The biggest appraisal of Indian bowlers, if indirectly, came from West Indies batsman Roston Chase, who remarked: “There were no magic balls. There were no unplayable deliveries.” He was referring to his colleagues’ lack of application and purpose, but indirectly he was complimenting the resourcefulness of Ishant Sharma and Co. For on a flat, if benign surface, they blew up the hosts’ endeavour to surpass the tourists’ lead, with a combination of patience, purpose, cricketing intelligence, and beyond it, collectivism. There was nothing spectacular, but the beauty of this Indian bowling unit is that they needn’t be spectacular to leave batting line-ups in disarray.
It’s a fair measure to judge a bowlers’ mettle on what he does on unhelpful, batsman-friendly conditions, when there is no swing available, when the strip doesn’t induce disarming bounce, when it’s not crack-laden, when it’s just a placid, sun-blanched second-third day pitch, when a bowler has to rely on brains, brawn, craft and nous, when he has to haggle for tough wickets.
It’s equivalent to a batsman grinding out runs in difficult conditions, purchasing tough runs in adversity. So much then is glorified about batsmen, but less so with bowlers, whose toils on placid wickets go unsung and under-appreciated, dismissed regularly as an after-thought. Often in such eventualities, they pin the blame on the batsmen’s indiscretion, their impatience, their impetuousness, rather than reflecting on the plotting and build-up to their wickets.
Hence, as much as the West Indies’ batsmen present a case for their shoddy batting effort, the Indian bowlers deserve credit for making them look shoddy through collective planning and purposeful execution. None embodied this virtue than Ishant Sharma, harnessing the cross-wind — planning, plotting, planning and pushing batsmen into making mistakes, detecting the smallest of weaknesses, exploiting it to the fullest and grabbing every little chance that came his way.
The two return catches, one of their only anchorman, Kraigg Brathwaite and then of their most explosive batsman, Shimron Hetmyer, merely demonstrated his sheer will. Especially the return catch of Hetmyer. Not the most elastic of fielders, he had to plunge his six foot four frame to the ground in his follow-through to snaffle the low-flung projectile. In a fraction of a second, in less time that you bat your eyelid, leaving even the agilest of Indian fielders, Ravindra Jadeja baffled. “That was an unbelievable catch,” Jadeja praised.
Ishant was a man stirred—extracting the slightest of assistance from the surface, like the wind that blew across him. Initially, he was bowling from the Sir Curtly Ambrose End but as soon the wind began to blow, he switched ends. Now, he has steaming in from the Andy Roberts End, bowling with the intelligence and awareness that could have made Roberts of latter years proud.
The wind enabled out-swing, not prodigious swing, but just subtle movement, which was allied with the one that cut into the right-hander. In a spell of unremitting intensity in the afternoon on Day Two, he harassed their best Test batsmen, Shai Hope and Roston Chase, both he devoured. Hope with a beautiful delivery that shaped in and slightly bent away, drawing him forward and forcing a faint nick. An inch-perfect than a magic ball.
The ball that got Chase wasn’t wicket-ball — it’s a way of balancing out the wicket-taking balls that went wicket-less — but it stemmed from the sheer pressure he was piling on him, peppering him ball after ball of relentless discipline and teasing accuracy. On the fourth-stump channel, some that shaped in, some that held its line with the angle and some that seamed away. So a leg-side-bound loose ball implored a boundary, but the delivery held off the surface and Chase was early into the shot.
Chase was his third wicket, Hetmyer his fourth and Kemar Roach his fifth, which he celebrated effervescently. It might have been his most sweaty five-for. Then it could have been anyone’s.
Power of teamwork
It could have been Jasprit Bumrah’s or Mohammed Shami’s as well. That’s the most glittering feature of the trio—they’re relentless in their pursuit of out-witting and out-thinking batsmen, swapping roles, switching lengths and supporting each other through thick and thin. For batsmen, there’s no succour, no respite. Just plain hard work.
It helps that all three are differently-skilled as well as versatile. Bumrah is arguably the most different and gifted, the smiling executioner. Ishant is the most experienced and worldly-wise, the gnarling leader. Shami is the most bustling, the feisty enforcer, even if he could blow hot and cold at times. Together, they make a feared trio—Bumrah can marvel with a variety of precious toys, Ishant can be always in your face, and Shami has a knack of producing match-turning spells when the team wants them the most.
Though they have different preferred lengths and trajectories, they can masterfully interchange. All of them can comfortably bowl short, full, or back-of-length depending on the surface. It’s a rare gift, as hit-the-deck bowlers sometimes struggle on those that collude a fuller length.
Ishant in his early years was a classic case. But beyond the confluence of their varied skills, they’re good friends, which to Curtly Ambrose is the essence of hunting in packs and the aspect of the Indian bowling that has impressed him the most.
“I see shades of myself and Courtney (Walsh) in them. We were great friends on and off the field. We never tried to out-do or compete with each other. If it was his day, it is his job is to take wickets, I would just look to keep it nice and tight outside the off-stump, the put the pressure on the batsmen. If it’s my day, he would do the same. So that was the reason we were so successful as a pair,” he explained to this newspaper.
They are good friends too. The vibes are perceptible on the field—they’re constantly involved with each other, feeding off each other, talking tactics, tackling batsmen, sometimes bantering and pulling each other’s legs, but always together. Off the field, you can see them sitting around the same dinner table, strolling the beach together and even batting together at the nets. Their fondness and respect is mutual. This automatically translates into results on the field.
The trio is still in the nascence of the partnership that could make India a world-conquering force, to augment their World No.1 status, but the more they play the together, the brighter they look like evolving into an irresistible pace-attack, like Ponting’s McGrath-Gillespie-Lee triumvirate, though likening them to Lloyd’s quartet is flattering.
Comparisons aside, such a luxury few Indian skippers could have dreamt of in the past. But Kohli is blessed that way. He could summon anyone of them and expect him to log in a decent shift, find the much-required breakthrough and keep India in the game, as it was during West Indies’s first innings. When wickets were hard to come by, when the sun was patting down fiercely, when the batsmen were bedding in, he could just signal anyone of his three pacemen to provide him with a match-turning spell.
It was so in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney. And so it was in North Sound. It was Ishant who turned up in the first innings. But it could be anyone in the next. And there were no magical, jaw-dropping deliveries, but honest grit, craft and intelligence.
BRIEF SCORES: India 1st innings 297 all out in 96.4 ovs (A Rahane 81, R Jadeja 58;K Roach 4/66) vs West Indies 1st innings: 222 all out in 74.2 ovs (R Chase 48, J Holder 39; I Sharma 5/43, Md Shami 2/48, R Jadeja 2/64).