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From a teenage wolf to the leader of a pack - Ishant Sharma’s steadfast rise to 100 Tests caps

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Ishant Sharma is set to play his 100th Test for India

BCCI

From a teenage wolf to the leader of a pack - Ishant Sharma’s steadfast rise to 100 Tests caps

Ishant Sharma’s Indian career resembles the stock market more than in one way, the spectacular highs of leading the Indian pace unit and the despicable lows of being hailed as a ‘villain’ after a disastrous white-ball performance. But his success came relatively early, at the age of 18.

Ishant Sharma wasn’t just another teenager in Delhi but instead had set his big foot into world cricket, storming the Indian fans by surprise and catching their immediate attention. The world took note of the lanky pacer, who surely still was a hot-headed youngster, a teenage wolf - who was still celebrating every dismissal with an extra iota of aggression. 

“Actually at that time, I was really new to setting him tactically up. I was just looking to bowl in the right areas and after 8 overs and then it all happened out of the blue. Viru (Sehwag) bhai came and asked me if I wanted to bowl one more over as Ponting was struggling, I said okay and bowled one more. I got him out in that over itself but I never planned as such for that,” Ishant told BCCI.tv in 2011. 

In the hour that shook Ricky Ponting, the Australian dressing room and put the Indians into a sense of hysteria, Ishant Sharma was just bowling his normal length, that had already set him ablaze in domestic cricket. For the layman, the visuals were suggestive of a superstar, who had already played 10-15 Tests in the Indian whites but in reality, it was just his fourth Test and also his second in Australia. 

The first one showed him the struggles of international cricket and the bends of playing against Australia at their own den, going wicketless. Come to Perth, a ground that had natural bounce and more seam movement, Ishant had already undergone a change in his planning, his bowling, with a conscious effort to bowl the fuller length. 

“At 19 you don't plan, to be honest [laughs]. You just bowl. When you play a lot then the planning starts, about what you should do and not do. I knew just one thing: I have to bowl in good areas and after that somehow I should get a wicket. And the more consistently I bowled in good areas, the greater the chances of me getting a wicket,” Ishant told ESPNCricinfo, stating that his aim was only to bowl. 

Ishant Sharma's breakthrough © Twitter

It could have gone either way, it could have resulted in him getting in and out of the squad or the reality that transpired. And then, “Ek aur over daalega?” happened and the rest is history. He was a hero, he was already hailed as the next big thing, with budding cricketers growing their hair just like him, with an aspiration to play for the country. He didn’t do anything different, it was a similar spell of the hundreds if not thousands that he had bowled for Delhi in domestic cricket but when it came to the attention of the world stage and media, he was crowned as a jewel. 

“So, actually, I was surprised when I saw that spell and all the hype that followed. I felt it is my job - I do this daily in first-class cricket - that if I am bowling 20 overs in a day, I have to give 40-45 runs and I can get three wickets. So what I was doing in the Ranji Trophy, the same thing I was doing in the Test match,” he told ESPNCricinfo. 

In between his debut series and the first real away Test against New Zealand, Ishant had picked 38 wickets, bowling in the sub-continent, on pitches that had honed his skills, in the first place, on pitches where pacers were never always in the game, on pitches where bending the back was the only way of getting success. From there on, there was always going to be added pressure, not because of just playing in conditions that favour pace bowlers but away from home. 

If Virat Kohli learnt ably from the likes of Sachin Tendulkar, Ishant had picked the art from Zaheer and had always held a likeable corner for him. So in 2011, against England, when he got to play in the most favourable of conditions for him, it was a gift-wrapped in gold. When asked in 2011 about leading the side, a young Ishant, who had played around 33 Test matches stood up and admitted that he doesn’t mind leading the bowling attack. 

“England is always a good place to play, the ground, the crowd, the pitches, obviously it has been tremendous. No real pressure of leading the pace attack, not a bad thing for me. I enjoy playing for the country and that’s all it matters, it’s not adding any pressure but it is a responsibility that I enjoy,” Ishant told the English press in 2011. 

That year was all about Ishant, though, India had lost all their overseas tour in England and South Africa, managed a win in West Indies and ultimately wrapped the Windies yet again at home. Throughout the year, even with the Indian team’s ups and downs, Ishant had picked up 43 wickets, at an average of 36.69, with two fifers and one ten-fer. While he got wickets in plenty, there was always a concern that surrounded his bowling - the bad balls, the deliveries that garnered a wrong interest around him. With Zaheer Khan on the last leg of his international career, could India trust Ishant to oversee the new generation of Indian pacers?

While Bhuvneshwar Kumar was still growing as a bowler, Ishant was already tall in the pecking order, having earned his merit at a very young age. Although he did earn it, it was always a question of whether he would live upto the expectations of the Indian fans, that always startled him. Most of his wickets during that period came away from home, an average of 35, with 43 wickets at a strike-rate of 60.8, far from being the best in the world. 

Ishant's best in SENA © ESPNCricinfo

And then came in the period that would always egg Ishant - the phase where he was called a ‘villain’ for conceding 30 runs in an over. The flashy news channels had him all over the television, with his visuals aided by the sounds of thunder, the visuals of lightning on his face and the aided one of James Faulkner doing the damage. It wasn’t a World Cup, it wasn’t even a World T20 but a bilateral series where Australia got the better of India, from a rather improbable situation. That was also the start of the end of his white-ball career. 

