Persistence pays off
A spate of injuries since the tour of Pakistan began reduced India's fast-bowling reserves to the minimum before the third Test but, from the shambles, Ishant Sharma has emerged as an encouraging prospect. Given the right tutoring and direction, he has the potential to develop into a rare asset for India: a tall and aggressive fast bowler.
From the individual's point of view, Ishant couldn't have timed his maiden five-wicket haul in Pakistan's first innings any better. The Indian selectors are due to pick the 16-member squad to Australia on Wednesday and his performance, on a lifeless pitch, has made him a strong candidate to make the grade for the livelier pitches that wait in December - and, if picked, put pressure on the likes of Sreesanth and Munaf Patel in the way Yuvraj Singh has put pressure on the middle-order batsmen..
Should all of that come to pass, though, Ishant will probably take more impressive five-wicket hauls than this one. He was rewarded, as the Pakistan coach Geoff Lawson put it, "for persistence rather than brilliance" on a back-breaking wicket on which Pakistan batted 168.1 overs and scored 537. The scorecard will reveal that his five wickets comprised a middle-order batsman, a bowling allrounder and three tailenders. Having said that, it would be unfair to dismiss his wickets as cheap for the Pakistan tail has proved hard to dislodge in this series and Ishant succeeded where none of the other bowlers could unsettle Misbah-ul-Haq or Yasir Arafat. Once he bowled Arafat, he dismissed the tail efficiently, during a spell of 4 for 6 in 2.4 overs, something India has failed to do in the past.
In the absence of Zaheer Khan and RP Singh, and given the tepid form of Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh on a pitch that did not spin, Ishant showed impressive stamina by bowling over 33 overs in the innings. However, he still has a lot of work to do to evolve into a complete fast bowler. For starters, he often loses his run-up and frequent no-balls disrupt his rhythm. He bowled five in 13 overs on debut in Bangladesh and overstepped nine times, more than all the other bowlers put together, in the first innings here.
Another area he needs to work on is his physique. At 6'4" he has the necessary height for a fast bowler but he needs to fill out more and build up his strength, which will also help increase his pace from the mid-130s into the 140 kph zone.
His performance on the third day was a mixed bag. He tested the batsmen on occasion, - especially with the short ball, but couldn't build pressure for sustained periods. Younis Khan attempted to hook him but got beaten once and hit on the body another time while Mohammad Yousuf top-edged towards fine leg. However, those incidents were interspersed with periods where Ishant, though set attacking fields, was unable to pitch an entire over on the necessary length. He struggled with the second new ball late on the third day, often spraying it down legside and playing a significant role in Karthik's 31 byes.
He clearly needed some help and Venkatesh Prasad, the bowling coach, spoke to him overnight regarding his run-up, advising him to use his height and fine-tune his line and length. The effect of the advice took time to kick in for Ishant began the fourth day with a no-ball before Misbah began to drive him confidently for his length was too full. The moment he pitched it shorter he caused a few problems; on more than one occasion Misbah turned his back away from a short-of-a-length ball and got hit on the body. He could have had a wicket in his first spell had Anil Kumble persisted with the second slip. As soon as Laxman was removed from the position at the start of Ishant's fourth over, Kamran Akmal edged a shorter ball wide of Rahul Dravid at first slip.
Another delivery that is essential to a fast bowler is the yorker and the ball with which he dismissed Mohammad Sami was one of desperately few deliveries that found the block-hole over the first four days. Incidentally, all five of Ishant's wickets fell to the ball that came into the body of the right-hander and he later said it was important to bowl wicket-to-wicket on such a pitch and patiently stick at it.
Ishant's rapid burst brought a swift end to a laborious day in the field for the other bowlers. A tall quick can make a heck of a difference to a team's chances of taking 20 wickets in a Test and Lawson said Ishant's height - 6'4" - could make a difference on the bouncy pitches in Australia. On the evidence of his performance on a flat Chinnaswamy track, the Indian selectors might feel the same.
George Binoy is an editorial assistant at Cricinfo