July 16, 2014

Ishant lurches from hero to villain

Disaster may lurk and comedy may come, but Ishant Sharma brings a wholeheartedness to his team that should be valued above stats

Ishant Sharma: quite a wide gap between his best and his worst © Getty Images

It had to be Ishant, didn't it? As the Trent Bridge track turned the final moments of the first Test between England and India into a comedy, he provided the punchline to Alastair Cook's slapstick spell by surrendering his wicket to a man who cannot buy a lucky break at the moment, who was not only bowling terrible rubbish but had been doing an impression to amuse his team-mates.

Ishant trailed back to the pavilion with the joyful, disbelieving whoops of the England players in his ears, reflecting no doubt that, once again, the game had chosen to rain down upon him.

Sure enough, google his name and the second suggestion to come up is "Ishant Sharma jokes". The results include: "21 Oct 2013... Ishant Sharma's 'miracle' 30-run over against Australia in the third ODI led to an avalanche of jokes on the internet" (MSN); "13 Feb 2014 ... IPL 7 Auction: Ishant Sharma jokes are trending on Twitter" (cricketcountry.com); "4 April 2013 Check out the 30 best jokes on Ishant Sharma" (IPLWA.com).

His career, which has seen him lurch wildly from hero to villain and back again across the course of 56 Tests and 72 one-day internationals offers plenty of ammo to keyboard warriors: the Test bowling average of 37.79, the highest of any bowler ever with more than 50 caps; being pasted all over Mohali by James Faulkner in that infamous 30-run over; his disintegrating relationship with the speed gun that once clocked him at 152kph, etc etc.

Even so, all cricketers have bad days and barren patches. It is the nature of the game to be fickle to its participants - it's practically the only guarantee that it gives. Very, very few of the elite have ability at such a high level that it exempts them from all but the very occasional ignominy. For the rest of us, from Test match cricketers down to the most humble of fourth-XI occasionals, it has varying degrees of disaster in store.

Ishant's share of that disaster happens before the eyes of the world. In a land that worships batting like no other, he is a fast bowler. Not only that, he is a beanpole, towering above legends like Tendulkar and Dhoni by a foot or more, the effect exaggerated by the greatest hairdo since David Coverdale led Whitesnake to the top of the US charts in 1987. His sheer visibility has an effect, so does the cosmic accident of having to make his mistakes in an era when social media transmits every detail in an instant, when barely a game goes untelevised or unrecorded. Not only will no one miss them, they can be endlessly relived at the touch of a keyboard, passed around forever. And once a reputation is made, it is difficult to remould into anything else, as any spin doctor will tell you.

But what established this caricature? Ishant is a player with quite a wide gap between his best and his worst, and he also began his career explosively, bowling at high pace and discomforting Ricky Ponting at the height of his powers. He was almost setting himself up for disappointment, and the knowledge of what he is capable of has dogged him through the harder times.

There is a slightly offbeat but I think valid comparison to be made with Andrew Flintoff here. Like Flintoff, a bowler of similar height, Ishant has been at his most effective when whacking the pitch short of a length, but as Flintoff discovered, it's a length that beats the bat without producing lots of wickets. Fred had just three five-wicket bags across the 137 Test innings in which he bowled; Ishant has five (Flintoff took four 11 times, in comparison to Ishant's seven across 98 innings). Varying from that length often resulted in more expensive spells, too.

Nonetheless, Ishant has had his moments, and they have been tantalising. He is unperturbed by dead wickets, and it was his excellent spell that precipitated England's first-innings collapse at Trent Bridge. Like Steve Harmison, another player who had quite a wide margin between his best and worst, once Ishant gets a sniff, he can suddenly catch fire.

He is still only 25, but it's probably fair to say that things won't change too much now. He is not going to wake up one morning and become Glenn McGrath, and yet there is something cherishable about him. In an era when the classic subcontinental wicket seems to be spreading across the globe (witness not just Trent Bridge but Sabina Park) fast bowling is only going to get harder and averages higher.

To have someone willing to throw himself into the fray when the odds are against him gives Ishant a value above stats. Disaster may lurk and comedy may come, but he is bringing wholeheartedness to his team, and, one way or another, he is enlivening this series.

Jon Hotten blogs here and tweets here