Impressive Ishant stuck without support
On Friday, Ishant Sharma must have felt caught in a sci-fi horror movie: there he was, valiantly defending one side of his spaceship. Without much success or progress, but ever-valiant. And there, on the other side, some cowboys were letting all the aliens in.
This unevenness of mission has been India's lot for the last one month in England. When the Oval Test actually kicked off with a full day's play on Friday, India were found short again. Not of an army of space cadets, but just one more bowler who could give their best man on the day something to celebrate other than a slightly reduced fat content. Of all the Indians out on the field, it is the stringy Ishant who can do without that kind of depletion. He certainly would have been helped by more meat at the other end during his five spells on day two of the Oval Test.
In the past, India's problems on tour were said to centre around the lack of a penetrative third seamer; on this tour, India have been actually been minus a second bowler itself. Not because Zaheer Khan and some body parts have gone missing again, but because each time one man has broken into a genuine sweat in the middle, he has been hindered by his cranky companions at the other end. If it was Ishant who opened up the England second innings at Lord's, it was Praveen Kumar who sought company in Edgbaston. The one time India's bowlers have worked in tandem in Nottingham, England were 124 for 8.
Whenever India have pressed, England's response has always demanded more of their opposition. At that point, India have been found wanting. Everytime when under any genuine pressure, rather than retreating into bunkers, England's batsmen have attacked and thrown India off their game. The England tail did so in Nottingham, the last time there was even contest between the two teams in this series. At The Oval on Friday, after a much-improved Indian performance from the shambles on a curtailed day one, England waited for the moment, before pouncing on the less feisty amongst the bowlers. Barring Ishant, they feasted on the rest.
It is at times like these, the size of bowlers' hearts are gauged and today, Ishant's belonged to the lone lion in his pack. Figures of 19-5-64-1 from the second day disguise the one element of his bowling that while difficult to quantify, is impossible to miss: effort. If supported at the other end, it usually translates into better numbers than the 457 for 3 the Indians must deal with.
On the field, Ishant cuts a distinctive, gawky figure: his sweater hangs on his angled frame, he is a man made up of more lines rather than the curves that lurk beneath some Indian shirts on the field. Scraggly face, usually pained expression at the top of a newly-sprouting goatee, he has endured the slings and arrows of Indian cricketing celebrity in his four years in the international game. It can only be hoped he is now on the other side. He is still considerably far from the finished goods, but is now capable of absorbing pain and stringing good spells together repeatedly.
In the last 13 months he has taken 57 of his 123 wickets and could be at the cusp of upping his game and sense of responsibility of who he needs to be in this Indian attack. He will need work on his endurance both, physical and mental, as well as variety and skill levels to be recognised as a genuine strike bowler; but if some good has to come of this tour, Indian cricket must hope it turns out to be Ishant's learning.
On Friday, he certainly gave every hint of what he is capable of. The fella who had knocked a chip off Andrew Strauss' helmet on Thursday, looked hungry for a wicket all day even though his sole reward came in his first over, and it took 22 balls before the first runs were scored off him. All day, he bowled at a reasonable pace, averaging around 136kph if the TV speed gun is to be believed. There were even sightings of a few in the 140s - rare on this tour amongst the Indians, commonplace from England - when well into his tenth over of the day. Ishant has now bowled 169 overs in this series and while his average is pretty miserable so far, he has been the only Indian who has looked capable of taking wickets. Particularly today when, after lunch, wicket-taking went out the window at one end.
In this series he has 11 wickets, with the injured Praveen on top of the table with 15. Towards the end of the day, Ishant bowled at the Vauxhall End, and at the change over the overs, would walk over to mid-on on the far side to take up his fielding. Never once did Ishant look like he would rather be sitting in a deck-chair than putting one foot in front of the other at The Oval.
All through the day, Ishant was, in one sense, everywhere. For each occasion he found himself unrewarded, having missed an edge, hurried a shot or having had chances, he could easily have thought of himself as being nowhere and slipped into the ennui that began to grip his mates once Bell and Pietersen returned after lunch and decided to go into launch mode.
He came across at mid-on to gee-up Sreesanth after Ian Bell had struck him for two creamy cover drives to get to his fifty. A few balls later Sreesanth wandered over to leg, and was shipped off the pads for four; Ishant walked away, snatching his own cap off his head in frustration. Maybe he knew he was going to be alone for the rest of the afternoon.
It was not to be Ishant's day even though the only chances that India made after the first two wickets fell quickly, came off his bowling. Pietersen, first on 18 at the stroke of lunch, walked across his stumps to offer a catch to the perfectly positioned leg-slip in Suresh Raina, who was unsure about having caught it clean. Just after Pietersen had crossed his 100, he looped a mis-hit up off Ishant into the sky which was dropped by a backpedalling Gautum Gambhir. Of all the bowlers, he sent down the fewest four-balls, stuck to his line and hit a length that asked questions.
Towards the end of the day, he was still trying: in an over when, amidst all his flurry, Kevin Pietersen inside-edged him a second time, Ishant's striving ended in Bell luciously straight-driving him for four off the last ball. His hang-dog expression fell just an inch lower, the shoulder slumped into a slope, as he collected his cap from the umpire. As the slip fielders, crossed over, VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid patted Ishant on the back. On a day of meagre comfort, those were more than small gestures.
As both Ishant and Praveen have reached into their inner troopers on this tour, it is Sreesanth's flat-lining that is the most painful to watch. Rather than evolve from an eccentric quick bowler of rare gifts into a strike bowler of consistent influence, Sreesanth has lost more than he has gained in his five years with the Indian team: both his exaggerated mannerisms and his pace as well as the direct impact he has on games. What Sreesanth should be doing at the end-of-day media briefing was as inexplicable as the decision to ship an unfit RP Singh over to England in place of Zaheer Khan at the very last minute.
With limited powers and Zaheer's fitful appearances due to injury, the "management" of India's bowling stock has been vital to the team's success over the last two years. Those stocks are now down to a one-man team that must be managed. Naturally the results are hardly going to be the same.
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo