Ishant Sharma October 29, 2008

Quick learner

Ishant Sharma has soaked up all the lessons that have come his way to become one of the top fast bowlers in the game



Good hair day: Ishant celebrates a wicket in the Mohali Test © AFP

Ranjit Nagar is a quintessential Delhi neighbourhood, with leafy lanes and narrow alleyways. Buildings stand within kissing distance of each other, tangled up in snarls of cable TV wire. It is a mainly middle-class locality.

It's a day after the bomb blasts in the city in early September. Despite the clamour and distress of the previous evening, life continues as usual on the streets as I look for Ishant Sharma's house.

The house, when I find it, is a three-storey structure with cream-coloured walls. Ishant and his immediate family live here, with four of his uncles and their families. Outside it, a few men are playing cards, sitting on a wooden cot.

Earlier in the day Ishant had asked me to come over, after counting out the number of hours he wanted to sleep. Now he walks in wearing a t-shirt and shorts, greets me with a smile and a yawn, and slumps onto the sofa. "Sleep is the only thing I love too much. I sleep 10-12 hours," he declares.

He has just recovered from an injury during the Sri Lanka tour and is to play in the Nissar Trophy the next day. I had caught him singing a Punjabi tune as he walked into the dressing room after a nets session in the morning, and I prod him to sing a few lines now. He laughs and obliges, singing the first few lines of "Seeti Marke" by his current favourite Punjabi singer, Miss Pooja. "Seeti marke balona hatt ja / mainoo roz da satana hatt ja" (Stop calling me out by whistling at me / stop hassling me every day). His smile grows wide.

***

On current form Ishant is a frontrunner for the title of the best fast bowler in the world. He staked his claim when he had Ricky Ponting hopping at the WACA earlier this year. There have been others, but that bowling spell remains the one that has come to define Ishant. In the Test before Perth, at the SCG, he went wicketless, but showed he could toil, frail-looking physique or not.

"The Perth pitch was good and the ball was moving nicely," he says. "For me it has always been that if I bowl a length ball it goes in, and if I pitch it up it is a straight ball. The ball that got Ponting out was at the fifth or sixth stump [Ponting edged to Rahul Dravid at first slip].

"The previous balls were all length balls but the one that got him was pitched up," Ishant explains. "Up" for him means a fraction short of length. He bowled only two such deliveries to Ponting in that nine-over spell, and got him with the second. "I grasped that he was not confident and was struggling against the inswinging ball. I worked him out myself."

A month before Perth, Sunil Gavaskar had noted in a newspaper column that playing Ishant so early, against Pakistan in Bangalore, was an error. A couple of days later Ishant had picked up his maiden five-wicket haul, in only his second Test. The previous evening Venkatesh Prasad, India's bowling coach, had showed Ishant a few clips of his bowling. "We worked on a couple of things which had to do with his gather," Prasad remembers. "Next day it was completely different. He is a very keen and willing student of the game."

Top Curve
Action replay
  • Ishant recaps his best bowling performances - Perth apart
  • v Pakistan, Bangalore, 2007
    first Test five-wicket haul

    "I had just finished the Ranji season. The previous night Anil bhai [Kumble] had told me I was playing. That was the first time after the Bangladesh series and I was under pressure. The wicket had uneven bounce but I bowled in the right areas without any variations. I didn't bowl well with the first new ball, but with the second I took those wickets."
  • v Australia, Adelaide, 2008
    9-2-22-0 before lunch; gets rid of Hayden immediately after

    "The ball was reversing quite well. They were going at four per over so our strategy was to keep it tight. But at the same time we were looking to be aggressive in our body language and the rest of it. I was enjoying myself.

  • Viru bhaiyya [Sehwag] was standing in the covers, and he likes to chat a lot. This was his commentary: "Here's Ishant Sharma from Patel Nagar, who is bowling 130kph. Oye, why are you bowling 130? Your mother is watching the match and she is thinking, 'He's not doing anything. He's not doing anything special to bowl the Australians out.' Meanwhile Bhajji [Harbhajan] joins in from mid-on. Anil bhai is standing there, too, but he's serious. That kind of chit-chat is always encouraging.

