If a battalion is going on a war, Ishant would be the king's most trusted aide. If you ask him to walk on water, he might not hesitate. You want him to be aggressive, bowl workhorse spells, dry up an end, break partnerships? He wouldn't utter a word and do everything till the last ounce he can.
It's 2008 Perth Test, India need to win the game if they have to stay alive in the Border-Gavaskar trophy. A 19-year-old youngster Ishant Sharma is creating ripples. He's tall, he bowls 150 clicks, has superstar-esque hairs, ability to take wickets, his knees are pumping, deliveries breathing fire, it's a spectacle on the world's fastest pitch, albeit by an Indian, a nation with mediocre medium pacers. In his long spell of seven - imagine seven consecutive overs of high-end pace bowling - he is making one of the greatest Test batsmen Ricky Ponting dance to his tunes at his place and in front of his people.
Anil Kumble asks the youngster "Ek aur over karega (will you bowl one more over)?", Ishant not only responds, "Haan, karoonga" (Yes, I will) but also edges Ponting to slips in what becomes one of the most iconic moments of his career.
Similarly, in the 2014 Lord's Test, India were facing a tough fifth-wicket-stand between Joe Root and Moeen Ali against England. Dhoni decides to go for a bouncer barrage, who's his go-to-man? Ishant Sharma. He has already bowled 17 overs till lunch on the last day while he bowled 24 and 38 overs respectively before this innings. Given the intensity, Dhoni asks Sharma to take rest, “After I bowled four overs on the trot, Mahi bhai asked me to take rest but I told him that there fuel in the car let it run,” Ishant fires back. He goes on to bounce out England with seven wickets in the Test to help India script a historic Test win at the Mecca of cricket and his name gets etched in the honors board.
There have been countless spells like that for Ishant Sharma in the course of his 13-year and 97-Test long career. What has stood the test of time has been the fact that he's every captain's dream bowler to have - low maintenance, no ego, just strenuous efforts till the very last ounce he has got. Indian captains changed from Anil Kumble to MS Dhoni to Virat Kohli but not the workhorse expectations from Ishant, who from one of the most ridiculed Indian cricketers has emerged out of the shadows and finally proven that the long-term investment, which might have tested patience, was worth every penny. He has been disliked by fans and experts alike but his team and captains have always known his true value.
From that trolled, inconsistent Ishant to the one on whom one can write how badly he's going to be missed, to the tune of it being more than the 'Virat Kohli' of world cricket, reflects his beautifully underrated journey. Getting back to the point, team India can do without Kohli the batsman but not Ishant the bowler, especially Down Under. He has been simply phenomenal in the last three years in Test cricket.
Mohammed Shami and Jasprit Bumrah are more talked about than Ishant but he has the best average, strike-rate and economy for any Indian bowler away from home. In fact, in SENA countries as well, he's the best in aforementioned metrics.
Not only just India, but Ishant has the second best Test average for bowlers in the last three years if we take a minimum of 50 wickets into consideration.
What Ishant brings to the table?
Ishant Sharma has the ability to deliver excruciatingly long spells with pin-point accuracy. He hardly misses his line and lengths. He complements Shami and Bumrah exceptionally well and doesn't let the pressure evaporate. Not only that, if any of the opening bowlers are having an off day, he holds up one end tightly. In Australia after the Kookaburra ball goes soft, there is hardly any swing or seam and Ishant is the perfect foil to deal with such situations with his wealth of experience and the many tricks up his sleeve. He bowls the hard overs better than anyone else in the team.
6 feet 4 inches tall, Ishant Sharma, who's fondly referred to as Lambu ji (tall) in the team could have extracted a lot of bounce off the hard Aussie decks. In fact, as per CricViz, "Smith has shown some vulnerability to bowlers releasing the ball from a height. If you can find the channel outside the off stump from a high release height, Smith averages just 23.28". Given Smith has seven tons in 10 Tests against India at 84.06, a lanky Ishant with a high release point and impeccable accuracy could have tested Smith more than anyone else.
In India's historic Test series win in 2018/19 in Australia, Sharma had taken 11 wickets in three Tests at 23.82 and had formed a lethal trio with Bumrah and Shami, who took 21 and 16 wickets in four Tests at 17 and 26.18 respectively. India batsmen had put runs on the board even in the 2014/15 tour Down Under yet they lost the series but they got together such a fabulous pace battery together last time that resulted in their first ever Test series win in Australia.
No like-for-like replacement for Sharma
India quite simply don't have any like-for-like replacement for their most experienced pacer. Umesh Yadav is likely to replace Ishant given his experience in Australia and overall. But the Indian speedster has a bowling average of 45.85 with a strike-rate of 60.78 in Australia while in the last three years, he has hardly played three away Tests and taken seven wickets at 43.71. In the only Test that he played Down Under in the 2018/19 tour, Yadav was highly erratic and inconsistent, giving away 139 runs for his two wickets. In fact, his bowling average falls from 24.54 at home to 45.74 away - he has been a home Test specialist.
As good as Mohammed Siraj and Navdeep Saini have been in domestic cricket, they lack the experience to play in such a high pressure series with a hostile crowd and an attacking Aussie batting gunning for their head as soon as the seasoned Shami and Bumrah are off their spells. They are aggressive bowling options and are anything but like-for-like replacements for Ishant, who has been there and done it all and wouldn't get intimidated by Warner and Smith's presence. Moreover, Bumrah and Shami are already featuring in the white-ball series, thus in case of any unfortunate injury, things can go downhill pretty fast for the tourists given the unreliable options that they have sans an experienced Ishant.
In the last five years, the average of batsmen in Tests in Australia has been 33.66 with 56 centuries in 25 Tests while in England it falls to 27.80 with 43 tons in 33 Tests and in South Africa, it's even lower at 26.64 with 34 hundreds in 28 Tests. So, batting in Australia is relatively easier, no wonder you wouldn’t want any hiccup in bowling as it can't be compensated like batting.
Kohli's absence can still be compensated
Undoubtedly, Indian skipper Virat Kohli will be a big miss this series as he could have added a lot of firepower to the batting. But, in Australia, batting is easier than in other SENA countries like England or South Africa. In fact, in India's last Test series win in Australia, Virat was India's fourth best batsman as Pujara, Pant, Agarwal ended with a better average in the series. In the two Tests that India won, Virat made 119 runs in four innings at a meager 29.75 while Pujara accumulated 300 runs at 75. So, if India can win the series with such a minimal Kohli contribution in the Tests they won, why not without him? Pujara, Agarwal, Pant and Rahane have a great record in Australia.
Even his replacement is likely to be a mighty talented Shubman Gill, whose wrist-work often reminds people of the Indian skipper. He has been patiently waiting for his chances and given his great red-ball track record, it won't be much of a surprise if he graduates to the Test level like Kohli did in the 2011/12 Aussie tour.
As far as captaincy is concerned, Rahane might not be verbally aggressive but is very positive in his approach and reserves his aggression for selection calls, planning and tactics. He is more than a handy replacement for Kohli as a leader, whose captaincy is generally questionable.
As unpopular as it might be, the ‘workhorse Ishant’ has certainly trumped the ‘mighty king Kohli’ if we weigh up all factors and logically see what impacts India more. The beauty of life is much like cinema - even the sidekicks at times prove to be more significant than a hero if a given script suits their strengths and brings out their best.