It was the year 2006 and India’s U19 team was touring Pakistan for what was expected to be an engrossing series between the future cricket stars of both the countries. The second test was played at Arbab Niaz Stadium at Peshawar and Pakistan openers had a daunting task as India had scored a massive 611 riding on Tanmay Srivastava’s brilliant 220. However, they were wrecked by a tall lanky paceman from Delhi, who picked up 4-20 in 13 overs and bowled with a lot of hostility on a flat track. India sealed the game and series and the boy came into the spotlight as a bright future prospect.
Eight months later, after India’s World Cup 2007 campaign ended on a horrible note, selectors decided to blood in fresh faces. The boy who has reaped 68 wickets in his first-class season at Ranji level, was picked for the tour to Bangladesh. He later on debuted in Chittagong test at the age of just 18 years and 8 months. A few months later, he bowled his heart out against visiting Pakistani team at Bangalore where he picked up 5 wickets in the benign surface. However, it was only a month later, when he bowled one of the finest spells by a visiting bowler in Australia that he came to the limelight.
It was this moment when the world came to know about Ishant Sharma. The spell at Perth made whole country and experts go gaga on Ishant, they labeled him the next big thing. Ishant though was just like any other teenager, he also aimed for speed rather than the consistency and this was where his inexperience became evident. He used to bowl the same length on all the wickets, the short length stuff which has seen him breaching the defence of one of the best batsman of all time Ricky Ponting at Perth in January 2008. This resulted in inconsistent performances, on one side he picked figures like 77-4 and 40-3 (at Bangalore vs Australia in 2008). Then, on the other hand, he was getting wicket-less after 25 overs of bowling (at Delhi vs Australia). After two good series against Australia (15 wickets in 4 tests at 27.06 ) and England ( 6 wickets in 2 tests at 25.16), his performance slipped as he struggled to pick wickets.
In 2009, he played only 4 tests and picked 10 wickets at 46.90. in 2010.
His performance continued to deteriorate as he picked up only 36 wickets in next 12 tests at 38.27. It was the time, India was picking up the team for the World Cup and Ishant was no more first preference but the dream of becoming India’s premier fast bowler seemed to had been lost. Moreover, Ishant was being ridiculed from all quarters, sometimes labeled as useless in spite of having great height, sometimes ridiculed for his hairstyle, on other times for his manner on-field and last but not the least for his bowling. In 2012, he had to undergo ankle surgery which paved way for other bowlers in the national team.
It did not do much good to him because the problem lied not only in his bowling style but the confidence his captain showed in him. In 2013 he was taken apart by James Faulkner, needing 44 runs at Mohali, James Faulkner smoked Ishant for 30 runs in an over. It was the moment when it looked that Ishant’s career was over. By the end of 2013, Ishant had played 53 Tests and had taken 149 wickets at an average of 38.81, the worst in the history amongst Indian bowlers, who have played for such a long time and picked that many wickets.
At the age of 25, it looked the promise which Ishant had shown when he arrived would be left, unfulfilled.
In early 2014, India’s tour of New Zealand was probably the last chance where Ishant could have afforded to fail, many pacers junior to him were breathing down his neck for a place in the team. India lost the test at Auckland but it was the moment they got Ishant back, it was the moment of revival in the bumpy career of Delhi speedster. Subsequent successes in England, where he won a crucial test at Lords gave him the self-belief.
The change in the leadership next year which saw Kohli having more confidence in him elevated Ishant Sharma as India’s strike bowler, someone on whom the team could look up even at home.
It is not that Ishant Sharma has become a great pace bowler, but he has become the bowler he promised at the beginning of his career.
With patience and maturity in his armor, he can bowl all day long at one spot troubling even the best in the business. His spell at Colombo in 2015 helped India to win in Sri Lanka after 22 years. The way he led the pace attack in South Africa, England and Australia, last year was commendable picking up 37 wickets in 10 Tests at an exceptional average of 22.95.
A look at the stats show how he has improved as a bowler in recent years and these numbers continue to improve. By the time, he retires he might have picked up 400 Test Wickets below 30 something which would be huge success for someone who was once regarded as useless.
The stats since 2014 clearly stress how much Ishant has improved, but what they don’t tell is that he has built up an excellent control on his bowling, he has bowled 240 maiden overs in 38 tests (6.31 per test) compared to 327 in 53 tests (6.16) and his economy is only 2.96 in this span down by 0.38 (it was 3.34 earlier). He has learned to buy the wickets.
There are still a lot of things on which Ishant needs to work, his average against Australia(25 Tests- 59 wickets at 42.20) and South Africa(13 Tests – 29 wickets at 42.20) will be something that will be looked at for they have been the best sides during this era. On September 2, he will turn 31 and considering hsi best years might be ahead of him, he might finish as India’s highest test wicket-taker among pacers beating the legendry Kapil Dev’s record but till then let the reincarnated lion hearted cricketer enjoy the feats which he will be achieving in the coming months. Feats which he deserves for standing tall amid all the criticisms all those years. As Justin Langer once said, “The pain of discipline is nothing like pain of disappointment”