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The curious case of Ishant Sharma

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Ishant_Sharma_Cricket_IndiaThe current Indian fast bowling lineup has earned a lot of plaudits recently. The likes of Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammad Shami and Umesh Yadav have attained great success in the shorter and longer formats, and this is turning out to be one of Indian cricket’s best pace bowling units in many years.

While there is much to celebrate about India’s newfound fast bowling strength, there is one name that has been completely sidelined from the list, and with good reason. Ishant Sharma, despite being a part of the Indian Test team at present, hardly gets any mention these days and seems to be going through a decline.

Once one of the most promising young fast bowlers in Indian cricket, he is now just a shadow of his former self and seems to be just going through the motions most of the times. A veteran of 77 Tests, Ishant Sharma should have been leading India’s bowling attack today after achieving a lot more than his haul of 218 Test wickets at an average of 36.93. Unfortunately, that isn’t how things have panned out.

Ishant’s career has been interesting. After various dips, and even though he hasn’t completely lost touch currently, his career seems to be pretty stagnant. He has already lost his place in the ODI and T20I sides and is fighting to hold on to his place in the Test eleven as well. With the kind of form the other younger bowlers have been exhibiting of late, it will not be long before Ishant is dropped from the longer format as well, given his tendency towards inconsistency.

It would be rather unfortunate if happens. Because almost all his career, Ishant has been striving to fulfil his potential, but for some incomprehensible reason, has failed to do it justice.

From a young pace sensation to a fading star

A lot has been written and discussed about Ishant Sharma’s now famous spell against Australia’s Ricky Ponting in that Test at Perth on India’s tour to Australia in late 2007. It was a career-turning bowling spell where Ishant, a 19-year-old, set up Ponting through a persistent and probing line outside off-stump and finally had him caught at slip. It was a sensational performance that shot Ishant to instant stardom.

He was tall, lanky and could bowl over 140 km/h consistently. He had great wrist position, could generate prodigious bounce, and could move the ball in both directions at pace. In a country that has been long starved of good fast bowlers, Ishant came as a breath of fresh air with his ability to rattle the best batsmen with his pace and bounce. He seemed destined to be the next big thing.

In the ODI series that followed the Tests on that Australian tour, Ishant showed his prowess in the shorter format as well. In one match he even delivered a ball that clocked 153 km/h. With 14 wickets in that series, Ishant was India’s leading wicket-taker and one of the reasons for their triumphant campaign.

Glory continued to follow Ishant as he produced another fantastic performance in the Test against South Africa at Kanpur in April 2008 and then followed that up by plucking 15 wickets in four Tests in the home series against Australia later that year.

Praise flowed in from everywhere. Commentators, ex-cricketers, the media and the fans were in awe of this young pace sensation. The world was at Ishant’s feet.

 

Unfortunately, he didn’t quite know how to walk the path to greatness.

 

In the following seasons, Ishant’s performances were always sporadic. He would deliver a great spell here and a ripper of a delivery there, but the consistency that was desired of him did not materialize. After a good 2008, where he picked up 38 wickets in 13 Tests, his form dwindled and he could only manage 43 wickets from 15 Tests in the next two years. He made a return to form in 2011, picking up 43 wickets in 12 Tests with two five-wicket hauls – both coming on India’s tour to the West Indies. In fact, with 22 wickets in 3 matches, he was the highest wicket-taker of the series and it appeared then that Ishant was back in flow.

An ankle injury in early 2012, however, halted Ishant’s progress. He missed a good amount of cricket that year and on his return seemed to have lost quite a bit of pace. The sharpness in his bowling was missing and he wasn’t as incisive as before.

 

In limited overs cricket, his form dipped dramatically. He became a liability who bowled too many hit-me balls that were carted all around the park. Perhaps his most infamous performance in this period was being walloped for 30 runs in an over by James Faulkner towards the tail end of an ODI against Australia, at Mohali in 2013, when India had almost clinched the game. That match-losing effort took away even the staunchest of Ishant’s backers.

 

He somewhat redeemed himself next year with his terrific match-winning performance against England in the Lord’s Test, where his career-best 7-74 in the 4th innings blew the opposition away to give India a memorable Test victory.
Again, there were hopes that this might just be Ishant’s resurgence. Again, there were talks that Ishant could now finally bear the role of being the lead Indian speedster in Tests.

But, again, that was not to be.

Once again, Ishant lost his rhythm, and those match-winning performances trickled away. Everything about him was dissected in minute detail – from his wrist position, to his run-up to his long hair – to try and fathom the reason for his erratic performances. But nothing came of it.  

To make matters worse, Ishant missed the 2015 ICC World Cup due to a knee injury and the very next year he was forced out of the game owing to another abrupt injury. This meant that he was regularly in and out of the game, and any chance he had of picking up a steady rhythm throughout a season was lost.

Today, Ishant is no longer in contention for India’s limited over teams. And, truth be told, just 115 wickets in 80 ODIs doesn’t make for good reading or warrant a place in the ODI side. Ishant’s performance in this year’s IPL – wicketless and going at an economy rate of 9.94 – was truly abysmal as well. At 29, he isn’t young or as fit as he once was. The future, hence, doesn’t look very promising for Ishant Sharma.

A final chance at redemption

The only hope Ishant has now is to make his redemption in Test cricket. His record thus far in 2017 is rather ordinary – 6 wickets in 4 Tests at an average of 53. With the upcoming Test series against Sri Lanka at home and with overseas Test tours to South Africa and England lined up in the coming months, Ishant has to make it count in a last ditch effort to salvage his career.

The competition for his spot is only going to get tougher. With Jasprit Bumrah and Bhuvneshwar Kumar showing great form in the limited overs formats, it won’t be long before they are tried in Tests as well if Ishant fails to make his mark.

As a captain of Delhi in the ongoing Ranji Trophy, Ishant has been doing a decent job and even took a five-wicket haul against Assam last month. Now it remains to be seen how much of that form translates into international cricket.

One hopes that Ishant Sharma can make a comeback and lay his claim to being leader of India’s pace bowling attack in Tests soon. Because time is running out for this once tremendously talented fast bowler.

So far his career has been a study of an inability to meet his potential. Will the real Ishant Sharma finally show up at long last? We shall know soon.

 

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