I didn’t cry for just one day … I cried for 15 days at least. I have always been hard on myself; I am not someone who just pushes things under the carpet. I lost a game for India”

Ishant said, recalling that spell against Faulkner

"21 Oct 2013... Ishant Sharma’s miracle' 30-run over against Australia in the third ODI led to an avalanche of jokes on the internet" (MSN); "13 Feb 2014 ... IPL 7 Auction: Ishant Sharma jokes are trending on Twitter" (cricketcountry.com); "4 April 2013 Check out the 30 best jokes on Ishant Sharma" (IPLWA.com),” the searches read in 2014, reported ESPN. 

Success and failure - two things that can either overwhelm a person or can put them under the sea. It was the former that hit him during his teenage years and it was the latter that hit him after he had earned his relative success. Now if that was white-ball cricket, his red-ball form too hit a low, his deliveries were often on the legs, it was often not on the mark, which prompted a change in the Indian bowling attack, with Bhuvneshwar Kumar already upping the ante as a bowler. 

Until the 2018 season, he had picked up 39 wickets, in three years, which was preceded by the best point of his career (38 wickets in 2014) and succeeded by a better one (41 wickets in 2018). In between those years, there was Ishant, the bowler, who was struggling for his line, length and plenty of issues with his fitness, where his age too came under the question. In a country where the availability of cricketers is never a question, Ishant had to give an answer, an answer that would solve all the issues, once in for all.

That was when the lanky pacer met Jason Gillespie, spent his time in Sussex and changed his career for the good. During both Ishant’s primitive years and the mature years, every coach in the country would want him to bowl fuller, forget coaches, every Indian cricketer, former or current would want him to show more experience. Naturally, at that point, life and perspective life becomes two contrasting things - showing confidence is one but faking one is another.

Ishant was caught in the crossroads, he had a point to prove, he had always proved in his life that failure was something that he didn’t hate but cherished because of the learning curve. Responsibility equally was something that he didn’t shy away from and leading the Indian pace attack was always a dream-come-true moment for him. But time and again, he is the first to raise his hand and say that he didn’t deserve it back then, not because of his form but because on a personal level, he wasn’t at his best. His arm, his landing and everything in between suggested an under-confident version of him. 

"Zak [Zaheer Khan] gave us a lot of solutions. A lot of people would tell me that I need to increase the pace of my fuller deliveries. No one told me how to do that. When I went to play county cricket, Jason Gillespie told me the solution,” Ishant told Delhi Capitals in a video. 

Being the ninth Indian player for Sussex, following the footsteps of Zaheer Khan, playing in county cricket, Ishant was more concerned and excited about working closely with Gillespie, who seemingly would turn his career around. While it was Australia, which gave him initial success, it was natural that an Australian working in England would give him his second life. The 32-year-old was always known for hitting the length, the hard-length that Test cricket is about but that alone wasn’t giving him any success. 

"Gillespie told me that in order to increase the pace of my fuller deliveries, you don't just release it but hit the deck so that it should hit the knee roll. Earlier, I would put cones during nets. That's okay for a youngster who wants to get his area right. But for someone like me, I need to see where my ball is finishing rather than where it's pitched," he added. 

As trust and respect have been, it was never a one-way street for either of the cricketers - Gillespie or Ishant, with the former Australian pacer having high praises for the pacer after the end of his stint at Sussex. 

“When you see an overseas player, you want dedication and someone who is willing to give his 100%, a good bloke and someone who performs. Ishant has lived up to all of that and is a wonderful man to have in the dressing room, a wonderful leader and he has taken some of our young bowlers in his wing and talked cricket with them,” Gillespie told Sussex. 

Ishant didn’t end his cricketing knowledge or his career there, for a person who was always hailed as going to be the pace leader of the Indian bowling unit, finally donned the hat and assumed responsibility. He not only found a way to love his bowling back, bowl the fuller lengths, go wide of the crease and challenge the batsman but also learnt how to live the bill as the leader. 

He has worked doubly hard on his fitness, his expectations and made a mockery of all the people that doubted him. Nearing his 100th Test, Ishant reinvented himself, picking up 41 wickets in the 2018 season before picking up 10 in the next three Tests that he would go on to play, in a year that was haunted by COVID-19. In England, he was constantly under the pressure of maintaining his status quo as the leader, some even questioning his stint in the County prior to the series as even being an iota helpful. 

“Because if I am playing for so long and if you don't take wickets - in the first innings I got just one wicket. I had played county [for Sussex] that summer. What kind of impact player am I then? All these things only matter if you take wickets. Before that second innings when we bowled, the previous night I could not sleep. I knew that if I did not take those wickets, my career was over. After that I would watch cricket only on TV. I am speaking frankly,” Ishant told ESPNCricinfo.

In 2018-19, he was part of the Indian setup, which won in Australia, where he fully transformed himself into the leader that he was always looked at, earning the respect tag. That later went on to showcase his place in the team, when even without much match practise, India decided to risk him in New Zealand, where with jet-lag, he picked up a fifer. And with his comments in the press conference, ahead of his 100th Test, Ishant was truly ready for the contest, ready for the challenge, of not just leading the side but leading it was aplomb, as he has always desired in the Indian whites. 

“I can’t really pinpoint at a point where my career turned around, it was always up and down. That’s the career of an athlete, there isn’t a high always, there are the lows that always surround it and that’s the beauty of it,” he said, which signalled and portrayed his entire career - from a teenage wolf to the leader of a pick, his rise will always go down in history.

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