Op-Ed: Well done Ishy!

My perennial complaint against Ishant Sharma has been that he has never really been a match winning bowler; one who can take wickets in a heap like, say, a Bhuvneshwar Kumar or a Mohammed Shami. But after his performance at Edgbaston on Friday, I have absolutely nothing to complain about.

There were two things that stood out about his spell in the England second innings at Birmingham. The first, of course, was that the wickets, for a change, came in a heap. In a remarkable spell of relentless, probing fast bowling, he had four scalps in quick succession on either side of the lunch break: Dawid Malan (20), Johny Bairstow (28), Ben Stokes (6) and Jose Buttler (1). Each of these batsmen could have taken the game away from India. Ishant snared Malan just when he was beginning to stitch a partnership with Bairstow, who had shown what he can do in only his last innings. And we all know what Stokes is capable of. Butler is not a slouch with the bat either. In sending these four back to the pavilion, he effectively broke the back of the English batting. He returned for one final burst during which he induced an edge from the dangerous Stuart Broad and had him smartly picked up by Dhawan at slip.

The second thing to note about his bowling on Friday was that all the five batsmen who fell to him were caught behind the wicket; four in the slips and the fifth, Buttler, by keeper Karthick. Ishant’s stock ball has always been the one coming into the batsman. His outswingers have always lacked venom and therefore seldom induced the edges. Hence, the vast majority of his victims have either been left handers caught in the slip cordon or right handers struck on the pads in front of the wicket to balls angled in to get out lbw. But it was a refreshingly different story on Friday as Ishy moved the ball both ways and consistently at that. Out of his five victims, three were left-handers and two right-handers. That’s proof of the fact that he moved the ball away from both left and right handers.

The performance of Ishant Sharma, fondly called Ishy by teammates, at Edgbaston took the mind back to that unforgettable spell he bowled to Ricky Ponting, then at the peak of his powers, at Perth in January, 2008. Seldom had the batsman, touted as the next best thing to Tendulkar (at least by the Australians!), looked so vulnerable before. The Australian captain looked distinctly uncomfortable, even terrified, as young Ishant’s thunderbolts kept coming in at speeds touching the 150 km/hr mark – and at an awkward height for Ponting – over after over. Ponting took several blows on his body as he tried desperately to fend off his balls. Just as he was beginning to breathe a little easier after watching Anil Kumble handing the ball to another bowler (can’t recall who it was), the street-smart Virender Sehwag came running in from mid-on and was seen pleading with the captain. For those who had failed to pick up the conversation on the stump mike, the inimitable Harsha Bhogle announced it to the world thus. Sehwag to Kumble; “Ek over aur dalne do Ishy ko.” Kumble: “Dus over dal chuka hai. Aur dal paaega?” Sehwag: “Kyon nahin, Ranji mein 12-12 over hamehsa dalta hai.” Kumble then calls Ishy asks him, “Aur ek over daloge?” “Dalunga,” the young lad nods his head. And sure enough, Ponting is caught by Rahul Dravid at second slip off only the second ball of the over that could well have been bowled by someone else! This is the kind of stuff that folklores are made of.

It is such a shame such performances have not come consistently and frequently enough for this honest, hard-working guy. But there has been one thing that he has done consistently well all his career: dogged batting. And he did it again in the first innings of this Test. Coming in at 182-8, he built an invaluable partnership of 35 – of which he himself scored only five – with captain Virat Kohli for the ninth wicket that could well prove crucial in this rather low-scoring match. His ability to stick around not only helped his team get closer to the England total, it also gave Kohli the confidence to launch a savage attack on the tiring English bowlers. For some strange reason, Ishy chose not to review the lbw decision that sent him packing. The replays clearly showed the ball from Adil Rsahid was missing the leg stump. But Ishy had done his job, as he has done on numerous occasions in the past – most memorably at Mohali against the mighty Australia in 2010. Ishy, the bowler, may not have won too many matches for India. But Ishy, the batsman, certainly won a memorable match on this occasion. Coming in at 124/8 in pursuit of a victory target of 205, Ishy did what he does best: digging in. He gave solid company to VVS Laxman, who reveled in such situations, and put up 81 runs, out of which he scored 31 not out, to seal the Aussies’ fate.

There has always been a lot to admire about this lanky Delhi lad (who has done a remarkably good job of staying lanky after 11 years in Test cricket!) since he made his Test debut in 2007. He has always been a game and relentless trier; running in over after over, bowling long spells all day, maintaining a consistent line and length and seldom giving much away. An economy rate of 3.23 over a career spanning 82 Tests is testimony to his remarkable discipline and consistency. But it is in the wickets column that he has really lacked the numbers. 236 wickets in 82 Tests is just not good enough for a man who is the senior pro in the team now. Nor is a haul of just one 10-for in a match and 7 five-fors in a career spanning over a decade much to crow about.

Of course, part of the reason for the lack of numbers in the last column is a remarkable feature of his rather unremarkable Test career; the number of catches dropped off his bowling. Not for nothing has he been called the ‘unluckiest’ bowler in recent memory. Ishy would be fully justified in claiming that his career haul would have been upwards of 300 had all – or, even 75% – of the catches dropped off his bowling been taken. Not that he has ever complained. The tallest man in the team is also among the nicest guys around, the ultimate team player. He has gamely sat out of matches, happily yielding his place in the playing eleven to bowlers much younger (and not always better), not complaining once.

If India do win the Edgbaston Test today, Kohli is certain to walk away with the Man of the Match award for his remarkable batting exploits. And there is no disputing the merits of such a decision. But the team would know that it was Ishy’s splendid spell on Friday afternoon and his dogged batting the day before that they have to thank for this victory. Even if India end up on the losing side in the Test, the team would take heart from this performance from the premier fast bowler and give hope for better things to come in the Tests ahead.

Nice guys do win once in a while, after all. Well done, Ishy!

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same)