Mention Ishant Sharma and Australia together and the first thing that comes to mind is a wiry young pacer with stars in his eyes and fire in his belly running in at speed, hair flapping wildly and sending down thunderbolts at one of the greats of the modern game, putting him in all kinds of trouble, hitting him on the body, breaching his defence with impunity and, in the end, compelling him to nick one to slip. Your mind also goes back to the same wiry young pacer bowling an absolute peach of a delivery that swung venomously to whistle through the tentative defence of the same Australian legend and crashing into his stumps.
When you realise that the legend in question was Ricky Ponting, the owner of a staggering 13,000-plus runs in Tests, and you saw the way he was annihilated by the fiery Ishant, you had to acknowledge the potential the pacer possessed. Those two deliveries really made Ishant the bowler that he is. It isn't always that you see an Indian pacer bowling with raw aggression and it was a refreshing change to witness.
Ishant — who started his career with a bang, having scalped a five-wicket haul in his second Test — lost his way midway though, and had to wait 31 matches and three-and-a-half years to get his second five-wicket haul. For too long a time, he has underperformed, taking one wicket in an innings 36 times and two wickets in an innings 22 times in 74 matches. It translates to 58 times of pretty average harvest.
The first glance on Ishant's record against Australia would have you believe that the team from Down Under has been his favoured opponent. He has a tally of 45 wickets in 19 matches against the Australians. That's the most number of wickets that Ishant has had against any Test-playing nation. But there is more to that statistic than what meets the eye. He has taken those wickets at an average of 44.86 and a strike rate of 80.9. He has not conceded more runs per wicket or taken more balls to get a breakthrough against any team other than South Africa. His wicket tally against Australia, which as mentioned earlier, is higher than against any other team, is a result of playing the most number of matches against them than any other opposition.
After a rich haul of 15 wickets in the home series against the Australians in 2008, he has had four relatively quiet series against them, taking only 23 wickets in 12 matches.
A problem with Ishant has been that he has tended to bowl too short, even on subcontinent wickets, where he would have been better off pitching the ball up to allow swing to come into play, and has been guilty of spraying the ball on the pads of the batsmen, as a result of which he has gone for runs. He would have to be accurate with his deliveries against the Australians and has shown signs that he has considerably tightened up his bowling of late.
His bowling in England in 2014, where he inspired India to a historic win at Lord's after 28 years, with figures of 7/74 in the second innings, and indeed his eight-wicket match haul against Sri Lanka in 2015 that helped India to a first series win in the Emerald Isle in 22 years, have been the few crests amidst plunging troughs.
Ishant didn't play much of a part in the Test series against England, playing only the inconsequential last Test of the series in Chennai, and returning match figures of 3/59. He played the one-off Test against Bangladesh taking three wickets for 109 runs, when Virat Kohli opted for a three-pronged pace attack. However, more than the wickets, what he brought to the table was a fair degree of aggression. He had bit of a banter with one of Bangladesh's top batsmen, Shabbir Rahman, and hit Bangladesh captain Mushfiqur Rahim on the helmet.
A fast bowler who can rattle an opposition is a big asset for any team. That's what the all-conquering West Indian and Australian teams used to do — there would be a Michael Holding, a Malcolm Marshall, or a Brett Lee who would hit you and soften you up for the others to take advantage.
Ishant has been doing that job for Kohli of late. He has discovered an aggressive, street-fighter-like trait in his character that has been serving him and his team well in recent times.
One remembers his run-in with Sri Lanka's Dhammika Prasad in the 2015 tour. It may have earned him a suspension but it unsettled the Sri Lankans. Add to it the wickets that he took, and Ishant was quite a handful for the opposition.
“I was very happy with the incident (argument with Prasad) when he was batting. It happened at the right time for us because we had to bowl on Monday and they made him angry. It could not have happened at a better time for us,” Kohli said on the Ishant-Dhammika spat, adding, “An angry fast bowler is a captain’s delight."
Ishant's aggression will be useful against the Australians, who are known to play a hard and unforgiving brand of cricket, which involves a few stares, glares and a lot of chirping. There has been a litany of ugly episodes between the two sides over the years.
Australian captain Steve Smith has already tried to get under the skin of the Indians before the series by backing sledging as a tactic. "I think each of our individuals play the way they play and if they want to get into a battle verbally then, if that gets the best out of them, go for it," Smith said.
One can thus imagine that it is going to an explosive series between two top sides of world cricket and Ishant has a big role to play. He has to fight for his place in the side with Umesh Yadav and Bhuvneshwar Kumar, with India almost certain to go with three spinners and two pacers, though one expects Ishant to be in the starting eleven as the senior paceman. A feisty Ishant who targets the corridor of uncertainty outside the batsman's off-stump on a regular basis will stand India in good stead.
How well he leads India's pace attack will determine to a large extent India's fortunes in the series.