Ishant's rewards for the dirty work
Taking the third question in his press conference, Ishant Sharma stropped mid-answer and nearly let out a shriek. "I'm sorry, I'm cramping," he said. A Test player cramping in a press conference. In enough discomfort to stop answering a question. It was an endearing moment. It was also one thing that we can be absolutely sure about with Ishant. He goes out on the field, and leaves everything there.
The cramping immediately took you back to the 59th over of the innings. Ishant was in the middle of an intense spell, and fielding at long leg. Bhuvneshwar Kumar was bowling at the other end, and as had been the case until then with Mohammed Shami and him, was releasing the pressure.
The second ball had been short and cut away for four, the fourth was too full and on the pads. Ian Bell clipped it through midwicket, but Ishant - who had already bowled five overs in that spell and would bowl two more - gave the chase his all, and nearly made it. He even put in a dive, but could not prevent the boundary. Had he not gone hard at this ball, he would have been excused, but that would not be Ishant. With the bat, with the ball, in the field, Ishant is the ultimate team man, ready to, as Dhoni demanded of his players back in 2007, run through a wall.
That, though, does not, and should not, sum Ishant up. He has a beautiful run-up yet often his wrist is not behind the ball. He can go months without looking threatening yet takes wickets in a bunch. He has ordinary statistics yet is persisted with by the team, for which he gets a lot of ridicule from the Indian fans; both "unlucky" and "lucky" are adjectives used in a pejorative sense for Ishant. He has all the physical attributes of a good fast bowler - he is tall, he is strong, he is fit and hardly gets injured - yet somehow it has never come together for a consistent period of time.
Popular assessment - and it could be wrong - is that Ishant is the least smart of Indian quicks yet the most experienced. A nicer way to say that is, he does not overthink. That sometimes is an asset for an Indian fast bowler. You have to bowl a lot of dirty overs or dirty pitches at dirty times. If you overthink, pitches will demoralise you. Every bowler has at some point tried to not bowl a certain kind of overs. Ishant, though, does not. This is different from being an "honest trier".
No one will argue against Ishant's stats, but part of why he is persisted with is because he does not complain about those dirty overs. He was India's best bowler in New Zealand yet did not get the new ball here. The leader of the attack, as Zaheer Khan wanted him to be, coming in when India had tried the plan A, and seen it fail. Ishant was introduced at a time he has become used to: when nothing was working for India.
India knew they were not going to burst through England on this pitch, they had to bowl dry and wait for mistakes. India did manage those dry periods in the first hour - seven runs off the first 38 balls - but they were releasing the pressure. Following those 38 balls, Shami was picked away for fours square on both the on and off sides in one over. Shami actually kept bowling too straight. It was getting dirty on a dirty pitch, and India called on "the leader of the attack".
"I didn't think about all these things," Ishant said when asked if Zaheer's expectations made any difference. "It's just that I have played some more matches than the others. But we are all in the same age group. I am not the kind of person who really shows it to the team that I am the leader of the fast bowling attack. Obviously, when I am on the field, I share my experience that I have gathered through all the Test matches, and it helps me and them."
The difference showed in the bowling, though. There were few soft leaves, only 22 in 22 overs, which is a remarkable stat and vital on this pitch. You either bowl dry and consistently wide outside off to a seven-two field, which reduces your chances of getting wickets, or go at the batsman without straying too straight. Ishant chose the latter. He hit the pitch hard, which exploited whatever uneven bounce there was to be exploited, and crucially bowled fuller than usual.
"I have played enough matches to understand the length to bowl on different surfaces," Ishant said of the adjustment he made. "Sometimes it will get reverse, so it's about knowing the surface and the batsman you are bowling at to get the right length."
Another significant aspect of his bowling was the use of the short ball. Liam Plunkett bowled a lot of them, the other England quicks hardly did. Ishant, though, used it but sparingly. It surprised the batsmen, and this pitch was hardly the kind where you can take your eyes off and duck. Sam Robson was hit on the glove when fending, Moeen Ali when ducking. Moeen was caught off that short ball, Robson later fell to a fuller ball.
Ishant had the intensity and the variation to once again go through those dirty overs. Usually he goes for runs at such times, and his stats get worse. Today on a pitch that suits him, he got the wickets that triggered a collapse, and can still give India a big lead. Listening to him you know it did not happen by accident. As usual, though, the question remains where Ishant goes from here. You can rest assured, though, that he will not be bothered about the cramps.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo