Ishant Sharma fires in a fullish delivery outside off. It is in the mid-140s, but it comes with an invitation to be driven. Glenn Maxwell caresses it through the point cordon.
A few overs later, Ishant delivers another half volley. Again, it has the pace, but it is pointless. With little movement off the pitch or in the air, the delivery sits up for another Maxwell drive.
The effort could not be questioned, but the deliveries could have benefitted had greater thought been invested in them. But this had been Ishant’s story in the first innings in Ranchi.
It had been his story for most of his career too, so far, apart from those sporadic spurts of lethal spells. He had run in for 20 overs in the first innings of the third Test without much to show for. He had played 76 Tests before Ranchi, but the trend had been similar.
Most successful teams produced these fast bowlers who could threaten with their demeanor. India, for years, only wished for one. Then, Ishant happened to Indian cricket. He was tall, like the dream fast bowlers. But his wily build barely forced the batsmen to even blink, let alone shudder with fright.
Ishant developed some muscle with time. He even changed his hairstyle to look meaner. Yet, on the field, he remained India’s harmless giant.
Ranchi was a crucial Test. A victory for either side would have taken them to a position from where a series loss would not be an option. It was always meant to be an intense game. Even in such an environment, Ishant didn’t always spew venom.
Umesh Yadav came into the attack after the Australians had defied the Indian bowlers with a steady partnership. Ishant walked up to Yadav. The crowd waited in anticipation for the experienced pacer to motivate Yadav, to inspire him to bowl a fiery spell. Instead, both of them shared a joke and giggled away. Ishant was too gentle to fire up his own teammate, let alone threaten the batsmen.
Ready for war
But in the second innings of the Ranchi Test, after the drivable deliveries and laughter on the field, India’s giant was ready for war.
It was the start of a new over on the final day. The Indian pacer was running in at full tilt in a bid to puncture Australia’s resistance. Movement around the sight screen disturbed Matt Renshaw, who in turn disturbed Ishant’s run up to the crease. It frustrated Ishant. It angered Ishant. He threw the ball back, past Renshaw. India’s giant was now baying for blood.
On his way back, Ishant expressed his anger to the Australian captain Steve Smith at the non-striker’s end. The umpire had to step in to move an angry Ishant away. But this incident provided further testimony that an inflamed Ishant is the most lethal.
This Ishant is in contrast to the Ishant that usually exists. He does not wait for a batsman to gift him his wicket. He does not joke around. An enraged Ishant is a thinking Ishant. He wants to hurt the batsmen – physically or mentally. He is now a certified terror, whose only motive is to dismiss the men with the willow.
With the ponytail firmly tied, Ishant returned to his mark. The smile had now given way for fuming nostrils, as the tall fast bowler from Delhi once again steamed in toward the waiting Renshaw. After the delivery was bowled too, Ishant continued to steam in on his follow through toward the 20-year-old opener.
Soon, Ishant delivered a ball straight into Renshaw’s helmet. He followed it up with a bouncer that handed the left-hander another scare. He asked captain Virat Kohli to strengthen the leg side. He set up Renshaw for more bouncers, but, instead, darted a fuller delivery in.
Renshaw was prepared to smell leather, not to tackle a delivery he would have otherwise fended without much trouble. It smacked him on the pad. An angry Ishant rejoiced by letting out a wary cry. An enraged Ishant had thought his way to a wicket.
There were glimpses of this Ishant in the Bengaluru Test too. After a lackluster start in Pune, where he struggled to scalp even a single Australian wicket, the frustration pumped him up in Bengaluru.
Amidst a fiery spell on the morning of day two, he made clown faces to mock Smith. The Australian skipper retaliated with a wry smile and exaggerated calls to his partner, Renshaw. In doing so, he had engaged Ishant. The Indian pacer now had a stare ready for Renshaw, even when he was on the ground after he had tumbled in his follow through.
These verbal duels with the Australians had incensed Ishant. On the cusp of tea later in the day, Kohli had asked the crowd to raise the decibel levels every time the pacer ran in. Eventually, the charged Ishant trapped Mitchell Marsh leg-before to hurt the visitors.
And, by the time the teams had played out a draw in Ranchi, it was clear that a provoked Ishant should worry the opposition. It also makes him more aggressive, which in turn fits him perfectly in Kohli’s team defined by aggression.
In fact, it was in Kohli’s first full series as the captain of the Test side that this facet to Ishant’s personality surfaced. An altercation with the Sri Lankans, Dinesh Chandimal especially, had sparked the fire within Ishant. It also spelt doom for the hosts, as he dismissed three of their batsmen in a hostile spell that earned India a victory in the decider at the SSC.
Post the triumph in Colombo, Kohli was quick to point the advantages of an infuriated Ishant. “I was very happy with the incident when he was batting because it happened at the right time for us,” Kohli had said. “We had to bowl yesterday and they made him angry and it couldn’t have happened at a better time for us.
“The timing was absolutely perfect and everything fell in place for us as far as being aggressive is concerned. And the way he bowled in the second innings, he didn’t concede a boundary for 19 overs. And that’s the kind of pressure he created on those batsmen because of one incident. So it had to be controlled but in the end it benefitted us.”
Teasing moments of magic
Seventy seven Test matches are a luxury. Not every player who represents his country plays as many. And if he does, he is usually one of the mainstays of the team. Not Ishant. Ishant has had moments of magic across the globe, but those moments have teased more than charmed his admirers for the seven years that he has spent as a Test cricketer thus far.
Even now, once Mohammad Shami is fit and available for Test selection, Ishant could have to make way.
Shami’s four-wicket haul in the Vijay Hazare Trophy final could force the selectors to hurry him back into the squad. “We sent him to play, wanted to give him match practice,” Kohli revealed on Monday. “I’ve not spoken to selectors, but all kinds of possibility are there approaching the next Test.”
But the fury of Ishant has promised to improve his consistency and develop an aura of fear around him, like the kind some of the great fast bowlers carried. If he holds on to his place for Dharamsala, it is this aggression-laden facet he may want to turn to.