiar with Sharma’s state of mind. She knew hollow consolatory words mean nothing for a dispirited player dreading a freefall. In a 2011 interview, while on the road to recovery, she had said, “Everyone kept telling me I could make a comeback but I believed they were lying to make me feel better.”
It was only after the “three-point” expert, known to change the complexion of a game with her shooting skills, hit the court obsessively, that she got her game back and became the youngest top-scorer at nationals. Pratima knew the comeback routine; she had been on that path before.
Her sugar-free advice to the bowler who had that “30-run over” was this: “I told him point blank, cricket is not everything. Bahut badi zindagi hai. Cricket ko sar pe chadha ke nahin rakha karo. (Life is long, don’t give cricket undue importance)”
At the time of this conversation, the two had been together for close to two years, first as friends and later as a couple. Pratima knew what basketball was to her, cricket was to Sharma. She also knew, by experience, that the sport you pursue shouldn’t overpower you. “That puts pressure on you. With that attitude you can’t enjoy and if you can’t enjoy you can’t play well.”
She stops to catch her breath and change the tone. “I tell you honestly; there I was giving him advice and actually, if Faulkner stood in front of me I wouldn’t even recognise him.” The sudden giggle clouds over the last few words. One day we’ll laugh about it. It was that day.
His close friend from playing days, Mahajan, was also brutally honest. Among those around Sharma, there was no one playing the indulgent “good cop”. A Delhi junior cricketer, Mahajan and Sharma first met at the Zonal Cricket Academy. Such was their bond that it lasted even after Mahajan quit cricket. “He was depressed, so was his family. I told him very clearly, you haven’t worked hard,” says Mahajan, who has a sports management company and runs three cricket academies in Delhi, the one at Vasant Kunj is where Sharma mostly trains.
Those words meant a lot to the bowler who was clueless about the sudden bolt from the blue. His friend put a finger on the problem and also gave a solution. “Generally when you are a famous player people say ‘chal koi nahi, hota rehta hai‘. They will give you pat on your back and say you will come back. But he told me straight on my face, ‘You didn’t work hard; execution, thinking all that is fine but you didn’t work hard, simple.”
Mahajan says since that day in 2013, Sharma has never missed a training session or been sluggish to complete any of his numerous routines. “Even in the rainy season, he asks me to check if the bowling run-up can be dried so that he can bowl on the cement pitch.” Friends, especially those around celebrities, are known myth-makers but Mahajan’s claims are backed by statistics.
Ishant Sharma in Tests: 2007-13: Bowling Avg: 38.8; Strike Rate: 69.7. 2013-18: Bowling Avg: 28.5; Strike Rate: 57.6.
The world might have forgotten the ‘Faulkner over’ but Sharma, Pratima and Mahajan can’t. It didn’t just trigger the worst professional fears in Sharma but it also made him a better bowler.
Last year, the three were together again. Once again Sharma was feeling low. They were in Brighton, England, after the India pacer went surprisingly unsold at the IPL auction. When Sharma signed up as Sussex’s overseas professional for 2018, Mahajan too packed his bags to be with his buddy. Work would force Pratima to join the two a bit later.
Two months in England would make Sharma wiser. He discovered a new length to trouble batsmen and developed the ball that straightened to right-handers. He also learnt to set the dishwasher and realised never ever to mix his whites with his wife’s coloured tops in a washing machine.
“I was not used to doing things at home but in England I learnt cooking, washing and cleaning. There were struggles. Initially, I would keep checking the dishwasher after every 10 minutes only to be told by a local friend’s wife that they have to be left alone overnight. And there was also a time when the colour from my wife’s red top rubbed on to my whites while washing,” he says.
Her late arrival meant Pratima entered into a fully operational home, where the two friends had divided work responsibilities. “When I reached, they would say ‘Madam aap kuchh nahin karo, we will do everything’. But with time, it changed. Ishant relaxed and I ended up doing his things.”
In the Sussex dressing room, Sharma would make new friends and meet a mentor who would change him as a bowler. Team coach and former Aussie international pacer Jason Gillespie started with an unusual suggestion — move quickly to the bowling mark between balls. The coach was worried about the team’s over-rates since the India import had a habit of lingering around the pitch after completing the bowling action. Sharma taking 4 to 5 minutes to finish an over was a problem in a country where they don’t even have drinks in county games to be time-efficient.