  • Later Viru bhaiyya came to mid off and asked me, "Why are you bowling outswingers only? You can't bowl inswingers?" Anil bhai asked me to bowl one inswinger. I told him I can't bowl inswingers. Viru bhaiyya said: "Haan, Anil bhai, he can't bowl inswingers as he doesn't know." The next ball was an outswinger. Viru mocked me a little more. I decided that I had to bowl an inswinger. I did, and I got Hayden. I looked at Viru bhaiyya. He was smiling."
  • v Australia, CB Series, Melbourne
    bounces back with three quick wickets after going for 18 runs in his second over

    "The way I came back was good. Despite being in a good rhythm I was trying too much. After I went for 18 runs Sachn paaji told me: "You are thinking too much about your bowling. You are the kind of person who enjoys bowling." I understood it wasn't just me under pressure but the entire team. So I decided to keep it simple.

  • After the third over Venky sir told me when I was standing at fine leg, "You are bowling well. All the runs went through or over the slips. Remain confident." That was a good thing: that your bowling coach has confidence in you.
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Ishant's rise may seem sudden and dramatic, but it hasn't been for the man himself. "It didn't surprise me that I'm at this level, because my progress was steady. But I never thought I would play for India so early."

As a teenager just out of Class 10, he went to the Rohtak Road Gymkhana at the Ramjas Sports Complex to ask Shravan Kumar, the coach there, for help getting into junior college at the Ganga International School. Kumar coaches at the school, and has been sports supervisor at Delhi Trasco Ltd (formerly DESU) for three decades.

Kumar noticed the "Railway Under-17" on Ishant's shirt and asked if he played cricket. Ishant's height impressed Kumar and when Ishant said he was a bowler, Kumar threw him an old ball.

"No one would have said then that he would become a good bowler," Kumar, who has worked with the likes of Manoj Prabhakar, says. But he saw that the youngster had a very good action, despite the run-up, which was completely awry. Ishant got into the school and Kumar's role in his early career proved significant.

His first job was to work on Ishant's run-up, to make him aware of how to run, and then catch a rhythm. "He has always been a quick learner," Kumar says. "That and his ability to do things when told have been his strong points."

Kumar is not a qualified coach and his methods are more practical than scientific. To fire up his students he uses Dilli-speak, playfully sledging them. "Lambu, ullu ke pathe, thik se daal." he would yell at Ishant when he slipped up.

For 18-odd months Ishant would wake at five in the morning to take the bus to the school, in Bahadurgarh, Haryana. The first four days of the week he would train at the school ground after classes, returning at 8pm. After a day off on Friday he would play for Rohtak Road on the weekend.

Eventually his first real cricket game came along: a competitive Under-17 school game, at the Najafgarh sports complex. "I took only two wickets but I started to improve as I played regularly," Ishant says. As the opportunities came his way he became steadily more confident about his cricket; he had had ambitions of becoming a chartered accountant till then.

The rise was quick. He shone against Haryana in an Under-17 game in 2004, taking eight in the first innings to force a follow-on, and then another five. He played for Delhi Under-19s the next year, and later that season in the Ranji one-dayers. The next season he made it to the Delhi senior squad.

***

When Ishant delivered the back-of-the-hand slower deliveries that got him two quick wickets, including Ponting's, in Bangalore recently, eyebrows were raised among those who know him well.

Pace has been something of an obsession with Ishant. During the CB Series he was desperate to break Ashish Nehra's mark (149.7kph, set during the 2003 World Cup) to become India's fastest bowler. He finally did in a league game against Australia, in Melbourne, when he hit 152.6, just a day after he spoke to a good friend back home about setting the record.

The slower balls in Bangalore were a little surprising given all that. Ian Chappell spoke of how they were evidence of a fast-maturing mind.

"He is somebody who understands situations very well," Prasad says. "I have not seen many bowlers with his kind of maturity." All through the Australia tour Prasad watched as Ishant bowled "with the same zeal as he would in his first spell".

