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Ishant Sharma's fairy tale IPL return

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Ishant_Sharma_Delhi_Capitals_IPL_2019_India_CricketFor their first match of the 2019 IPL season, the Delhi Capitals had a tough opponent: Mumbai Indians at the Wankhede. Surprisingly, they had opted to go with a pace attack that included Ishant Sharma, raising questions of why talented young guns like Avesh Khan and Harshal Patel remained lurking on the side-lines.

That Ishant was a left-field choice, there was no doubt. His IPL record is dubious, as he himself is ready to admit. He was ignored in the 2018 season with no team willing to pick him up. But, with Sourav Ganguly and Ricky Ponting in the Delhi Capitals setup, Ishant was brought in. Even so, nobody expected the lanky speedster to start.

But there was more than mere reputation that went into his selection in the XI. He showed just why he could still be a lethal weapon in this format of the game. Ishant found Rohit Sharma's inside edge twice off the first two balls he bowled in the season, and in the next over, dismissed the Mumbai Indians skipper.

As Ishant would reveal later in an interview, he had to pressure Shreyas Iyer, the Delhi skipper, for a chance to bowl his third over upfront. The veteran seamer felt he had a good rhythm going for him and earned a third powerplay over, promptly sending back the dangerous Quinton de Kock.

If this felt like a return from a long break for a pacer who has struggled in this format, Ishant was out to prove his detractors wrong. He kept bowling in the powerplays and kept striking. Even if he went wicketless the Delhi think-tank, much more diligent and ordered than their predecessors, knew that Ishant was doing what was asked of him.

The Mumbai Indians bowling coach, James Hopes, apparently instilled confidence in Ishant, reminding him that he was doing a tough job against some exceptional powerplay batsmen.

And he was. Ishant finished the season as the fourth most economical pacer (minimum 20 overs bowled). Mighty impressive for someone often remembered in limited-overs cricket for bearing the brunt of a savage attack from James Faulkner in an ODI against Australia few years back.

 

In this edition of the IPL, we saw a more sublime, elegant version of the Ishant Sharma than the one that previously graced India's limited-overs team. He knew his role, backed himself to do it every match and delivered in crunch situations. He even developed variations like the slower one and the knuckle ball to tie batsmen down. Earlier, his one-dimensional approach had cost him in the powerplays in limited-overs cricket and Ishant was determined to set that right.

 

He returned from Australia after the Test series and started working on variations immediately, having known that he would be a part of the IPL this year. The knuckle ball and back of the hand slower ball are variations he developed in this time period. With help from Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Ishant picked up the minor nuances of the knuckle ball and effectively used them during the season.

That said, with Rabada picking up regular wickets at one end, Ishant's job wasn't to try too many things. He had to restrict batsmen from scoring and build pressure. "I get to bowl 18 balls in the Powerplay, but I have got fantastic support from the management even if I have not taken too many wickets. Also, having KG [Rabada] at the other end was a big boost for me as he bowled the tough overs," Ishant had said in an interview.

Ishant's results weren't spontaneous improvements. He had done the hard yards, playing County cricket and keeping himself busy. His training prior to the Syed Mushtaq Ali T20 tournament worked for him. He was economical then too, primarily because he had trained himself to be accurate.

 

"I trained a lot bowling against a single stump. I also placed a cone on length with the aim being to hit top of off stump. Or I placed a shoe and hit it if I wanted to execute the yorker. That is called target bowling. The main goal for a bowler is to finish on top of off stump with the new ball, irrespective of the format," Ishant had said.

 

His accuracy made him a different beast in this IPL season too. With no room to play, batsmen had to manufacture room, and with Ishant's extra lift off the surface, taking him on wasn't easy. He contained batsmen of the calibre of Chris Gayle, which shows the massive impact a small adjustment made.

In that game against Kings XI Punjab, he had bowled two overs upfront for 16 runs but was persisted with for a third over against Gayle. He went for just four runs and tied down the big-hitting Universe Boss. Again, consistency in length was the reason for his success and he explains why he backed himself to hit the same spot over and over.

"If you can get the new ball to land on a length then it becomes difficult for every batsman. Maybe he can hit one ball, he might hit two, but he will find it difficult to hit the third one if you pitch on length," he said.

It has worked for him this IPL and he already has 18 wickets in T20s this year (13 of them in the IPL), his second most in any year in this format. Importantly, his economy rate has dropped to 7.58, while his strike rate has markedly improved. While he couldn't help Delhi Capitals to a title win as he wished to, Ishant played a crucial role in their surge into the play-offs.



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