Ishant, unlucky or incomplete?
One of these days Ishant Sharma is going to bowl worse than he is doing, and walk away with a five-for. That's what his team-mates, and more importantly his opponents think. One of these days.
Today wasn't one of those days. Easily the best bowler on show today, Ishant produced three edges on a flat track, came close to getting leg-before calls, went past the bat on an almost equal number of occasions, got the ball to seam, bowled the odd cutter with a roll of the fingers, and went for just 52 in 20 overs on a day that India conceded 335 runs for just three wickets. But he still doesn't have a wicket to show for it.
It has been observed, not without merit, that perhaps he is not that unlucky after all. That - likable as he might be with his spirit in the nets, in the field, with the ball, and with the bat - there is a difference between studying hard and scoring marks in the exam. That he bowls just the good balls, not the wicket-taking balls, which would be a length slightly fuller - by about a foot - than he usually bowls. That his game has not evolved from the last time he first impressed, on the tour to Australia four years ago.
Or, a little more uncharitably, that, as Shane Warne once observed of Monty Panesar, he has played not 45 Tests but the same Test 45 times. "Unlucky Ishant" has become almost a mock among the fans. Sometimes, though, what those who have been in the contests say matters more. This might be one of those cases.
This is what Michael Hussey had to say of him before the start of this Test: "If anything, I think he has picked up a bit of pace from some of the spells that I've faced in the past. Particularly in Melbourne he was touching 150 for a couple of spells, and bowled with real pace. I think his pace is up, or has been up earlier in the series.
"He's bowled without luck really. Particularly in the first couple of Tests he beat the bat on numerous occasions, and there were a lot of balls where the rub of the green didn't quite go his way. Sometimes that can almost shape your series. I know from a batting point of view if you can just get off to a good start, sometimes that can shape your series, and you feel like the rub of the green can go your way. I think he's bowled really well, but some of those 50-50 things haven't quite gone his way, and maybe that has flowed on for the rest of the series. I hope that continues for one more Test."
It sure has continued into the first day of one more Test. Australia are almost of the view that Yadav owes quite a few of his wickets to Ishant's bowling at the other end. A foot fuller, and he could be getting those edges himself. That is why it is argued that it is too simplistic to label Ishant an unlucky bowler who will get the proverbial rub of the green one day. Forty-five Tests into his career, he should be able to bowl a better length without losing his wrist position behind the seam or the arm.
Perhaps it is too simplistic to say that. For starters, Ishant has bowled a better - fuller - length over the last year and a half. It has got him results at times - in the West Indies, and at Lord's - and at others it hasn't. It's not like Ishant hasn't changed things. In his wilderness days, when out of the side, he tried to bowl like Zaheer Khan with catastrophic effects. After his comeback, he has been bowling fuller, but he cannot deviate too much from what his natural length is.
It's the delivery you can bowl blindfolded, a little like changing gears when driving a car. It's the length that allows him to do things he does with the ball. It's the ball that got Ricky Ponting's edge when it held its line four years ago. It's the length that just goes past the bat nowadays. On a day that Ponting scored a century, he was asked if he, as an opponent who has history with Ishant, thought Ishant has been threatening enough on this tour.
"I actually thought in Melbourne and Sydney that he bowled particularly well," Ponting said. "I thought he bowled better than his figures would have suggested. Even today he kept running in all day. Sometimes you bowl well and don't take wickets. At other times you don't bowl as well, and take wickets. It's like batting … sometimes you feel like you are on top of your game, and just can't score a run. Other times you feel completely out of nick, and just can't get out. That's the game."
The more valid criticism is that Ishant has not strung together such unfortunate days in a cluster. That every time he moves ahead, he soon moves a little backwards once more. It was a tough, long day for India today, but even at the end Ishant kept charging in. He bowled the fuller length and produced the edge, but there was no third slip to catch it. His reaction, that half-smile in defeat, is the image of his career. Does he also believe in his poor luck or will he come back tomorrow and challenge it, again, with 20 more overs of intensity?
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo