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Friday, May 14, 2021

Milestone-man Ishant Sharma better than before

On the cusp of his 100th Test, the fast bowler has become a vital cog in the wheel of the Indian side.

Written by Shamik Chakrabarty | Ahmedabad |
Updated: February 23, 2021 4:47:56 pm
Ishant Sharma in action during the first Test against England. (BCCI)

“Good game mate”. Ricky Ponting was impressed with what had been coming at him. A shot at ‘mental disintegration’ would have been a typical Aussie way. The then Australia captain rather chose to praise a newcomer who was playing only his fourth Test, at fast and furious Waca, in a bitterly acrimonious series.

Indian players who heard the conversation between Ponting and Ishant Sharma at close quarters agreed that the Australian great’s praise for the young Indian fast bowler was genuine. A little later, Ponting fell prey to an Ishant delivery after Virender Sehwag implored the ‘kid’ to bowl one more over. Ishant was tiring and his captain Anil Kumble wanted to give him a break. But on Sehwag’s insistence, the bowler persevered.

That was 2008. Thirteen years down the line, as Ishant, 32 now, gets ready to play his 100th Test, he has become perseverance personified. He will be only the second Indian fast bowler after Kapil Dev to reach the milestone. His tally at the moment stands at 302 scalps from 99 Tests.

There had been the highs of Waca or his match-winning spell (7/74) at Lord’s in 2014. The lows were equally emphatic, so much so that after conceding a 30-run over in an ODI against Australia at Mohali, Amul came up with an ad-liner: ‘Ishant, Sharm hai kya’? All the while, the speedster accepted everything with equanimity, although a couple of years ago, in an interview with this paper, he had confessed about breaking down after the 2013 ODI.

He fought a string of injuries, the latest being a side strain which ruled him out of the Australia tour. Ishant has always shown the strength of character to come back stronger, while remaining self-effacing as ever.

Two days before the third Test against England, which would be his 100th if he plays, the fast bowler was asked about his upsurge in form over the last three-odd seasons.

In 20 Tests since 2018, he has taken 76 wickets at 19.34. Ishant put it down to playing more matches overseas. “I played more outside India, so I got those wickets. To be very honest, it was just overseas conditions.”

Forgetting his forte

Ishant Sharma during a practice session at the MA Chidambaram Stadium in Chennai (BCCI)

Forgetting has turned out to be Ishant’s forte. Forgetting (the lows) has helped him get rid of negative vibes.

Dilip Vengsarkar was the chairman of selectors, when Ishant was picked to play for India. “We wanted to groom him for the (2007-08) Australia tour. We included him in the squad for Bangladesh and from there to England followed by Australia. We picked him young because he was sharp and his height allowed him to extract extra bounce off the surface. We knew that he would be an asset in Australia. It was a thorough grooming process and he had a very good Australian tour,” Vengsarkar told The Indian Express.

For someone who debuted for the country as a teenager and instantly made a mark, a fallow period had to be around the corner. Ishant duly hit a road bump. His inswing became predictable, forcing him to reinvent himself.

Entered Jason Gillespie. Ishant went to play for Sussex under Gillespie’s coaching. The former Australian fast bowler’s advice was to hit the deck hard even for his fuller deliveries and target the knee-roll instead of top of off stump. That proved to be the game-changer.

“I always believe and I always say that fast bowlers must have a stint in the County circuit. The NCA should spot the talent and should send younger fast bowlers to England to play County cricket. That will help them learn how to bowl in different conditions and different situations. Also, players are coached very well there (in County cricket) and they learn quickly. I think County cricket is a must for U-23 or U-21 bowlers at the start of their career. County cricket teaches you a lot of (cricketing) discipline, dedication and you have to improve all the time,” Vengsarkar said.

The former India captain paid a glowing tribute to Ishant. “Playing 100 Test matches is a great landmark. It requires tenacity, a lot of hard work and perseverance.”

Captains’ delight

In this file photo, Ishant Sharma speaks to India captain Virat Kohli during a Test in 2015. (AP)

Ishant made his Test debut under Rahul Dravid. From there to Virat Kohli via Anil Kumble and MS Dhoni; he has played under high-profile captains. Ishant’s low-profile nature complemented them. From a bowler’s perspective, who understood him the best?

“It’s difficult to say who understood me the most as all of them understood me really well. But more than the captain understanding me, it was always important as to how I understood the captain.”

And when he became a captain and led the Delhi Ranji team, Ishant was impressive. Captaincy also helped him regain his mojo.

“Ishant was going through a tough period. There was an international series when he didn’t get a game and was eventually released to play the Ranji Trophy. The tradition in Delhi cricket had been to restrict captaincy to batsmen only, but that wasn’t working. I as the Delhi coach wanted a different perspective and the selectors agreed. To win matches we needed 20 opposition wickets and that was why I wanted a bowler at the helm; how to go about the task from a bowler captain’s perspective. Ishant played four or five matches for us during that phase and helped us win three of them almost single-handedly. It also helped him earn an India recall,” Delhi stalwart KP Bhaskar recounted.

Former India seamer Atul Wassan lamented Ishant’s lack of proper recognition. It’s upsetting that the likes of Ishant don’t get their due…”

Ishant, though, has no regrets. Over almost a decade-and-a-half in top-flight cricket, he has grown in stature without losing his simplicity.

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