England v India, 1st Investec Test, Trent Bridge, 3rd day July 11, 2014

Ishant's Mr Mistoffelees spell

Mark Waugh often said there was no such thing as a flat pitch in Test cricket and that the best bowlers would find a way. On the third day at Trent Bridge, Ishant Sharma found that way, adapting like England had not managed

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Agarkar: One of Ishant's best spells in Test cricket

For the best part of two and a half days this match at Trent Bridge had been a dull affair and a problem for the general perception of Test cricket. Be in no doubt that a beautiful game is endangered. As we get stuck into the 21st century, much must come together for the five-day Test to remain relevant, the most important of which is the surface on which it is played and the approach of those who play it.

For the first time in a long time, the Trent Bridge pitch was to blame for it offered nothing. But Mark Waugh, that wonderful Australian stroke-maker, has always said there is no such thing as a flat pitch. And, anyway, modern Test matches have a habit of springing to life at about the moment everyone watching, writing and talking has settled on a draw.

Waugh's point is that an exceptional bowler will find life in surfaces that most ordinary folk give up for dead. Ishant Sharma did exactly that today. In the period between two and three o'clock, Ishant found the devil within and knocked over three of England's top four in a six-over spell of gold standard fast bowling.

He banged the odd ball into the middle of the pitch but otherwise attacked the stumps in a way England had demonstrably failed to do over the first two days. Occasionally, the ball moved off the seam but the great trick - Ishant's magical Mr Mistoffelees moment - was to make the batsmen play at the damn thing, not allow them to watch it pass by.

There is something immensely appealing about the tall and slim Mr Sharma. That lion's mane of hair framing an unshaven face, those long and loose limbs, the various necklaces and bracelets, the demonic eyes and sadistic look add up to one of Johnny Depp's boys in the Pirates of the Caribbean. But the magic is pure TS Elliot - "Oh, well I never/Was there ever a cat so clever as magical Mr Mistoffelees".

Like all great tricks, it seemed simple enough and begs the question, why don't modern bowlers aim at the stumps more? We are in the age of the "fifth stump" or, as Geoffrey Boycott loves to say, the "corridor of uncertainty", but there is a time and place for everything in cricket and the skill is to match the tactic to the moment.

Ishant arrived on the scene longer ago that he may care to recall. In May 2007, aged 18, he played against Bangladesh. Then he toured England but it was during the following January against Australia in Perth that we all took notice when he nailed Ricky Ponting twice in the match that India won in a series infamously remembered for its bad blood. Natural pace and splendid shows of aggression had him quickly labelled as the fast bowler a great nation had craved since, well, since Mohammad Nissar back in 1932/33.

The figures tell Ishant's story. Up to this match, he had taken 164 wickets at 37.56 - an okay but hardly stellar return for one so favoured. Inconsistency plagues him, as if the discipline of consistency is for rebellion. He is not the first fast bowler to miss the point and he will not be the last. Learning comes more quickly to some than others. Often it comes too late, when the mind is at last willing but the flesh has become weak.

All these chaps should watch hours of Glenn McGrath or Curtly Ambrose. With height comes the privilege of extra bounce. McGrath's mantra was to hit the top of off stump with the occasional bouncer, which was Ishant's method entirely during that excellent post-lunch spell. Tall men can hit a natural length that batsmen fear, the awkward caught-on-the-crease length which forces a tentative response. After that it is all about direction.

Later, when Stuart Broad was blitzing him through the covers one could not help but wonder about the power of the mind. That is the difference, the mind. McGrath took pleasure from his economy. For sure, Ambrose did the same. Ishant, and many others in fairness, see economy as mundane and prefer the theatre of jab, jab, hook. But the hook opens up your defences and decent batsmen pounce. Broad pulled a couple of short balls and drove those that were over-pitched and wide with memorable power and timing.

Usually, slow pitches require straight bowling. Low pitches certainly do. India were able to leave alone 30% of the balls delivered to them by England. In contrast, England could leave just 18% of those bowled by India. Broad was eventually lbw to a nice inswinger and Liam Plunkett castled by a straight ball. Of the nine England wickets to fall, five were bowled or lbw and the remainder were all caught at the wicket or first slip - so from thin edges, except for Moeen Ali who misjudged a rare short delivery.

