Siraj-Ishant intriguing head-to-head in England series
- Ishant Sharma, who recently played his 100th Test, is no longer an automatic choice with the emergence of Mohammed Siraj, but the senior pacer has compelling numbers to push his case
One could be mistaken into believing that Ishant Sharma, the only vintage hand in India’s new age pace attack, lags behind. His non-inclusion in the playing eleven in the Nottingham Test—his injured right hand may have contributed though vice-captain Ajinkya Rahane had declared everyone except Mayank Agarwal fit—would have led one to believe the 32-year-old could warm the bench for the entire tour. With the emergence of Mohammed Siraj, that cannot be ruled out. But Sharma does have the numbers to stay in contention for every Test in the England series.
Sharma has battled to erase his early image as a one-trick, in-swinging pony. Even his not-so-recent form makes for a compelling case of the value he could bring against Joe Root’s team. Since Jasprit Bumrah’s arrival on the Test arena in 2018, India’s pace pack has become a fierce force. During this period he has played an equal part—having featured in 23 Tests to Mohammed Shami’s 25 and Bumrah’s 21. In those games, Sharma’s 80 wickets have come with the best average (19.85) and strike rate (43.8) among the trio. Shami and Bumrah have more wickets, 93 and 92 respectively. Siraj, who played ahead of Sharma in the first Test, is still only six-Tests old. Umesh Yadav has played in 12 Tests in this period, but mostly at home.
On India’s last tour of England (2018), Sharma was their highest wicket-taker with 18 scalps, again with the best average (24.27) and strike rate (50.3) among the trio. Of course, Sharma wouldn’t have had this success without Bumrah’s potency and Shami extracting seam movement from the other end. That’s visible in Sharma’s lesser returns from earlier England tours. He has however improved with every outing, taking 14 wickets at an average of 27.21 in 2014, a marked improvement from his first tour in 2011 when he averaged 58.18 for 11 wickets.
Sharma also led the way in the World Test Championship final where he was preferred over Siraj. While Bumrah endured a bad game, Sharma had New Zealand skipper Kane Williamson among his three first-innings wickets. His improved performances are primarily after his county stint with Sussex in 2018, where he worked with Jason Gillespie, who advised him to target hitting the knee roll of the batsmen, which would automatically force him to bowl fuller. As per the ball-tracking data of India’s 2018 tour of England, Sharma’s average length of 6.76m was the fullest amongst the trio; Shami hitting on an average 7.15m and Bumrah 7.19m.
One statistic though points to the team’s growing belief in Siraj’s ability. The Hyderabad pacer may still be raw but ends up bowling a lot many overs compared to Ishant. Siraj bowls approximately 33 overs per Test he plays while Sharma is used for around 25 overs. Shami bowls 29 overs while Bumrah, being the spearhead, bowls the most (36 overs).
Sharma was once the team’s workhorse, bowling the longest spells, the first in line to bowl round-the-wicket spells against left-handed batsmen. In Siraj, India has found someone five-years younger who can do all that and also extract more seam and swing movement. Australia was Siraj’s breakthrough tour. From not starting in the first Test, he finished as the leader of the attack in the end. Some of his exuberance can show up, like it did in the 2nd innings of the last Test where he lost his bowling discipline after engaging in verbals with the England players. Never did Virat Kohli rein him in. Perhaps, he sees some of his own feistiness in Siraj.
With neither Sharma nor Siraj have any great batting credentials, we are unlikely to see both playing together soon. But that’s no reason England’s undercooked batting order will be allowed to breathe easy. Bumrah with his crackerjack performance in the series opener has already pegged them back. They would also know a 102-Test veteran in Sharma is patiently waiting to make an impact should an opportunity arise.