Ishant Sharma: Miles and miles, and a splendid milestone
- For Ishant Sharma, getting 300 Test wickets is a reward for a 14-year journey of toil, discipline, sheer steel of not giving up.
Ishant Sharma’s face contorted, flashing emotion from rage to triumph as his full delivery sneaked under the bat of Dan Lawrence, trapping the England batsman leg before in the Chennai Test on Monday. The 32-year-old fast bowler then broke into a grin, relief and joy etched on the face as teammates converged to celebrate his 300th Test wicket.
The significance of the milestone will not be lost on Indian cricket. For the player, it is reward for a 14-year journey of toil, discipline, sheer steel of not giving up after tough days on the field and overcoming painful injuries, especially in the ankles. For Indian cricket, it is the satisfaction of fulfilled potential.
How difficult has it been to be Ishant Sharma? India has always had batting prodigies and quality spinners, but unearthing natural fast bowlers has been rare. Among the pace tribe, we have a few really skillful ones who could bowl real quick but Ishant probably is the first who can be termed a complete package.
He is tall (6 ft, 3 in) and a natural athlete with a rhythmic run-up and fluid high-arm action. It is a description that normally fits an Australian or West Indies fast bowler.
When you burst on to the scene like Ishant did with a dream spell to dismiss Ricky Ponting at Perth in early 2008, you set the benchmark very high. For a country starved of quality pace talent, he raised expectations like only Kapil Dev had before him. Straightaway the Glenn McGrath tag was stuck on him. Ishant was straightaway expected to be the strike bowler, making early inroads, providing breakthroughs in tough situations. And the first phase of his career was spent struggling to cope with the scrutiny that chases great talent. The expectations were purely based on his natural ability. He was still a long way off from understanding what to do in various situations of the game.
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Two partnerships stand out in his career: The first with Anil Kumble and then with Jason Gillespie. Now, he is at the peak of his powers in terms of skill and game sense, but he perhaps can never repeat the quality he produced under Kumble’s captaincy. The first glimpse came in the first Test he played under Kumble, the second of his career, against Pakistan at Bengaluru. After a quiet start, he suddenly made everyone sit up and take notice midway through Pakistan’s innings. From 525/6, he ran through Pakistan’s lower order. The last four wickets fell for 12 runs and Ishant finished with a five-wicket haul.
It got the Delhi teenager on the plane to Australia. Before his Perth spell, where he bowled a nine-over spell to finally get Ponting, he had bowled an equally searing spell to Andrew Symonds in the second Test at Sydney. On that tour, six wickets in three Tests was not a true reflection of the quality of his bowling. Kumble knew how to hone Ishant’s talent, probably a bowler understanding another bowler better.
In the first home Test of the 2008-09 series against Australia, also at Bengaluru in Kumble’s last series, Ishant again made an impact with seven wickets.
Injuries pegged dogged him in the first phase of his career. He missed the 2011 World Cup due to ankle surgery. Critics kept pointing to his lack of big wicket hauls in games, but his work ethic and determination to learn and bowl fast won the respect of every coach and captain.
Ishant’s real transformation though happened under former Australia pacer, Jason Gillespie, while playing for Sussex in the summer of 2018. Gillespie helped Ishant find the missing link in his bowling. The numbers speak for itself. According to CricViz data, the best phase of his career has come after that - 17 wickets in five matches at home at an average of 19.41. Away, he has 45 wickets in 11 matches at 20.22.
“A lot of people would tell me I need to increase the pace of my fuller deliveries,” Ishant later said. “No one told me how to do that. When I went to play County cricket, Gillespie told me the solution. He said to increase the pace of fuller deliveries, you don’t just release the ball but hit the deck so that it should hit the knee roll. Earlier, I would put cones during nets. That’s okay for a youngster who wants to get his area right. For someone like me, I need to see where my ball is finishing rather than where it’s pitched,” he said during a Ranji game in New Delhi.
He got better with experience, but it was tough early on. He has fitted into various roles well to help with the team combination. From a strike bowler in the early days, he slipped into a support role for Zaheer Khan, and then became the spearhead as Mohammed Shami and Umesh Yadav took time to develop. Now, he is back to doing a support role in Jasprit Bumrah’s company.
He has matured to such an extent that conditions no longer matter. The latest proof came in this Chennai Test. On a lifeless track, he has been the most effective bowler, in a contest that has James Anderson, Bumrah and Jofra Archer.
Ishant was content on Monday. “It has been quite a rollercoaster life so far. A lot of experiences, I’ve learned a lot about how to bowl in the sub-continent, and what lengths to bowl when we go abroad,” he told the official broadcaster. “Feeling a bit sore, just played four-over T20 games in domestic cricket (after injury ruled him out of the Australia tour), and came back and straightaway bowled 34 overs.”
People in the dressing room know it has not been easy journey. Long-time teammate R Ashwin said: “Ishant is one of the most hardworking cricketers I’ve seen. He has done that for more than one reason, because being that tall itself requires lot of facets to be managed through a career which spans 14 years. The Ishant that went to Australia and got Ponting then has gone on so many other tours, had his share of injuries. For a fast bowler to play close to 100 Tests (98 Tests) is not a joke. It is a fantastic, fantastic achievement. I would really want to see him get to 400 and then 500 Test wickets to sort of set a road map for a lot of Indian fast bowlers.”