Ishant Sharma walks in with lazy energy. Gathers himself at the crease and pushes forward in order to correct his stride. He is good to go. The ball eventually races past Joe Root’s bat - the batter shoulders arms and flashes a beaming smile before going back to his original posture. I am absolutely not sure if it was a darn good meme material but the Twitterverse has gone crazy. The unanimous opinion was that Ishant has become a waste and R Ashwin, without a shadow of a doubt, would have blown away the English batting order to smithereens.
We can never be sure about the second part of the sentence, of course. Ashwin's evolution has been extraordinary and the way he builds pressure with his attacking lines on traditionally unhelpful pitches might have been a differentiating factor. But to suggest Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami or Jasprit Bumrah lacked the incisiveness on a flat Day 3 pitch at Lord’s is like blaming Usain Bolt for Jamaica losing an Olympics Gold medal due to Nesta Carter testing positive on the dope test. The argument simply doesn’t stand the cricketing logic.
As much cricketing fandom would expect their own players to set the stage on fire every single time, the sport itself doesn’t work that way. As cliched as it may sound, failure and success are two parts of the same coin. Just a Test ago, Indian bowlers had put up a performance of breath-taking audacity to bring the side close to a famous win. And at Lord’s, with the Sun out with full flow and the wicket flattening out completely, you would expect batters to dominate. It was not going to be a 183 all-out.
Bumrah, despite not having a wicket to his name, was terrific. The Gujarat pacer induced 23.7% of false shots, that is almost once in every four balls, which is higher than his career average of 22.3%. He huffed and puffed the batters inside the crease and only 19.9% of time, batters could dare to attack him. In fact, only James Anderson fared better in this Test than Bumrah. To bring things into context, it was only one of those days he couldn’t pick a wicket but with a dash of luck, it would have been a completely different tale.
Ishant traded his defensive lines for a more attacking length in his second spell of the day, just to ensure the flatness of the wicket wouldn’t take the game away from their clutch. Someone had to play the holding role but on a lifeless track, retreating to attack was the way to go. They fought as a pack. To understand Ishant's importance, a breakdown is necessary. In the absence of Ashwin, the king of the jungle when it comes to brutally taking down the lefties, Ishant had to step up against lefties which understandably Bumrah or Shami are not great at. Since 2019, Ishant has had a bowling average of 20.4 against right-handers but against lefties, it improves to 14.6. He was asked to ramp up his sleeve and do the donkey’s job at Lord’s and by sending Moeen Ali and Sam Curran to the hut, he did that to perfection. He could only do that because he had put an insane amount of effort when nothing was going right. Giving up was not an option for either of them.
Without even looking at the scoreboard once, it was crystal clear to a naked eye that Mohammed Siraj was the most successful of all bowlers, simply in terms of creating chances. In the post-lunch session, with India in deep need of a wicket, Kohli turned to Siraj who changed an outrageous piece of skill to an obvious option. The Hyderabadi channeled his inner Neil Wagner to bowl 17 short balls to go with a single length ball in his first spell post-lunch and Bairstow was clearly uncomfortable. On another day, with a similar sustained effort, it would have opened a floodgate. But Joe Root was too good and the wicket was too flat. At the end of the day, Siraj summed it up aptly.
"It was important (to play with fourth fast bowler) because we have taken three wickets at the start and our fast bowlers were effective and bowling consistently in one area," Siraj said in the press conference. "The role of fast bowlers is important in England because when you come to England, you want to try things, but our plan here was to be consistent and bowl at one place."
Even though England eked out a 27-run lead in the first innings, India have a great opportunity to cash in on Day 4 batting pitch and put the hosts under pressure. If they can take a decent leap, probably the bowlers wouldn’t really have to do anything different than what they did today and would still be dismissing England pretty smoothly. Their sustained excellence is a product of their own mental tuning and a great level of understanding of their own skills. It is rare to see them drop a “ball” in that regard.