“In India, if we beat a batsman, we go ‘ohh’. In England, the conditions are such that a batsman is beaten every second ball. So you bowled, you beat them and you got back to the bowling run-up. This urgency makes you a real professional. You just bowl, bowl, bowl … Gillespie told me, ‘you forget the last ball, go back to your mark, think about what you gonna bowl next. That way you will instinctively do well in your thinking process’. This has helped me a lot, I do the same in Tests too,” he says.
The other important input was about the length to bowl in England. The McGrath School of bowling asks pacers to keep aiming at the top of off-stump, but Gillespie differs. “The new Dukes ball swings a lot so he told me to aim at the batsman’s knee roll. This helps the ball to swing. When the ball gets old, the target is the flap of the pad,” he says.
England taught Sharma to think and reinvent his art. In the three away Test series he played in 2018 — South Africa, England and Australia — he has showcased skills that were missing earlier. Not quite the highest wicket-taker, he has come up with important spells that have enhanced India’s image as a team with a fearsome pace attack.
“There was a time when I used to keep bowling normally. Like for left-handers I used to keep bowling over-the-stumps, but now I have started changing. Now I train at nets to bowl round the stumps to a leftie. Or say, for a right-hander all I used to bowl was the ball that came in. Now I have tried to develop the straight ball.”
The results are showing. His planned dismissal of Hashim Amla in Johannesburg – switching the cover catcher to short mid-wicket and bowling straight aiming at the cracks — was crucial in the South Africa series finishing 2-1 and not 3-0.
His five wickets in Birmingham in the first innings of the first Test against England had given India a headstart. That the batsmen didn’t take advantage is a story for another day.
It was the spell where Sharma showed the world the angles he had been working – both for left and right-handed batsmen. “When I bowl round the wicket and close to the stumps, the batsmen feel that the ball is near them, so they play at it,” he says. It is a blinding line, which has the batsman feeling for the ball. But a bit of away swing or a hint of seam movement — or both in case you have got off the wrong side of the bed — would mean a walk back to the hut. “Agar ball thoda bhi off-stump ke baahar nikalta hai toh batsman ko pata nahi chalta. Last moment pe jab ball move hota hai toh batsman ko lagta hai ki ‘I am in trouble’.”
Along with the well-rehearsed scalps, 2018 has also been about him thinking of plays at the top of the bowling mark. The Gillespie tip of not pondering after a near miss worked in Australia too.
During the first Test in Adelaide, India was closing in on a win but Travis Head, the first inning top-scorer was settling, a partnership was shaping. Just before he started his run-up, Sharma had a brainwave to bowl short. This was the new Ishant, the earlier one would be still ruing about the near miss off the previous ball.
To sum up his new self, he says, “I still have long net sessions where I keep bowling. Earlier I used to work a lot, now I work smart.”
The subtle tweaks wouldn’t have been effective if not for his in-born desire to train tirelessly. Since the day he walked into coach Shrawan Kumar’s academy at the Rohtak Road Gymkhana Club, all he did was bowl. “I would be at the academy at noon, roll the wicket and get the ball at 1pm and bowl till it was dark,” he says. That never changed. Sharma never complains, is the one thing you often hear on the cricket circuit.
He could be playing for his club or country; be it windy Wellington or the Chepauk furnace; the pitch lively or frigid; the game dead or alive; Sharma always runs in hard and gives it his all. As a 19-year-old in Perth, he nodded his head when skipper Anil Kumble famously asked him: “Ek aur daalega”. Even if his limbs are hurting, eyes gone glassy, he still has the energy left to run in hard.
An old-timer at Feroz Shah Kotla, where he has grown from the gawky Lambu to the suave Ish Pa, best summed up the man. “Ladka karmath hai,” he said. The English translation of ‘karmath’ — one in constant effort to accomplish something, one possessing abundance energy — doesn’t convey the essence of the word. The Gita, not an English dictionary, explains the word that has karma in it better.
Sharma, meanwhile, isn’t too keen to be seen as a perennial trier or a good bowler who isn’t among wickets. “I am fed up of listening to the same things — yes he has been bowling long spells, he is economical but not taking wickets. It is important to have a strike rate.”
He has been working hard for years without worrying too much about the results. Now, he wants results too.