Ishant Sharma didn't look like a person that had slept for just 40 minutes. He looked surprisingly fresh at the end of the day's press conference as he answered a range of questions about his fitness, his bowling and how he has been deprived of sleep. Ishant landed in New Zealand only three days before the first Test, he had not played any form of cricket for a month, he had been diagnosed with two ligament tears in his ankle but despite all the hurdles Ishant kept India afloat with figures of 15-6-31-3.
Given that Ishant was returning from injury the chance of him playing in the first Test was extremely slim. Then two days before the match Ishant put his body through a rigorous practice session. For 90 minutes Ishant bowled at full tilt. In that hour and a half, Ishant troubled all the Indian batsmen with his pace, accuracy, and bounce. If it was any other bowler, the coaching staff or captain wouldn't have been content to play him in a match, but this was Ishant, the veteran and the leader of the pack.
Importantly Ishant had come with an open mind. He didn't have any target nor did he put too much pressure on himself. "Yes, if it's possible to play, I will play but if it's not, there's hardly anything that I could have done," he told reporters at the end of the day.
Once Ishant had the ball in hand, he began to look like a man that had bowled for extensive periods, but that was far from the truth. Kohli used him in a series of short bursts. He started into the breeze and just executed his stock ball — the one that leaves the left-hander. The first three overs didn't bring him any rewards, but he looked in a good rhythm.
Kohli immediately recognised his chief bowler had a good tempo and introduced him into the attack from the pavilion end. With the wind at his back, Ishant went around the wicket, his seam pointed towards the slips, his wrist was locked as he pushed the ball away from the left-hander. He was slightly fortunate to get Tom Latham caught behind down the leg-side. But Ishant had given India the breakthrough.
Kane Williamson felt the full brunt of Ishant's force as he copped a blow on the fingers first ball. The ball looped and landed just short of gully. This was Ishant at his best. This was a guy that barely slept the night before.
On the contrary, Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami had been in the country for the last month but both of them simply didn't bring the batsmen forward as Ishant did.
The pitch was on a slower side and the biggest challenge for the batsmen was going to be fuller length. By the time Ishant returned for his third spell, the ball had lost its shine. Tom Blundell was well set and playing tight. This is where Ishant brought all his experience and started varying his seam position.
"Nothing was happening. I was trying that something might happen from the wicket. So I was just not holding the ball on-seam but trying different things. Kookaburra after 40 or 50 overs, the seam gets soft. So you need to come hard and hit the length very hard if you hold the ball cross-seam."
Trying all the variations, Ishant pitched the ball a yard fuller, the ball hit the seam and snuck between Blundell's bat and pad. It was another timely breakthrough by Ishant.
In between his third and fourth spell he deliberately stationed himself next to Bumrah at mid-off. He could have easily parked himself at fine-leg, but he wanted to be next to his young bowler providing a few words of wisdom.
In the 17 overs, Ishant didn't bowl New Zealand had his most productive period as Taylor and Williamson added 61 runs a run-rate of 3.6.
With New Zealand creeping close to India's first innings score Kohli turned to his leading bowler and for the third time in the day, he provided India a breakthrough. Once again it was classic Ishant, running in hard, hitting the pitch hard and getting the ball to jag in to kiss the inside edge of Ross Taylor's bat.
All three of Ishant's dismissals were different. All needed diverse skills. But today was not only about skills, it was a day Ishant pushed his body to the limits and still managed to come out on top. Importantly, he had kept India in the game.
"I am not happy because I haven't slept for the last two days. I was struggling a lot today (with my body). The way I would have liked to bowl, it didn't happen. But the team asked me to play and I played. Anything for the team."
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