As if under a curse, the magic of Ishant Sharma’s fingers simply vanished. The snaking, lifting in-cutters with the power to cut batsmen into half, mixed with the lethal deliveries which straightened after pitching, were no longer in his control. Few bowlers, after such a brilliant start, have endured the helpless feeling for such a long period.
Imagine the frustration Ishant would have felt watching the recording of his spell to Ricky Ponting, then in his prime, at Perth in the 2007-08 series. Six months later, Ishant had lost the venom in his bowling.
It’s nearly six years that he bowled with the same devastating effect in Sri Lanka. There were encouraging signs of a turnaround since the New Zealand tour in 2014, and it all seemed to come together again in Sri Lanka.
“He had a good first spell, then lost a bit of confidence and had a lean patch for a couple of years. Sometimes, young guys need that time to develop. It’s crucial in how the coaches and selectors are lenient with them. So, all credit to the Indian team management for keeping faith in Ishant,” said Allan Donald, the fearsome fast bowler of the 1990s.
“Now, he is showing what he is about. The faith in him is paying off. It’s about channelising your thoughts and strategising in Tests. That is what you are seeing… the skill coming through. He is a wonderful talent,” said Donald.
Former fast bowler Javagal Srinath, who was part of the India team which had won a Test series in Sri Lanka 22 years ago, felt it is the attitude which has made the difference in Ishant’s bowling.
“He is fitter and stronger. It’s all about what’s in the mind. Now, mentally he is prepared to take the responsibility of leading the attack. He is looking to win the game for India. The results are naturally showing,” said Srinath.
A major change is his aggression. While it worked for him and his team in Sri Lanka, it was ugly and on occasions he looked out of control. In his display of aggression, Donald used to be similar. The concern is whether Ishant was overdoing it. It has come at a cost, slapped with a one-game ban, which means the eagerly-awaited duel between Dale Steyn and the rejuvenated Ishant will not happen in the first Test of the India-South Africa series in Mohali, which would have suited both.
Donald would intimidate, but was smart enough to use his anger to lift his performance. People are not sure if it is working for Ishant.
Donald said whether good or bad would depend on knowing when to trigger it. “Bowlers are naturally aggressive. The key is to know when to trigger that streak. (Also) It will not work if you are faking aggression, batsmen can easily spot that, they are always scrutinising the bowler. Almost every single frontline bowler has natural aggression. I can see that in Ishant and his captain Virat Kohli said it,” said Donald.
Despite his super show in the last three Tests, sceptics are not sure what to expect of him. The fear of ‘will it last this time’ is due to how he lost it earlier. “After Sri Lanka, he needs to sit down and understand why he is bowling well. Why it is happening for him. It’s all about the feel. He has to memorise everything so that when he loses form, he can get it back quickly,” advised Donald.
“For any exceptional bowler, he will be judged by his consistency. Not by performing now and then. Greatness is stamped on a player only when he delivers every time the chips are down. All great batters and bowlers have done well over a long period of time. It’s the harsh reality and Ishant will have to do it consistently.”