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Ishant Sharma could fall victim to the pace-bowling supremacy he himself founded

Sarah Waris by Sarah Waris
@swaris16 5 minute read

Ishant Sharma was once the face of India’s fast bowling resurgence but, ironically, the very same quicks he helped groom are now pushing to take his place in the XI, writes Sarah Waris.

Not long ago, India’s pace bowlers were a running joke, and Ishant Sharma was the punchline. Halfway through his Test career so far, he had 149 wickets at 38.81 in 53 games. Only Ravi Shastri has claimed more wickets at a worse average. Even his successes became the source of fun, with a gif of him slapping his head and pulling a face after dismissing Sri Lanka’s Dhammika Prasad, his mane in disarray, regularly doing the rounds.

Now India’s quicks are no laughing matter, and Ishant has been at the heart of their renaissance. Their determination to become the best Test side in the world has brought about a revolution that few would have thought possible. The results tell their own story. Since the beginning of 2018, three India players, Ishant , Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammad Shami, feature in the top 12 quicks with the most Tests wickets. No other country has more than two players on the list.


Overall, India’s quicks have combined to pick up 420 wickets in that time, behind only England. Their strike rate of 47.6 is second to South Africa’s among nations with at least 40 Test wickets. More importantly, they have sent down 3,334.5 overs, only one of four sides to bowl more than 3,000 overs in this period, which only displays the greater responsibility they have started to hold.

Bumrah has been pivotal to that rise, but he has been guided to his best efforts by Ishant and Shami. Ishant, in particular, has been able to see off his mid-career slump to perfection, emerging as Kohli’s go-to player in tough situations. Since the start of 2018, the pacer has 85 wickets in the format at an average of 21.37, only behind Pat Cummins and Jason Holder, and a strike rate of 46.7, which is the fourth-best in the world (among quicks with at least 80 scalps in this period). Ishant has scripted a memorable turnaround, with the help of Bharat Arun and Jason Gillespie at Sussex, but more importantly because of his own hard work, first evident when sending down tireless, fruitless overs game-after-game as he struggled early on.

From icon to silent warrior

Think of the Lord’s Test win this year, and you’d think of KL Rahul’s brilliant hundred to go with Rohit Sharma’s fighting 83. Of course, there was the intense battle between James Anderson and Bumrah, who later starred with the bat as well along with Shami. Mohammed Siraj’s eight-for and Kohli’s intense captaincy will be talking points as well, but playing an equally crucial role was Ishant, with a match haul of five wickets, including two in England’s second innings.

The lanky pacer first dismissed a stubborn Haseeb Hameed with a ball that went into the right-hander and then proceeded to bowl one of his most disciplined spells. He welcomed Jonny Bairstow with a bumper, troubled him with inswingers, squared up Joe Root with a ball that straightened after pitching, and almost had the England captain with another inswinger. He kept the ball close to off stump and varied his pace well. He eventually had Bairstow with a ball that came back in to hit his knee roll on the last ball before tea, bowling four overs for six runs and two wickets. By the end of his spell, Ishant’s figures read 7-2-7-2, piling on the pressure all the way through. He bowled three more overs in the innings, giving away six more runs, and his accuracy played its own part in India taking a 1-0 lead.

His efforts, though, were largely forgotten by the end as Siraj, with his intensity and whole-heartedness won over audiences in a game for the ages. The game also highlighted an interesting shift in Indian cricket, where warhorse Ishant is no longer the only answer when Kohli is in a dire situation.

He sent down 34 overs in the Lord’s Test match, the least among all four India quicks in the game. Overall, he has sent down 168.2 overs in 2021 in eight matches, 114 less than Bumrah, who has played the same number of games. Siraj, who has played nine Tests, has bowled 259.4 overs. Ishant has picked up 14 scalps this year at an average of 32.71 and a strike rate of 72.1, both figures the worst among India quicks with at least five wickets in 2021. His average and strike rate are also at their worst since 2017, which was incidentally before India’s plan to dominate the world got going in 2018. From 2018 till 2020, he averaged 21.80, 15.56, and 15.20 respectively, before the dip in 2021.

For a time, Ishant was all India had, the seamer to toil away at home before the spinners got to work, and one of the few who won them games away from home, even if the victories were sporadic. Then, as a new generation emerged, he played the role of mentor, ensuring an easy passage into the side while ensuring his own numbers kept up the pace. Now, just as more new players have emerged, another slump has presented itself. It’s only a small one, but it could have a big impact on Ishant’s future as a first-choice quick.

At 33 years old, Ishant is no longer the young workhorse he once was. He has been hampered by injuries, which has made a return to the Indian fold tougher. At the same time, Siraj has performed across conditions, with Umesh Yadav also waiting in the wings, and a slew of young quicks coming up on the rails behind.

Time might not be up for Ishant yet, because he has proven us wrong in the past, but even if he warms the benches, you know he will be passing on his insights and readying a replacement for when he does decide to hang up his boots. The player who improved his game to be the fulcrum of India’s pace attack could have to walk away sooner because of the system he helped prepare and the youngsters he helped groom, but it also remains the biggest testimony to just how good he really was.

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