Runs on the board help. MS Dhoni could operate having made 457 and having had a good look at the various options for the conditions. It was not that England bowled badly, far from it. Or that the attack lacked metal. Again, far from it. It was simply that the basic premise of "you miss, I hit" was missing from England's thinking.

Alastair Cook set many an experimental field and when that failed he referred to a line outside off-stump with the protection of eight off-side fielders. Only too rarely did he instruct his men to bowl wicket-to-wicket and search for the pads and stumps. In trying to display a Corinthian side, he paid less attention to the pragmatics. He must wonder how he can please anyone right now. The cricketing gods appear to have turned against him at the minute. But he is trying to change, to express himself better and to bring a less intense look to his leadership style.

His courage and determination are immense. Above all, he needs a win. That may be difficult from the position at which the fourth day begins and without a proper spinner but it should be in his spiel, that nothing is beyond a committed and believing team. After all, there is no such thing as a flat pitch.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Shaneel on July 14, 2014, 2:23 GMT

    Will go down amongst the greats for India..3-150 is great for an indian bowler lol

  • Dummy4 on July 12, 2014, 9:16 GMT

    not surprised ishant did well against England. He prefers bowling to such batsmen that are very defensive and can get him into some sort of rhythm. The minute somebody puts him off his game like broad did he struggles. Ian bell almost did it as well, but ishant was lucky he got one to rise up sharply and take his wicket.

  • Dummy4 on July 12, 2014, 5:28 GMT

    Poor Ishant..the most hated bowler in the Indian team and Dhonis talisman. Good to see him coming good when needed. For his build the pace is not much these days , just little more than Bhuvis. Never appears as a thinking bowler.

    Anyway congrats for a job done well. Keep it up. Binny was't a good choice here unless he proves it in second innings.

  • Android on July 12, 2014, 2:03 GMT

    both ishant and zaheer were good.bowlers.if not wonderful. but the problem was they had.only themselves to tap their back, take.tips, give some advices... if only India had one good fast bowler who.compensates when these two failed... now ishant case is same before arrival of shami, he had only himself to.speak to, to tell five.confidence, now that shami, bhuvi, pandey are here he can take is nice and steady and think about this game with out much weight on.his shoulders....

  • sabarinath on July 12, 2014, 0:10 GMT

    A nice article. A analytical take: started with the hero of the day who made things happened and then Highlighting Ind Vs Eng bowling strategy and finally attributing to the leadership. Remarkable eloquence as well.

  • niaz on July 11, 2014, 23:28 GMT

    Ishant have been good at NZ and decent in England.. his first wicket was a gift from the umpire even without that he had two. If he can bowl effortlessly worrying less about wickets, runs or anything.. just his plans and length.. he would do well... he is far from being a good test bowler... as his stats indicates.

  • kieran on July 11, 2014, 22:15 GMT

    All too often I see Broad & Anderson setting their own fields, seemingly with little or no input from Cook. With two quicks with 600-700 wickets between them I guess that gives them some sort of leeway. But everyone knows to bowl straight on low slow pitches, to display such a lack of tactical intelligence is very poor indeed. As a captain I'd much prefer a player who offered options, than have my (supposed) lead bowler continue to give such limp performances when the conditions aren't conducive to hooping the ball around corners.

  • Dummy4 on July 11, 2014, 19:49 GMT

    Mark, why are you so bothered about a spinner, 18 of the 19 wickets to fall so far are to quicks, the 19th was a run-out. Good quality seam bowling has got rewards on this track. What England actually lack is a 3rd bowler who can get wickets AND a 4th bowler who can bowl about 10 overs from one side, conceding less than 30 - 35 runs. This would allow Broad / Anderson to get some well-deserved rest before coming back to bowl.

  • Dummy4 on July 11, 2014, 19:22 GMT

    well played ishant, ...India can win this test

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