Perth, January, 2008: Anil Kumble's team had arrived at the pacy WACA for the third Test against Australia, trailing 0-2, having been comprehensively beaten at Melbourne and robbed by atrocious umpiring at Sydney.
Nobody gave India a chance. Not in Perth at least, given the Indian batsmen's traditional discomfort against fast bowling. But after a gritty show with bat and ball, India set the hosts a target of 413 with little over two days remaining.
India needed wickets and when on the fourth morning skipper Kumble handed the ball to a wiry 19-year-old pacer, playing only his fourth Test, one could never have imagined what was to follow.
Ishant Sharma had had a five-wicket haul against Pakistan earlier, and at the WACA, he put the legendary Ricky Ponting to the sword. Ishant brought the ball sharply into the right-hander, hitting Ponting on the body, on the pads and cutting him in half. He had bowled seven hostile overs on the trot, but the Australians had weathered the storm.
Then as Kumble was planning to give his fast bowler a breather, Ishant's Delhi teammate Virender Sehwag suggested that he should be given one more over, given that Ponting was at the crease.
"Ek aur over karega (will you bowl one more over)?" Kumble asked Ishant. "Haan, karoonga (Yes, I will)," Ishant replied. The first ball of his next over was an absolute beauty that held its line and took the outside edge of Ponting's bat, and nestled in the safe hands of Rahul Dravid at first slip.
Ishant, who had removed Ponting with a similar delivery in the first innings, was finally rewarded for his persistence. That wicket opened the floodgates and Australia eventually slumped to a 72-run defeat to hand India a famous win.
Cut to Mohali a few months later. The Australians, who had come to India for a return series, were set a daunting target of over 500 runs in the fourth innings.
As always, their hopes rested in their captain Ponting, who had come in to bat after the fall of Matthew Hayden's wicket. Captain MS Dhoni unleashed Ishant on Ponting, and like he did in Perth, the bowler came up with a dream delivery. Bowled at pace, the ball pitched on good length and jagged back viciously to sneak through the gap between bat and pad and flattened Ponting's off-stump, reducing the Aussies to a dismal 52/4. India won the match by a mammoth 320 runs, and Ishant had dismissed Ponting for the fifth time in six matches.
A warrior's worth can be judged by his battle scars and the list of rivals he has vanquished. The story of how Ishant tormented Ponting — one of the greatest batsmen of his generation — during that phase in 2008 had found its way into India's cricket folklore, and no discussion on Ishant is complete without a reference to those two deliveries he bowled to Ponting in Perth and Mohali respectively.
Ishant, however, could not live up to the huge expectations that his exploits in the early part of his career generated, and after he got his first five-for in his second match itself, he had to wait for 31 more matches and three-and-a-half years for another five-wicket haul.
After bagging a creditable 15 wickets in four matches against the visiting Australians in 2008, the next series, against England, was distinctly modest for Ishant, in which he could only manage six wickets in the two-match Test series.
Ishant has hardly ever been consistent and has been in and out of the team. He has been guilty of bowling too short too often on subcontinent wickets, when he would have been better off pitching the ball up to bring swing into play, unlike the bouncy wickets in Australia, for instance, where bowling short of good length is often a useful ploy. He has often also sprayed deliveries down the leg side, making them easy pickings for batsmen.
Having played more Tests than the other three pacers in the team — Mohammed Shami, Umesh Yadav and Hardik Pandya — Ishant gets the tag of senior pro by default, but he has never been able to lead the Indian pace attack as Zaheer Khan so wonderfully used to do.
The Test series in England in 2011 was dismal for the team, and Ishant's tally of 11 wickets in four matches doesn't look all that bad when you consider that Dhoni's side were whitewashed 0-4. But in conditions not tailor-made for pacers, during the home series against the same opposition a year later, Ishant came a cropper. Playing just two Tests in the four-match series, he could only manage four wickets.
He redeemed himself somewhat with a six-wicket haul against New Zealand in 2014, and later that year, in the Lord's Test against England, wrecking Alastair Cook's side with 7-74 in the second innings and setting up a historic 95-run win. It gave India a 1-0 lead in the five-match series and was India's first Test victory at the haloed ground in 28 years.
Then in 2015, the lanky Delhi pacer ensured a series victory for India in Sri Lanka after a gap of 22 years, with eight wickets in the third and final Test at Colombo. He brought up 200 Test wickets in the process — only the fourth Indian pacer, after Kapil Dev, Javagal Srinath and Zaheer Khan, to do so. His spats with Dhammika Prasad, Dinesh Chandimal and Lahiru Thirimanne and the send-off he gave to Upul Tharanga in that match were some of the biggest talking points of the series. Ishant was banned for a match for his conduct, but his approach was indicative of an aggressive Indian team under Virat Kohli that played to win at all costs. At the end of the day, you want your lead pacer to show some aggression, don't you?
However, Ishant's form dipped again and in seven matches after that eventful Test at Colombo, he could only get nine wickets. The upcoming series against England will provide Ishant another opportunity to get his act together. He is making a comeback into the side after missing the recently-concluded home series against New Zealand owing to illness.
Ishant has 35 wickets in 11 matches against England so far, and has a strike rate of 72, which means he takes a wicket after every 12 overs. Considering that he bowls around 18-19 overs every innings on an average, he may not end up with more than one or two wickets every innings in the upcoming series. Ishant would want to do far better than that, though. India will look up to him for early breakthroughs, and also employ the reverse swing to get wickets with the old ball later in the day.
Ishant had said ahead of the West Indies tour earlier this year that he was doing well in Tests and knew what his strengths were. India now need him to fire on all cylinders if they have to have any chance of avenging the home loss to England in 2012. Can Ishant be India's next Zaheer Khan? He surely has his task cut out.
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