“I don't come here every year,” joked Ishant Sharma when reminded that it’s been 11 years since he toured Australia first time. That spell to Ricky Ponting is still fresh in memory, but it’s hard to realise sometimes that it happened more than a decade ago.
Since then, Ishant has come a long way, and is only 13 matches away from becoming just the second Indian pacer to 100 Tests. Ishant is just 30 years of age, and that’s a real possibility. Among Indian pacers, only Zaheer Khan (92) and Kapil Dev (131) have played more Tests.
Is Ishant in the same league, though? The short answer is no. Through the 11 years, Ishant has seen more downs than ups. His career stats tell the story: 87 matches, 256 wickets at an average close to 35 and strike-rate close to 67.
Much was expected of Ishant after he burst into the scene with that terrific spell, but he hardly did justice. For the initial years of his career, he was categorised ‘unlucky’. He often bowled the long spells but hardly got rewards. There would be the odd spell where he’d trouble batsmen, but Ishant just couldn’t sustain his form.
That wasn’t just down to luck though. Ishant struggled with consistency in line and length. His problems with his wrist positions came under the scanner for he hardly got the ball to swing the way he did earlier.
India kept hoping Ishant would rise under the helpful company of Zaheer, but that didn’t happen. Ishant’s biggest Test was the 2011 overseas leg when Zaheer was injured. Ishant failed, just like the entire team. In four Tests in England, he got only 11 wickets at an average close to 60. He did worse in Australia, picking only five wickets from four games at an average above 90.
But India persisted with Ishant. He was in his early 20s, and despite his early failures, deemed a worthy investment. The returns started in 2014, beginning with the Lord’s victory.
Until then, Ishant had only 102 wickets from 33 matches overseas at an average above 40. Since then, he is a much improved bowler. The average over 21 matches abroad has come down to 28.35, with 70 wickets from 21 games.
Now, Ishant heads into his fourth tour of Australia on an upward curve. In the current overseas leg, Ishant has picked up 26 wickets from seven matches in South Africa and England.
He did show an improvement in the 2014 tour, picking up nine wickets from three matches, and this is perhaps the best time to set the record straight in Australia as well. He has been to Australia thrice for Test series. He has also worked with Jason Gillespie in Sussex earlier this year.
“I've played 11 years, I don't need to think that I need to do well,” Ishant stressed, talking to reporters ahead of a four-day practice match against CA XI in Sydney. “I'm not really a kind of person who thinks about what happened in the past, I'm always looking forward to what's going to happen in the future. I'm looking forward to do well in this tour as well.”
Ishant is now getting closer to where Zaheer was. Not in terms of numbers but in terms of role in the team, as leader of the attack. He has much more potent peers than Zaheer did though, with the likes of Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mohammed Shami, Umesh Yadav and Jasprit Bumrah making India’s one of the best pace attacks in world cricket at the moment.
“You have a healthy competition in the team. Lot of fast bowlers are coming and if you're not doing well you'll have to sit behind and watch the game,” said Ishant. “It's a great opportunity for everyone to do well in any condition. We (bowlers) did well in the last two tours in South Africa and England.”
Against an Australian side sans David Warner and Steve Smith, the Indian bowling unit would fancy their chances. Ishant, though, was not looking too far ahead.
“To be honest we don't think about all these things. It always depends on a given day,” he said. “Whoever is playing for the country is good enough, that's why they're representing their country. So we don't take anyone lightly till we get the results.
“Everyone is passionate. We're very motivated to win the series. We have a good balance in the side which is very promising. The biggest aim is to win the series. Everybody is focusing on that, we not thinking about personal performances. Just aim to win the series in Australia.”