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The Ishant Sharma Challenge

Chetan Narula | | Updated: October 7, 2015, 4:41 PM IST

As the curtailed 2013 Champions Trophy final rolled towards its finish line, England were looking good to hoodwink India for a win. Three overs remained and two of them were to be bowled by Ravindra Jadeja and R Ashwin. It was the 18th over that worried Indian cricket fans in general, and it worried them some more when MS Dhoni threw the ball to Ishant Sharma, his most experienced medium-pacer.

Ishant's figures prior to that over were 3-0-29-0, that too in a match where the margin of error was reduced thanks to a paltry target in a near-rained-out match. It was one of those inexplicable Dhoni gambles that paid off and we will never know why, or even how. A slower ball followed up by a short ball left England's innings in disarray. Even so, those were poor shots from Eoin Morgan and Ravi Bopara that did half the trick.

It is hard to fathom what goes on with Ishant because when a bowler bowls well in one match, wins the Man-of-the-Match award, you expect some rhythm to carry forward to the next game, especially in near-similar conditions. Maybe wickets won't come forth, that is something ascertained by different factors. Yet, after the semi-final against Sri Lanka, Ishant's lack of rhythm in the first three overs of that spell in the final is worth pondering.

And it is not a one-off case. This lack of rhythm, or a lack of consistency in his bowling, has been the hallmark of his six-year long international career so far. After his ground-breaking performance in the Perth Test in 2007-08, the upswings in his career graph have been few and far between. The words 'few' and 'far' are important herein.

'Few' refers to the odd number of times he has been India's prime bowler. South Africa in 2007, then Australia and Bangladesh in 2008-09, after which there was a long lull before he returned with 22 wickets in the West Indies in 2011. 'Far' refers to the gaps in the matches he played, sometimes rested because the previous bunch of selectors thought of keeping him away from limited-overs cricket and at other times, because Munaf Patel, Ashish Nehra, Sreesanth, Praveen Kumar, etc. were busy partnering Zaheer Khan. There were a few troublesome injuries therein as well.

However, it is not just a long-term phenomenon. Even within a series, Ishant has this tendency to go off the boil. The Champions Trophy semi-final and final is a good combined example, or we can refer to the recent home season Team India has encountered. Against England he played two Tests, bowling a fine spell at Nagpur as the leader of the attack after a somewhat lacklustre showing in the third Test at Kolkata. He was aided a little by bitterly cold conditions in the Pakistan ODIs but went off against England with poor economy. A month later, against Australia, Bhuvneshwar Kumar completely upstaged him in his debut series.

The point isn't to undermine Ishant's contribution to India's cause. Instead, it is to understand why he disappears from the scene more often than not. Why was it a gamble to give him a fourth over in the first place, after all this time in international cricket? Why is there such a gap between his important spells? And why he doesn't look the senior statesman in the side despite playing fifty-odd Test matches?

That number, 51 Tests, is quite huge considering that Ishant will only turn 25 in September this year. It brings to mind something Shane Warne once said, emphatically, about Monty Panesar and perhaps it is also applicable in Ishant's case. Maybe, Ishant has not played 51 Tests but played the same Test 51 times.

In an indirect way, it is reminiscent of the times when the word 'unlucky' came to be associated with him. It was another way of saying that Ishant doesn't bowl many wicket-taking deliveries, or even enough deliveries to consistently trouble the batsmen. So, where is he going wrong, despite playing too much cricket?

In a free-wheeling conversation, former India cricketer Manoj Prabhakar talked about Ishant's problem. Prabhakar has also served as Delhi's Ranji coach as also their bowling coach at different times, most importantly just before Ishant made a 'comeback' to the side in 2011. He spoke about Ishant's wrist position being worked upon in that particular domestic season (2010-11) and the possibility that a new problem has now embedded itself into his action.

"Ishant has one of the best rhythmic actions for a medium-pacer in Indian cricket, but his leading arm, left one in this case, just falls over during his delivery stride, thus hampering him at the time of the release of the ball," he said. "Until he corrects this anomaly, he will continue to struggle for rhythm at different times."

Maybe Ishant will speak to Prabhakar, maybe he will not. Maybe Ishant will be guided by Waqar Younis at Sunrisers Hyderabad, maybe he will not. Maybe at some other IPL team, or by some other former cricketer, it could happen. Or it could not.

Indian cricket cannot take that chance. This is because the transition isn't related to the batting line-up alone. With the departure of Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh, the bowling needs new teeth as well. The spin department is covered for the moment by R Ashwin, and Ravindra Jadeja is making huge strides. But the medium pacers are quite young and devoid of experience.

It is in this light that a new challenge beckons Duncan Fletcher and his support staff. They need to channelise his energy and give him a set direction. They need to work on him, so he can tap into his potential and the experience of having played so many matches already. They need to convert Ishant Sharma from an also-ran third-choice pacer to the lead bowler who is worthy of presenting debut caps to newcomers.

Given the number of foreign tours coming up, it is imperative that this Ishant-specific task is on top of Fletcher's to-do list.
First Published: July 10, 2013, 4:14 PM IST

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