Ishant Sharma has now played 82 Test matches for India. He is the third most capped fast bowler in the history of Indian Test cricket. His numbers are not that flattering, a bowling average of 35.52 combined with a strike rate of 66. In England, the numbers plummet even further. He has been seen as the leader of the attack for over five years and on most occasions, his is the first name picked in playing XI when India have toured abroad. The numbers do not justify his ability and after more than a decade, his fiery spell against Ricky Ponting remains the highlight of his career.
But despite the numbers, Ishant continues to find a place in the team. Fans, team management and various skippers he has played under persist with the belief that eventually the tide will turn and Ishant will replicate that exceptional spell to Ponting in 2008 on a regular basis. Every series abroad there is a feeling that "this might be the tour". But either an injury halts his march, or the lack of support stops him dead in his track.
The upcoming England tour will be no different. Once again he will be the only hit-the-deck style of bowler and when the pitch or the conditions are benign, he will be asked to do all the donkey work. It will be a tough ask. But this time around, there is a supporting cast around him that is capable of providing him some respite, although the injury to Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah could mean more toil and longer spells.
Ishant also has plenty of experience to bank on. On the last tour to England, he was exceptional with his length. His match-winning spell at Lords — where he bounced out the England tail — was one of the finest of his career. Unfortunately for Ishant, an injury after the second Test prevented him from scaling further heights and also changed the dynamics of the series.
Experts and the conditioning staff believe Ishant was over-bowled in 2014, which led to a dip in form and injury. This time around, there has been a lot of focus on ensuring Ishant's workload will be spread out to ensure he remains at prime fitness through the five-Test series.
Additionally, Ishant has in a way had a genuine off-season or at least a period of time during which he has been well rested. He skipped the Indian Premier League and played four games for Sussex in April-May to ensure he got accustomed to the conditions. At the same time, he has also been picking the mind of former Australia great and now Sussex coach Jason Gillespie.
Ishant played four First-Class matches for Sussex and while he only managed to pick up 16 wickets, the experience he has gained bowling with the Duke ball in English conditions is sure to assist him in the five-Test series.
Speaking to Sussex TV, Ishant said, "The grounds are different here, there is a slope and you have to run uphill or downhill whereas in India the ground is generally flat, so we need to be used to this. Also, the weather can change with each session so you have to learn to change your strategy and your length. That is something I have been learning."
For nearly a decade now, Ishant has toured overseas and failed to hit the right lengths. However, in the past couple of years, he has shown the tendency to find the appropriate length on various pitches. This tour provides an ideal chance for him to showcase to the world he has finally reached the peak of his powers.
In terms of preparations, Ishant could not have asked for more. Now it is all about executing his tactics and burying all the criticism. He will also be aware that his primary role in this current bowling unit is to hold the attack. Discipline will be the key to success. Virat Kohli will demand that he chew away at the batting with long probing spells while the likes of Umesh Yadav, Mohammed Shami, and the spinners attack from the other end.
The fact that Ishant has won a Test for India on English soil will put him in good stead. Picking the brains of Gillespie and staying in England for nearly two months is sure to help him. But as we have seen with Ishant so frequently, he promises so much, but it only comes in form of one or two spells. This series is for him to put up his hand and deliver with every spell, every session, and every Test match. There is fine artillery around him and the English batting is arguably one the weakest in the recent times.
It is far too long to term Ishant as the ‘unlucky' bowler. On this England tour, he has to showcase to the world that the numbers he has achieved after 82 Tests are an injustice to his bowling.
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India are keen on a reduced quarantine and wants the players to be allowed to train in a bio-secure bubble instead of being restricted to a hotel room, which, the BCCI fears, can take a toll on the fitness of its players.
England are slated to visit India from January-March for five Tests and a limited-overs series.
Lara also feels that Rishabh Pant has matured in the past year and he should be considered as India's number one wicketkeeper-batsman.