It has been more than 11 years since Ishant Sharma made his international debut, but he has rarely been more established in Test cricket. While India failed to win in England last summer, Ishant left that tour with his stock at the highest point it has been. He played all five Tests and finished with 18 wickets, second only to James Anderson on the wicket-taking list. For years Ishant looked like he had all the attributes to be the leader of the Indian bowling attack, in England in 2018 he actually led them.
Next, it is Australia, and Ishant made waves when he first played in the country. It has been more than 10 years since he bowled a spell so impressive to Ricky Ponting that the great Australian batsman described him as “dangerous”. That spell at Perth that caused Ponting to gush with praise may have been a decade ago, but for many, it is still what defines Ishant’s career. Now, as an experienced performer who has had recent success in seam-friendly conditions, he can start redefining his career on this tour.
Writing in his Captain’s Diary 2008 Ponting said: "Tall, lean, ultra-impressive Ishant Sharma, playing just his fourth Test and still eight-and-a-half months short of his 20th birthday, had bowled an awesome spell to me: seven overs when he was fast, aggressive and relentless, where I never felt as if I was truly 'in',"
Having a tall fast bowler who was making batsmen jump around was not something that Indian fans had been used to and naturally, Ishant created a real buzz. Skillful seamers that got the ball to move around was a much more likely type of bowler to make the Indian Test team. Here was a young man who had real pace and aggression.
In terms of the way he looks and the way he bowls the now 30-year-old Ishant isn’t that much different from the teenager that did so well in Perth. But he is a lot more street smart and is now a seasoned performer. The third most successful Indian seam bowler of all time with 256 wickets he has a Test record to be proud of. But his record in Australia is actually pretty poor.
In 10 Australian Tests has seen Sharma claim 20 wickets at an average of 62.15. For a tall bowler who gets serious bounce that doesn’t seem right, but the facts are what they are. A 2011-12 tour of Australia where Michael Clarke and Ponting both averaged over 100, with Clarke a double and a triple century, certainly dented those figures. Ishant managed just five wickets at an average of 90 in that series.
This is a real chance for Ishant to come good on that early promise that he showed back in 2008 when bowling at Ponting who is now a long time retired. There is no Clarke either of course. And on top of that Steve Smith and David Warner are absent as well. The ban they are serving for their involvement in the Cape Town means this massive series is one they will have to watch from the sidelines. The next time they face Indian players will be in next season’s IPL. Combined with his recent English success the time is ripe for him to put his record in Australia right.
Australian pitches are not ones where visiting finger spinners have had much success so how much of a threat the likes of Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja will pose is a matter for debate. The most successful series a visiting finger spinner has had in the 21st century is the 15 wickets that Graeme Swann managed in the 2010-11 Ashes. It has been legspinners that have had much more success, the best in a series in Australia since 2000 being Anil Kumble’s 24 wickets in three matches in 2003-4.
When teams have done well in Australia it has been in the back of seam bowlers doing well, even as Swann was taking those 15 wickets it was Jimmy Anderson claiming 24 that really took England over the top.
Ishant has the chance to make serious inroads into an Australia top order that has struggled in recent times, and one that without Smith, Warner and even Cameron Bancroft (also serving a ban as a result of his involvement in the ball tampering incident) has very little solidity. Early wickets can be what wins this series for India, and that is where Ishant comes in.
It will take more than wickets from Ishant to win this for India, but he can play a huge part in this golden opportunity for India to win a series in Australia for the first time. He has the experience of these conditions that can see him lead this attack. Speaking before this tour Ishant seemed to be aware that this was his best chance to have a truly successful tour of Australia.
“I always go for the kill. You won't get a second chance. I am 30 right now. (By the time) the next tour (to Australia comes), I will be 34 and you never know whether I will be there or not. So, I will give my best."
He has shown that he can be a leader with the ball on a few occasions, now is the time for him to do it consistently.