Three more matches and Ishant Sharma will become only the second Indian fast bowler after Kapil Dev to play 100 Tests. Three more wickets and the right-arm paceman will join the elite club of bowlers with 300 scalps in the longest format of the game. This tells you how long he has been around!
Standing at 6'4", Ishant was just 18 when he made his Test debut in 2007 against Bangladesh. On Monday (May 25), he will mark the completion of 13 years in international cricket and his journey has been full of ups and downs. His career can be divided into two halves - pre-2018 and post-2018. In his first 10-11 years of Test cricket, Ishant produced occasional moments of brilliance but was very inconsistent. However, he has finally managed to turn things around in these last two years and has become an important member of India's lethal pace attack. His numbers post-2018 are simply world-class!
The tall and lanky fast bowler with shoulder-length hair had played just two Tests when India toured Australia in 2008, and we all know how he troubled Ricky Ponting and other Australian batsmen with his pace and swing. It looked like India had unearthed a rookie who will transform into a match-winner, but things didn't quite go as planned. He largely played the role of second fiddle till Zaheer Khan was around but once the left-arm paceman retired in 2014, the team management expected Ishant to step up but the Delhi lad failed to live up to the high expectations.
Ishant has formed a solid trio with Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami under the leadership of Virat Kohli. The other two fast bowlers have hogged most of the limelight but Ishant too has done a phenomenal job for India since 2018. From 2007-2017, there was only one year where Ishant averaged less than 30. It was in the year 2016 in which he played just five Tests and took 11 wickets at 28.7 but by no means these are impressive numbers. He was delivering those match-winning performances every now and then but was failing to do it on a regular basis.
Ishant was always there in the squad but was never the first-preferred pacer. He was the second slowest to 250 Test wickets (86 Tests) after South African allrounder Jacques Kallis (127 Tests). The resurrection started when Sri Lanka toured India in 2017 and Ishant got to play the second Test in Nagpur as Bhuvneshwar Kumar (personal reasons) and Shami (injury concerns) weren't available. Ishant claimed five wickets in the match on a surface where R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja picked 13 of the 20 wickets.
Then came the South African tour where Bumrah made his Test debut but Ishant didn't get to play the first Test. He did make a comeback in Centurion and got the crucial wickets of AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis. He picked up eight wickets in two Tests and since then has become a consistent performer. India then toured England, Australia, West Indies and New Zealand and Ishant has been impressive in all these tours.
Since 2018, he has picked up 71 wickets in 18 Tests, decorated with four five-wicket hauls. Only in four out of 35 innings, Ishant has gone wicketless. He has the second best average amongst bowlers who have picked up at least 50 wickets in this time period. Even his strike rate is better than the likes of Kagiso Rabada, Pat Cummins, Bumrah, Trent Boult, Neil Wagner, James Anderson, and the list goes on. Only Jason Holder has picked up wickets at a better strike rate than Ishant in this time frame.
India haven't played many Tests at home since 2018 but in the five matches that Ishant has played, he has taken 18 wickets at an average of 16.6. Surprisingly, the likes of Umesh Yadav, Shami and Ishant have better bowling averages at home than Ashwin, Jadeja and Kuldeep Yadav.
Ishant has also improved his record immensely against top-order batsmen (1-7) in this time period. Earlier, he used to average 40.7 against such batsmen, which has dropped to 20.1 in these last 29 months. He has also been lethal against left-handed batsmen, mostly bowling around the wicket. If we compare him with other fast bowlers who have bowled a minimum of 100 overs against left-handed batsmen since 2018, Ishant once again stands out.
THE GILLESPIE IMPACT
Ishant signed up as Sussex’s overseas professional in 2018 and spent two months in England. That's where he met former Australian fast bowler Jason Gillespie who worked closely with him and made him a better bowler. Ishant has spoken a lot about how Gillespie provided him the "solutions to his problems" that he was seeking for the longest time. He also developed a ball that straightens to right-handers and has started bowling a lot of full and length deliveries, that too at a "good pace".
"A lot of people would tell me that I need to increase the pace of my fuller deliveries. No one told me how to do that? It was when I went to play county cricket, Jason Gillespie gave me the solution. Gillespie told me that in order to increase pace in fuller deliveries, you don’t just release it but hit the deck so that it should target the knee roll," said Ishant.
Gillespie also suggested him to bowl slightly more fuller and target for the batsman’s pads rather than the top of the off-stump. "His main delivery is the one that swings back to the right-handers, but what he wanted to do, to the right-handers particularly, was he wanted a delivery that looked like it was going to swing into the batsman but actually held its line and went through to the keeper. Ishant wanted to draw the batsman into a shot and bring the keeper and slip fielders into play," Gillespie told Cricbuzz.
"We adjusted his grip, the position of the ball in his hand and his release positions at the point of delivery, where his wrist and fingers were. He tried a couple of different things until we found that if he held the ball a certain way, it went straight on - it was just his wrist position at ball release. He spent hours and hours in the nets just perfecting that one delivery."
Now that he can manage to straighten the ball against right-handers, Ishant has started inducing more edges and is also able to beat the right-handed batsmen more times than he used to before. Looking at the numbers, right-handers have edged 17.6 percent of his deliveries since 2018, compared to 14.3 pre-2018. Because of his ability to move the ball away, such batsmen aren't trying to attack him these days. The percentage has dropped down from 30.7 to 22 in the last 29 months.
Ishant is enjoying the best phase of his career and still has at least three to four years of cricket left in him. It took him quite a few years, and lots of hard work, to become the best version of himself but now that he is at the peak of his career, the onus is on him to make up for all the disappointments.