Ishant reinvents to stay relevant

Indian bowler Ishant Sharma in action against Bangladesh on day 3 of their first cricket test match in Indore. PTI

One of the hallmarks of Ishant Sharma’s career is his longevity, an accomplishment in itself for a fast bowler from the sub-continent. Ever since he made his debut as a gangly teenager with the ability to hit 145 kmph consistently in 2007, a total of 11 pacers have earned Test call-ups. Some have fallen by the wayside while the likes of Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami, Umesh Yadav and Bhuvneshwar Kumar have elevated the competition to never-before-seen levels. The 31-year-old Delhiite though has soldiered on to become an integral part and a mentor to this splendid pace pack.

The key to Ishant’s endurance is the pacer rediscovering himself after appearing lost not very long ago. When Ishant broke into the scene, he was known as this tall fast bowler who could get the ball to bounce from a good length. He also had the ability to touch 150 clicks and move the ball both ways. Add the high-arm action and he was one of those rare sights in Indian cricket.

But Ishant, eager to play limited-overs cricket following a boom since the birth of IPL in 2008 and India winning the 2011 ODI World Cup, ended up losing his mojo in Tests. From an all-out attacking pacer he turned himself into a defensive bowler. He would just block one end, drying up runs. Wickets weren’t coming owing to lack of potency and one-dimensional bowling but former skipper MS Dhoni persisted with him because of the control he brought. In fact, when Ishant completed 50 Test caps in early 2013, he had the worst average and strike rates for bowlers — not just pacers — who had completed the half-century landmark.

However, ever since Ishant’s fellow Delhi-mate Virat Kohli has taken charge of the side, he has emerged as a different pacer. From bowling short of a length to contain runs, Ishant now is ready to pitch the ball up consistently in pursuit of wickets. He trusts his swing and movement, rediscovering the attacking teeth that earned praise from even hard-nosed Australians. In fact, since January 2018, his strike-rate and average have improved significantly. At the same time, Ishant hasn’t lost control and gone for runs. His economy too has become miserly.

“Ishant is the most experienced bowler we have. He's played over 90 Test matches. He was always economical, he was always giving us the control but he felt that he needs the batsmen to play a lot more. It was about him trying to experiment with different angles. What he's doing now, suits his bowling best,” reckoned bowling coach Bharat Arun.

Ishant, well aware of the intense competition for places, is also ready to try out new weapons and keep innovating. Take the dismissal of Bangladeshi opener Shadman Islam in the second innings of the first Test here. Ishant normally just keeps taking the ball away from left-handers — his natural angle. When he does come around the wicket, he just holds the line. But on Saturday, he surprised everyone with the ball that swung into Shadman, the ball beating the southpaw’s defences and crashing onto the stumps.

“Actually started working on that variation from yesterday (Friday),” revealed Arun. “So if you look at the way he signalled after he got the wicket, he was very happy that he could do that. Each time you try to explore new avenues in your bowling, you constantly look to improve. And this would give him the much-needed fillip to experiment more and try out.”

It’s common knowledge that to stay relevant in the world of sports where every move is dissected by the opposition, innovation is vital. Ishant has done precisely that. He has also secured a place for himself in a talent-bursting pace pack, being the guiding senior. He’s managed to maintain his fitness and doesn’t feel let down if he has to make way for someone else for the sake of strategy. This is a veteran who has rediscovered his A-game and enjoying his time under the sun.

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