When Ishant Sharma made his stunning debut against Australia, the future for Indian bowling looked bright - before his career faded in International cricket. After the stint under the Australian Jason Gillespie, he returned back roaring in International cricket to become India’s bowling binder.
Yet, he was far from becoming the leader of the bowling attack with worrying form. In 2018, the dynamics changed despite the presence of an effervescent Jasprit Bumrah, who made his debut that January against South Africa. India’s bowling unit seemed to be going in a Bumrah-i-cal direction.
That is when an Australian legend, Jason Gillespie stepped in to give Ishant Sharma, the solution that he was always seeking. In particular, he told Ishant to hit the deck more often than not against his earlier approach of bowling too full to get the ball to talk. For the next year and a half, the lanky pacer was one of the spearheads of the Indian bowling attack, only taking the mantle when Bumrah got injured. His effect on the other bowlers was visible immediately, against South Africa and Bangladesh.
With a returning Bumrah, all eyes were on the 26-year-old to be the focal point in India’s return to New Zealand. Meanwhile, Ishant playing for Delhi in their Ranji Trophy encounter against Vidarbha faced a scare, an injury. A freak of sorts, with reported advice of at least six weeks before he could play any sort of cricket. Virat Kohli, despite winning the T20I series in New Zealand, would have been heartbroken.
In New Zealand, Ishant’s height combined with the ability to seam the ball made him a well-settled prospect. In five Tests prior in New Zealand, Ishant had already taken 23 wickets, averaging nearly 28. For a new-look bowling attack in New Zealand, Ishant’s presence was a necessity and not a luxury. When the people of Delhi were hoping of their election result, Virat Kohli and co were hoping of a positive result to Ishant Sharma’s fitness test.
Both of them got their needs, Ishant Sharma passed the fitness Test right in time - on February 15, a week before India took on New Zealand in the first Test. The pacer returned right in time from a grade-three tear on his right ankle in five weeks, ahead of the scheduled six-week return. Yet, Kohli knew that a rusty-Ishant was still going to be a crucial factor in New Zealand conditions. For India to win a Test in New Zealand, it was always going to be necessary to have a good-bowling performance as a unit. In short, to pick up 20 wickets without the experience of Ishant in the squad was always going to be daunting for even the World No.1 Test side, India.
The 31-year-old did not take the field when the Indian side took on the warm-up Test against New Zealand XI. India packed him with a bag of cotton, keeping him fresh physically fit. First, the jet-lag, after a stop-over flight from Bengaluru - Sri Lanka to New Zealand. However, they did not keep him mentally fit, with the pacer only getting 40 minutes of sleep a day before the game. On the fitness front, he ran in full throttle, bowling nearly 21 overs to the Indian batsmen in the nets, getting himself ready for India’s biggest encounter yet in the Test Championship.
He was the first name on the list when India took on the field against New Zealand, with Ishant waiting in the wings looking at what the pitch was doing with intent. The scientist in the bowler knocked the pitch closely to analyse how his line and length will change when they took the field on Day 2. Generally, day 2 wickets in New Zealand are more likely to batsmen friendly- which was the case in the Test as well. India were shot out for 165, with the home side pulling off a bowling master-class. Sitting in the dressing room, Ishant was waiting patiently, the most he has waited since his injury to get on to the pitch. Taking the new ball alongside Bumrah, the lanky pacer struck first for India, with help from Tom Latham’s leg-sidey approach post Lunch. He welcomed the Kiwi skipper with a barrage of bouncers, catching him by surprise.
Following that Tom Blundell and Kane Williamson were batting steadily, when Ishant struck again, this time the wicket solely in his name. Pitching on a good length on the fuller side, the ball did just enough to sneak in the gap between bat and pad of Blundell to hit the timber. Then, again, he struck with Ross Taylor. Multiple times in the day, Indian bowling looked tacky in the absence of Ishant.
However, when the Delhite was on the ball, things fell in familiar territory for Kohli and co. The ball seemed to be doing so much more than the other pacers combined for Ishant, with the tactical knowledge of knowing where to bowl. He read the pitch like Delhi roads at the back of his mind, knowing every dust - converting them to glitter. A larger than life attitude, Ishant Sharma sprung life into the other-wise dull Indian pace attack, with Kohli’s expletives on the rise. All of it lied down to a simple fact - the experience of playing at the highest level, knowing every nuance of the red ball, understanding the ins and outs of the cross-seam. At the end of Day 2, a sleep-deprived Ishant walked out to the post-day press conference.
"I am not happy because I have not slept for two days and I was struggling a lot today (with my body). The way I would have liked to bowl, it did not happen. They asked me to play and I played. Anything, for the team," said Ishant in the post-day press conference, reported the Times of India.
Every Ishant’s step seemed to take New Zealand by surprise, every delivery had an effort as tall as him. His efforts were rightly rewarded with a fifer, more importantly, he looked more relaxed on the third Day following a sound day of sleep. As Ishant rightly pointed out in the post-day press conference, getting used to the wind was the difference between a good day and a bad one for India. And, from a bowling stand-point, living a life without Ishant is the difference between a good Test and a bad one overseas for Virat Kohli’s team India.
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