October 23, 2013

The issue with Ishant

The fact that his wrist is not behind the ball and the seam doesn't come out upright speak volumes

Let me start with a disclaimer: I've been a huge Ishant Sharma fan, right from the day I saw him bowl in a Ranji Trophy one-dayer years ago. It was rare to see an Indian fast bowler as tall as that. He also had the perfect high-arm action and a solid wrist behind the ball.

His height offered him extra bounce off the surface, and the ball almost always came out of his hand with the seam upright, which allowed him immense control. Such was his mastery over his line that we at Delhi could give him a 7-2 off-side field and the chances were he would not go for a single boundary off the legs throughout the day.

He was barely out of his teens then, but it was quite evident that this lad would almost certainly play for the country, for he had potential and promise. Besides the obvious physical advantages, his mind seemed perfectly primed for the job: he simply loved bowling. Ishant would never shy away from bowling long hours in the nets. He was the first to raise his hand if the captain needed some overs, even towards the end of a long day.

So I wasn't surprised one bit when he bowled that magical spell to Ricky Ponting in Perth. Ishant went on to bowl many such probing spells, especially when India toured overseas. He wasn't the typical Indian swing bowler - more the sort of hit-the-deck-hard bowler who was likely to get purchase off hard and bouncy Australian and South African pitches.

Ishant stood out on another count - he typically bowled slightly short of a good length. If one can get steep bounce, along with some sideways movement, as Ishant used to, both ways, success can almost be taken for granted.

However, as he progressed in his international career - and he progressed much faster than many of his age - his wrist started to defy his commands. It was no longer willing to stay behind the ball every time he bowled, and that meant the seam was rarely upright on release. If the seam is wobbling at the point of release, it's improbable that the ball will land on the seam, which in turn means negligible lateral movement off the deck. The extra bounce, which was his best ally, lost its sting because the predictability of length coupled with the lack of lateral movement off the surface allowed batsmen to ride the bounce.

Ishant could still bowl some probing spells on days when his wrist didn't fall, or when, by some stroke of luck, the ball landed on the seam more often than not. I distinctly remember his spell to Mahela Jayawardene on a docile Sri Lankan pitch, in which he made one of the world's finest batsmen dance to his tune. Unfortunately those spells were few and far between.

Even when Ishant was far from his best, MS Dhoni kept faith in him, for he was still one of the few who would readily bowl 18 or 20 overs in a Test match day. There are bowlers who are there to take wickets and then there are the ones who the captain wants in his side, for you need workhorses if you are to get through 90 overs in a day. Not that the latter variety are not expected to take wickets, but they are allowed to take fewer than the rest; that's part of the bargain.

In the last six months things have taken a turn for the worse, for Ishant has seemingly almost stopped even attempting to bowl with the seam upright. When a fast bowler ceases to deliver the ball with the seam upright, you know his confidence is at its lowest ebb. Sacrificing the upright seam and its benefits is usually part of a bid to gain more control, but ironically control is also a matter of confidence. If you aren't 100% sure of where the ball is going to land, chances are, more often than not it won't land where you want it to.

Ishant's lack of confidence in his ability to put the ball in the desired spots was clearly visible in that 30-run over. But while post-match analyses wrote him off, and the next morning's newspapers carried obituaries, not many attempted to deconstruct those infamous six balls.

When a fast bowler ceases to deliver the ball with the seam upright, you know his confidence is at its lowest ebb. Sacrificing the upright seam and its benefits is usually part of a bid to gain more control, but ironically control is also a matter of confidence

Ball one: Long-on and long-off were on the fence, and Ishant attempted a yorker. The ball ended up two feet outside off and at least a couple short of the blockhole. Faulkner dispatched it for four over covers.

Ball two: Ishant brought mid-off inside the circle, which meant that he had to bowl a short ball, and he did. Just that Faulkner was ready for it and hit a six.

Ball three: Ishant brought third man and fine leg inside the circle, and had long-on and long-off on the fence. The only place to bowl was full and within the stumps. Another attempted yorker missed its spot by a good few feet and went for a six over his head.

Ball four: Not knowing what to do, Ishant bowled a length ball. Most times, bowling a length ball in the death overs is a sin, but he got away with only two runs this time.

Balls five and six: Ishant had one fielder on the fence on the off side, long-off, and three on the on side. He had two options to choose from: one, a yorker within the stumps, or two, a short ball to the body. He chose the latter and gave away two more sixes. Which raises the point that if that was what he wanted to do, he should have brought long-off inside the circle and sent fine leg to the fence. With fine leg inside the circle it was not prudent to dig it in too short, for even a top edge would go over the infield. And there was very little chance of a bouncer being hit over the mid-off fielder.

Unfortunately, Ishant couldn't deliver good old yorkers, conventional or slower bouncers, or changes of pace with precision under pressure.

I've not come across many players who are as hard-working as Ishant is, and it saddens me that he is not learning from his mistakes - or perhaps the lessons aren't being conveyed to him accurately. He is only 25 and it's not too late for him to go back to the basics of keeping the wrist steady and attempting to release the ball with the seam upright. The rest is bound to fall in place.

Former India opener Aakash Chopra is the author of Out of the Blue, an account of Rajasthan's 2010-11 Ranji Trophy victory. His website is here and his Twitter feed here

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