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When it comes to overseas Tests, it’s Ishant versus no one for India

Ishant overseas
Aadya Sharma by Aadya Sharma
@Aadya_Wisden 3 minute read

In a typically neatly strung spell at Lord’s, Ishant Sharma proved, once again, that he’s a vital force away from home, quelling any doubts over his place in the XI among his younger colleagues.

On the eve of the first Test of the series, vice-captain Ajinkya Rahane announced that everyone except Mayank Agarwal was fit for selection. Yet, the final XI had two glaring omissions – R Ashwin and Ishant Sharma, India’s two most successful active bowlers, boasting a combined 722 Test wickets. With Ashwin, there was the debatable justification of the conditions at play – for Ishant, there was no obvious cricketing explanation, but an existing hand injury probably playing a part.

Not for nothing do you keep a 102-Test veteran out of the playing XI, especially the sort whose recent form has been as good as ever in his career. Since 2018, he’s plucked 83 wickets @ 19.97, 59 of which have come on overseas terrains.

To properly understand and appreciate Ishant, it’s imperative that there’s a distinction drawn between his younger, raw self and his newer, revamped avatar. For quite a few years leading up to 2018, an ‘unlucky’ Ishant spent a good part of his spells feeding length balls outside off-stump, with little game-changing impact. It’s changed considerably in the last three years, with a fuller range and more swing coming out of his heavily banded wrist. According to CricViz, on the third day of the Lord’s Test, his average swing of 1.87 degrees was the most by any bowler from either team.

On Saturday, there was a bit of the Ishant of old, toiling hard through sessions without any reward. He sent down 18 overs with no breakthroughs in sight – the older Ishant would have completed his entire spell without the reward. But this is Ishant 2.0, capable of producing a spark out of thin air, and sometimes, he just needs that one moment to convert a blasé day into a brilliant one. A classic inswinger sent Jos Buttler’s stumps flying, and it kickstarted a rapid recovery phase for India.

He followed it with back-to-back scalps of Moeen Ali and Sam Curran, adding two more wickets to his superlative record against left-handed batsmen. It pulled India back into the game, and suddenly, you wondered what all the debate around Ishant’s place in the side was all about.

For a soon-to-be 33-year-old fast bowler, life can get tricky when you have a battery of quicks emerging around you. Australia 2020/21 showed that India didn’t always need its bigwigs to bring home the trophy. Ishant had missed the party due to injury then, and in his absence, Mohammed Siraj lived up to the hype, and Shardul Thakur, T Natarajan and Navdeep Saini all played their parts.

However, to consistently win abroad, an enthusiastic bunch of quicks, however talented, will make an even stronger group if a superior of Ishant’s quality is around to help them work through the tough phases while being relentlessly efficient. The quality is especially important abroad, when rewards can be elusive. Ishant’s nagging consistency gives a soothing touch to Kohli’s aggressive India, ensuring that they don’t stray too much.

It was evident at Lord’s, when Ishant kept putting the pressure on the English batsmen before the breakthrough came, and ended the day with the most economical figures among all seamers.

Ishant now has 205 Test wickets away from home. He’s nearly reached Zaheer’s tally, and Kapil Dev’s figures aren’t far off too. Since 2015, his 80 wickets abroad have come at 22.26, and he only seems to be getting better. His stupendous record against left-handed batsmen, to an extent, offsets the advantage that India loses if R Ashwin’s not able to squeeze into the XI abroad. When fit, Ishant is an absolute must-have in overseas conditions, and his three-for at Lord’s on Sunday (the same venue where he once claimed 7-74) showed how experience and class cannot be replaced.

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