It's not just in his bowling that Ishant is evolving. He has been growing as a sportsman too. In the Sydney Test, after going wicketless for more than 30 overs under a sweltering sun, he got Andrew Symonds. But the Australian stood his ground after Steve Bucknor refused to raise his finger for a deafening edge. Ishant took it in his stride and moved on, and when Symonds got to his century ran up to congratulate him. "Because of the respect. He played very well after that [the edge]," Ishant says.

Not that that means he is a throwback to the age of placid Indian fast bowlers. Ishant is not one to start a sledging match, but he isn't one to shy away from retaliating. "If someone is saying something, you can't just put your head down and walk back." He doesn't mind harmless banter either. In the Sydney Test, as Sachin Tendulkar marshalled the tail in the first innings, Ishant was the last man in. Brett Lee bowled one full and Ishant went for the drive and missed. "Lee said, 'You can't hit like that, cowboy.' I didn't know then what cowboy was, so I asked paaji" Tendulkar asked him to focus on his batting. And so he did: in the 31-run partnership between the two, Ishant managed 23 runs, more than in all his previous first-class matches put together.

***

The evening before I met Ishant, Kumar had invited some schoolkids to meet the bowler at the Ramjas ground. Ishant showed up, though an hour late, posed obligingly for photos and signed autographs. Given a choice he'd rather be left alone, but he's quickly coming to grips with the demands of fame.



Strike one: Ishant gets Ponting at Perth, the first of five times he has dismissed the Australian captain © Getty Images

"I'm like a role model for youngsters. I accept that responsibility now," he says with an equanimity that belies his age. He has learned to draw the line when necessary, though. When a prominent national newspaper asked him to be a guest editor for a day, he turned the offer down. "Sometimes it gets irritating," he says.

About a month after the Perth Test, Ishant became the highest-paid bowler in the IPL, despite being the least experienced, when Shah Rukh Khan's Kolkata Knight Riders bought him for $970,000. Ishant says he was shocked at the figure at first, but goes on to add that it isn't about the money. "It is about satisfaction; someone is paying you because you have worked hard to earn it."

While he may have adjusted well to his rise, his family is still trying to come to terms with some of the changes that have come with it. "His life has changed. Ours remains the same," Vijay Sharma, Ishant's father, says. "When he stays out late, we are worried."

"My mom is a little worried about my nightlife," Ishant says. "She wants me to be back by 10pm, but I keep telling her that's not possible now. So we have arguments. Even my sister is angry at me."

He isn't exactly the partying type, though: Ishant likes the company of his close friends, with whom he likes to drive around in his Honda Civic (he recently got a sports model from the same company). Earlier, before people began to approach him in public, they would hang out in places like Khan Market, digging into Khan Chacha's succulent kebabs.

There haven't been many changes at home. There is still only one TV in the house. Everyone has their dinner, Ishant says with a laugh, "anywhere". The living room, which is also Ishant's bedroom, has a sofa and a couple of cushioned chairs upholstered in maroon. At one end are a couple of showcases holding Ishant's trophies in no particular order. One wall is covered with newspaper and magazine pictures of his various glorious moments. Do they talk cricket in the house? "Never," Ishant replies instantly.

Ishant wears a number of religious threads around his neck and hands, but says he is not overly religious. "I bow if I pass a temple. When I'm on tour I carry posters of Hanuman and Lord Ganesh. I get a sense of peace when I pray."

He comes across as a simple young athlete, with a mind of his own and a free will, who is trying to be his own man.

***

We have been talking for about two hours. Through the kitchen window across from the entrance to the living room I see the light fade. Outside I hear the wails of playing kids. There's a thin smog in the air. Ishant stands up to stretch himself. As I get ready to leave, I ask him about his favourite cricketing souvenir. At first he is unable to think of anything but then remembers the ball signed by Anil Kumble after his debut Test against Bangladesh. He plucks it out of the cabinet, wipes it and holds it up so I can see the writing: "Well done. Many more."

Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo

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