In the annals of Indian Test history, only two pace bowlers have played more and taken more wickets than Ishant Sharma at the beginning of this India-West Indies Test in Antigua: the great Kapil Dev and the masterful Zaheer Khan. Ishant has the worst strike rate (SR) and average (Ave), currencies with a bowler is judged, of the three. At Jamaica, Ishant has the opportunity to draw level with Zaheer on 92 Tests but still some way behind on wickets, and of course, quite far back from Kapil on both counts.
The impressive youngster that sent down a challenging nine over spell in 2008, harassing and troubling an all time great in Ricky Ponting, is now the senior statesman of Indian pace crew. While he had shown a lot of early promise, his career had plateaued by the time he had represented India in 65 Tests; his durability to be able to bowl long spells whenever he was called upon, was the last chip of the stack, but as they say in Vegas, you only need a chip and a chair to come back from the dead.
Perhaps it was the additional responsibility of being the senior pacer or that his reduced role in limited over matches, or may be the penny dropped, or some combination of all of these, the 23 Tests that Ishant has played in since July 2016 beginning with a Test at Antigua including the one ongoing at the same venue, Ishant’s returns are a significant improvement on his career numbers: Ave: 25.07 vs 33.81 and SR: 54.2 vs 63.5.
In a sense, his bowling performance in his 91st Test match was reflective of his career; bad Ishant followed by the good reincarnation. In his opening spell of four overs, bowling to a left-right combination of batsmen, Ishant erred in his line consistently, unable to control the swing of the new Dukes ball, and was picked off quite effortlessly for 26 runs, while the relative newcomer on the Test scene Jasprit Bumrah went for just five runs in his first four overs!
It would be for the 16th over of the innings that Ishant would be brought back in to attack, that he would exert some control and begin posing questions to the batsmen. Ravindra Jadeja ventured that “once the ball got a bit older, [Ishant’s] rhythm also got better, and he started to get some swing, and the ball was carrying through very well too.” Ishant would beat the edge a couple of times but would open his tally with a reflexive caught and bowled opportunity from Kraigg Brathwaite. While West Indian batsman Roston Chase did not think there were any “unplayable or special deliveries”, Ishant’s natural ability to swing the ball and the strong breeze blowing across the pitch was not allowing to connect the ball cleanly. His returns from the spell read: 3-2-4-1.
It was another hot, humid and sweltering day in Antigua and Virat Kohli did not want to overextend his pacers and rotated them through short spells. Ishant would come back for his third spell — of just one over — just before tea, giving away a couple of singles.
As the fifth wicket partnership between Roston Chase and Shai Hope reached threatening proportions, Kohli recalled his senior paceman, and he delivered on the second delivery, very reminiscent of the dismissal of Aaron Finch at Melbourne in 2018. With the aid of the breeze, and better control of swing with the older ball, the plot was hatched to get Chase dismissed “LBW or by having a catcher [at square midwicket}” said Jadeja later. The celebrations of Ishant pointing and waving his index finger at his captain as KL Rahul completed a neat, low catch, indicated that their plan had come to fruition. His fourth spell stood at: 2-0-2-1.
Brought back once again as the fast-paced partnership between Hope and Shimron Hetmeyer was taking shape, Sharma produced a delivery as good as any Kemr Roach did with a new ball on the sticky morning of Day 1, but with a 54-overs old ball on flat deck. The delivery came in with the arm, but cut away off the pitch, and Hope was dashed.
In his next over, Ishant delivered double strike, first removing the dangerous Hetmeyer with yet another return catch, and sawing off Roach with a peach that the Bajan could just guide to Kohli at second slip. He should have had another in his next over as the leading edge off Jason Holder fell tantalisingly close to the desperate Hanuma Vihari. Final and fifth spell of the day: 3-0-8-3. Just his ninth five-wicket haul, which is just short of Zaheer’s 11 and in a different area code from Kapil’s 23.
No one, perhaps not even Ishant, would consider him to be in the sparsely populated pantheon of Indian pacers, but given that he has had nearly twelve years of international experience and is only about to turn 31 years of age in a few days, if the good Ishant continues to show up for India, there is still time to make up, because all you need is a chip and a chair.