Ishant Sharma: A phoenix rises from ashes of dejection

Ishant Sharma celebrates after taking the wicket of England's Stuart Broad. (Reuters Photo)

During India's tour of Australia in 2008, a 19-year-old tall, lanky Indian fast bowler with shoulder-length hair was running in with full steam, ready to unleash his youthful exuberance in the famous Perth. Facing him was one of the legends of the game, Ricky Ponting, the then captain and talismanic batsman for Australia. 

The audience gasped seeing a duel that was unforeseen, where the young gun matched the veteran cricketer blow for blow. The fast bowler pitched one in the corridor of uncertainty outside off stump, Ponting left it alone and the ball whisked over the stumps. It continued in a loop, often thudding into the batsman's pads and resulting in hopeful appeals. And then came the fateful moment. Ponting, instead of leaving that delivery, decided to play a backfoot defence. The ball kissed the outside edge of the bat and was safely pouched by Rahul Dravid at first slip. The fast bowler had his prized scalp in a spell that bore glimpses of greatness. 
 
Fate, however, had other plans for Ishant Sharma. 
 
When Ishant first arrived on the scene, he was bustling with pace. He hurried the batsman and foxed them with impeccable line and length. Ponting was just the beginning. Ishant grabbed headlines again with his five-wicket haul against Pakistan during the third Test in Bengaluru, even though most of them were lower-order batsmen. To the fans who longed to see more Indian fast bowlers after the Kapils, Srinaths and Zaheers, he was a breath of fresh air. 
 
Then he began to falter along the journey, slipping away from his destiny. 
 
Ishant's career can be divided into two halves. The first half was where he produced occasional moments of brilliance, mixed with inconsistent spells. The second was where he found his mojo and became one of the important cogs in a lethal Indian pace attack. The transformation is surprising and fascinating as well. 
 
Under the guidance of Zaheer Khan, Ishant used to play the role of second fiddle in his early years. When Zaheer retired in 2014, Ishant was expected to take up the mantle of the main pacer and lead the attack from the front in Test cricket. And that's where he flattered to deceive. From 2007 to 2014, his overall average was 37.56 in 58 Tests, despite getting the support of Zaheer from the other end. From January 2015 to October 2017, his average was 34.67 in 17 Tests. This was drastically better than his career average but largely mediocre in India where he averaged 49. During that period, his average was mainly boosted by performances against weakened sides from Sri Lanka and the West Indies. Then, in 21 Test matches from 2017 to 2019, he has averaged 21.67 - a massive improvement from earlier phases. 
 
The resurgence of Ishant can be traced back to Sri Lanka's tour of India in 2017. In the second Test in Nagpur, Ishant got an unlikely opportunity ahead of Bhuvneshwar Kumar, who pulled out due to his scheduled wedding, and Mohammed Shami, who was rested because of injury concerns. Ishant, whose prominence and importance in the team had diminished with the emergence of Shami, Umesh Yadav and Kumar, grabbed the opportunity with both hands. He picked up 5 wickets in that match for 80 runs, on a pitch where the spinners ran riot with Ashwin and Jadeja picking up 13 wickets of the 20. It was a testament to his changed bowling technique as he had begun to pitch the ball up and extract more bounce by using his height. 
 
The turnaround is impressive in the away numbers as well. From 2007 to 2014, he averaged 40.05 from 33 away Tests. His averages in Australia, England and South Africa - the places considered helpful to pacers - was well over 50. From 2014 to 2017, he averaged an improved 27.76 in eight matches, and from 2017 to 2019, he has averaged 20.17. 
 
Indian pitches are traditionally known to be dismissive of pacers. And on the occasions that there has been some assistance, there have been protests and wars of words between captains and pitch curators. In a nation known as the spinners' hunting ground, Ishant has left his mark. In the last two years, he has averaged 19.57 from eight matches, massively better than the woeful 49.20 from 2015 to 2017 and the moderately impressive 33.46 during the first seven years of his career. 
 
It can be argued that Ishant has received ample help from a fast bowling unit that is probably the best in India's cricket history. The presence of Jasprit Bumrah, Shami, Kumar, and Yadav has moulded the pace battery into a deadly weapon, which can dismantle the opposition on any given day. This was evident in the recent tours to South Africa, England, Australia and even in recent home Tests. Yes, it can be said that Ishant is getting support from the other end to tighten the screws on the batsmen and extract loads of wickets. But it will be wrong to attribute his success solely to the rest of the pace attack and not his determination to achieve success. If history is any indicator, fast bowlers, or bowlers in general, always hunt in packs. From the great West Indian quartet to the Pakistani juggernaut and the Australian attack, every team had a well-drilled bowling line-up in which the greatest bowlers used to feed off each other's success. The development of Bumrah, Shami, Kumar, and Yadav can also be credited to Ishant alongside the team management, for he guided and nourished them with advice, even when they threatened to keep him out of the team. 

Twelve years after his debut, Ishant's career average of 32.68 now stands marginally ahead of Zaheer Khan's 32.95. It shows how far the lanky young fast bowler has come. Despite stumbling and stuttering along the way, Ishant is finally tasting success. 
 
Ishant Sharma 2.0 has fulfilled the expectations that he once ignited all those years ago on a Perth afternoon. Like the phoenix of Greek and Roman mythologies, he has risen from the ashes of dejections and hard-fought battles. With strong wings and renewed confidence, the bird is finally ready to soar into the highest reaches of the sky.

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