On the internet, Ishant Sharma is a perpetual meme. First, it was the hair. Then, it was the bowling. Then, it was the voice (a squeak that just doesn’t seem to go with his frame). And finally, it was the way he sledged. To be fair, they were easy pickings and the internet lapped it up. It earned Sharma a reputation — not one that he would care about — but one that he would have perhaps wanted to avoid.
As the tour against the West Indies came to an end, the buzz all around the park was about Jasprit Bumrah and justifiably so. The fast bowler claimed 13 wickets, including a hat-trick, at an average of 9.23 during the tour. He was well nigh unplayable at times.
But at the same time, his brilliance perhaps made everyone forget just how good Ishant Sharma was during the tour too. The lanky pacer claimed 11 wickets at 12.17 in the two Tests and also scored 76 runs, including a vital fifty, at an average of 38.
During the tour, Ishant also became the most successful Indian pacer outside of Asia, surpassing Kapil Dev’s tally of 155 wickets. Now, these numbers, as impressive as they are, wouldn’t have mattered much if they were a one-off. And that is precisely why Ishant Sharma deserves more respect. His performances have not been a one-off, they have instead had the consistency that everyone knew he had the potential to achieve but had never quite been able to… till now.
Since 2018, three Indian pacers have taken 50+ wickets in Tests:
Bumrah - 62 (avg 19.24)
Shami - 58 (avg 25.68)
Ishant - 52 (avg 19.78)
No other team has more than two pacers with 50 wickets in the same period.
Note how close his numbers are to those of Bumrah and until the second Test against West Indies, his average was better than India’s main strike bowler. The change could come down to two major things.
One, he has quality around him.
Bumrah has spoken about it multiple times as has Shami — this is a unit that feeds off each other. They share their knowledge, they enjoy each others success and they take pride in being part of the group. The success has brought them together and given them the confidence to keep repeating these performances.
“We have done a lot of hard work. Last year, we played a lot of away matches. A lot of camaraderie is there, we back each other. Even if things are going well, we discuss how to get better. We have a good relationship, all of us. We want to get better every year,” Bumrah said during the Jamaica Test that India won by 257 runs.
Bumrah added: “Ishant has played a lot more cricket than all of us. Shami has also played a lot of cricket. I am the new guy and I try and ask them a lot of questions. I get to know what works in different conditions. If the wicket is not doing anything, what should we do.”
Ishant’s role in this unit is often overlooked but he has finally started showing the value of his experience. In many ways, he is the leader of this group. He’s seen it all, over a career that has now stretched to 92 Tests and is now making the most of it.
The fast bowler has now been part of 20 ‘away’ wins and his numbers in those wins are superb: 77 wickets at an average of 23.50 with three five-wicket hauls.
Most appearances in away Test wins for India:
24 Rahul Dravid
20* Ishant Sharma
20 VVS Laxman
20 Sachin Tendulkar
18 Zaheer Khan
17 Virender Sehwag
16 Sourav Ganguly
15* Virat Kohli
15 Anil Kumble
The second thing that has slipped into place for Ishant is that he has finally got rid of the unlucky tag. For the longest time, Ishant would bowl good balls, beat the batsmen but miss the edge. That was consistent behaviour from a bowler whose natural length — a short of good length — didn’t help matters either.
In his early days, Ishant would have the odd breath-taking spell — we all still remember that spell to Ponting. On most days he would either be trying to do too much or just trying not to get hit. But under the guidance of bowling coach Bharat Arun, he has found a way to reinvent himself.
“Please check how Ishant bowled three years back. He would bowl a good spell but would go wicketless. He wasn’t able to get the edges because he wasn’t making the batsman play. Today he will make the batsman play every single ball. That’s what is different in him and that’s what has made him a stand out bowler. He is bowling quick and is swinging the ball at good pace while making the batsman play,” said Bharat Arun in an interview to The Economic Times recently.
Indeed, when Ishant is bowling a line that forces the batsmen to play, he becomes an altogether different proposition. He has always managed to bowl the big inswingers but if batsmen have to play at them, it brings bat-pad into play, the gap between bat and pad can be exploited and it means that his straighter delivery also acquires a potent edge.
It may seem like a simple enough change but this is a philosophy that suits Ishant well. He doesn’t look like he is trying to out-think the batsmen, like perhaps Bumrah does. Instead, he sticks to his guns. He plays the game of patience and in the last two years, most often than not, he has won.
Rudyard Kipling once said, “the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.” So while Bumrah’s rapid rise has captured everyone’s attention, Ishant resurrection has been just as important and deserves the plaudits as well. He has played his role... he has played it well and having just turned 31 a few days ago, he should still to be around for a while longer.