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The importance of being Ishant – cricket

Virender Sehwag watched with pride the skill and discipline of a young teammate making his presence felt on one of the toughest assignments you can get as a cricketer.

Here was a lanky 19-year-old fast bowler Sehwag knew well as the rookie from Delhi’s Ranji side—a boy he and his other Delhi mates had tritely nicknamed as “lambu”—whizzing balls past Ricky Ponting at the Waca, Australia’s Perth fortress.

The bowler was Ishant Sharma, and he was just winding up his seventh over on the trot; Ponting seemed to have weathered the storm.

Except Sehwag was convinced that Sharma was close to getting his man. A mid-pitch conference followed and he persuaded skipper Anil Kumble to squeeze one more over out of Ishant, who agreed to continue.

Sharma got Ponting first ball.

With the fiery drama of the Sydney Test—dubbed “Monkeygate”—still smouldering, Indian went on to clinch their only Test win in the 2007-8 tour of Australia. Sharma got only three wickets in that Test; but those three were: Ponting, Ponting and Michael Clarke. That spell from Sharma was, arguably, the cricketing highlight of the series for India.

As India prepare to defend the Border-Gavaskar Trophy after a historic first series win in Australia two years ago, the big focus is on how they will fare when skipper Virat Kohli leaves after the Adelaide pink-ball game with three more to play.

Yet the team management, even as it fusses over how to make up for Kohli’s absence in the batting line-up, will be anxious to have Sharma fly into Australia soon to complete India’s fearsome pace attack.

Thirteen years after that stunning spell at the Waca, Sharma continues to give batsmen a torrid time. That he was back to bowling at full run-up at the National Cricket Academy in Bengaluru after a stomach injury suffered in the IPL, was essential news for India’s hopes in the upcoming tour.

The 32-year-old’s experience will be invaluable; it will be his fifth Test series in Australia. Three more games will make him only India’s second new-ball bowler to play 100 Tests (after Kapil Dev, 131 Tests). At 297, he is also on the verge of becoming the third India pacer to take 300 Test wickets—Kapil has 434 and Zaheer Khan 311 in 92 Tests.

Milestones are hardly the focus for a bowler who can switch between shock and stock as the team asks, and who is constantly polishing his skills, especially the reverse swing, and has not dropped pace despite wear-and-tear injuries.

Bowling with Bumrah

Jasprit Bumrah’s strike role since his 2018 debut in South Africa, and Sharma bowling with the older ball to seam and reverse, hasn’t slowed down the senior pro. For Bumrah’s 68 wickets in 14 Tests (all abroad), Sharma has 71 from 18, with five or more scalps in six matches. His wickets are often the critical ones.

In the 2018 Johannesburg win, again Sharma took only three wickets. But they included a set Hashim Amla to end a century stand and skipper Faf du Plessis cheaply in the second innings. He was once dubbed a “defensive bowler”. The criticism stung him. At the 2018 Edgbaston Test, in the second innings, he scythed through England, picking up five wickets, including Bairstow, Stokes and Buttler in one over.

“Actually, I got tired of the tag. I am bowling well but my wicket column has always not been very good. It feels very good because I put in a lot of work. Playing for your country and taking five wickets, that too in the second innings, feels nice,” he told reporters after the day’s play.

His tally of 18 wickets (avg 24.27) in that series was overshadowed by a 1-4 series loss. In Australia last time, Ishant’s 11 wickets at 23.8 in three Tests was vital, behind Bumrah’s series-leading 21 and Mohammed Shami’s 16.

The big challenge with the Kookaburra ball in Australia is it does little for bowlers once the shine wears off. This is where Sharma’s skill, experience, and the angle the 6’ 4” bowler’s high-arm action creates, all become important.

Faster, better

Australia pacer Josh Hazlewood in a recent interview to Hindustan Times said his batsmen will have to blunt Bumrah’s sharpness while pointing to the Sharma factor. India’s bowling challenge is sterner this time as Steve Smith and David Warner, who were serving bans in 2018, and Marnus Labuschagne will look to dictate terms.

Sharma has also been helped by some Australian wisdom. Last December, he explained how ex-Aussie pacer Jason Gillespie, then Sussex coach, guided him during his stint with the English county in 2018.

“The problem in India is everyone tells you the problem, no one tells you about the solution. Knowing the solution nowadays is an important aspect… a good coach will also tell you that,” he told reporters at the Ferozeshah Kotla.

“Zak (Zaheer) gave us a lot of solutions,” he said. “A lot of people would tell me I need to increase the pace of my fuller deliveries. No one told me how… Gillespie did.

There can’t be a bigger series for Sharma to put those lessons to work.

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