In 2011, when India last toured the Caribbean, Ishant Sharma won the Man-of-the-Series Award, picking up 22 wickets at an average of 16.86.
Five years later, a fitter Ishant will be spearheading the India pace attack in the four-Test series against West Indies. This time, Ishant, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mohammad Shami and Umesh Yadav are expected to shoulder the responsibility on pitches expected to be conducive.
The signs aren’t encouraging though. In the warm-up game against West Indies Board President’s XI at St Kitts, none of the India pacers were among wickets, though each of them bowled at least 13 overs. It was leg-spinner Amit Mishra who picked up a four-wicket haul. The Caribbean has been a happy hunting ground for fast bowlers, and in 2011 Ishant kept India in the hunt despite the visitors struggling to put up scores of over 300.
A lot has changed since then. Ishant has suffered injuries, dip in form and the struggle to click with a different set of pacers has impacted his growth as a seamer. Since his debut in 2007 till 2011, Ishant’s career graph rose at an average of 33. The number isn’t impressive for a frontline India pacer, having played 36 Tests. But his magical spell in Australia in 2008, where he removed Ricky Ponting in the ninth over of a single spell, and his performance in the West Indies helped Ishant to retain his spot in the Test side.
During this period, he paired with the experienced Zaheer Khan, S Sreesanth, Ashish Nehra and Praveen Kumar. All of them were deft at swinging the ball. Ishant, on the other hand, lacked swing but could extract steep bounce from the good length area and could bowl quick bouncers that climbed on the batsmen.
With Zaheer getting injured on the 2011 England tour, Ishant’s form dipped and he fared poorly on the tour, managing 11 wickets at an average of 60. A brief ankle injury followed and it took him time to recover.
India lost eight away Tests that season. In Australia, a barely-fit Ishant picked just five wickets and conceded 431 runs. In March 2012, he underwent an ankle surgery and returned in 2013.
In 68 Tests, the Delhi seamer has 201 wickets and 32 of the last Tests have been played after July 2011. From an average of 33, he performed poorly at slightly less than 43 and could only pick 80 wickets. Ishant lost his length and wasn’t able to produce quality short-pitched stuff. He was fuller in length compared to being a perfect three-quarter bowler.
What kept him going were on-off performances. In 2014, the six-wicket haul in the second Test at Lord’s not only won India the match but also triggered his comeback. Ishant bent his back and picked up important wickets. He continued his form in Sri Lanka, where he wasn’t among the highest wicket-takers but bowled some fiery spells.
With an improved Bhuvneshwar and Shami in the squad, Ishant seems to be getting a clearer understanding of his role. “I need to stick to my strengths. Bhuvneshwar swings the ball well, while I may not swing it too much, I can hit the deck hard and do well,” said Ishant.
Moreover, he is hopeful of doing better with the Dukes ball. “I have always done well with it. It stays hard and swings well,” he said. His best performances have come in England and West Indies.