Ishant's good avatar steps up
Someone who watched Ishant Sharma bowl for the first time in this Test series would wonder why he gets the criticism he does. A gangling fast bowler runs in and takes 15 wickets in three innings. What does the world expect him to do? Walk on water? And after all those wickets in Auckland and Wellington, who knows, he might pull that off too.
This version of Ishant, that is. The good Ishant. When he appears, you wonder why the bad one even exists. You wonder why the good one appears so sporadically over so many Tests. You know he lurks there, somewhere, hidden behind the bad one and all that hair. And when he does sneak through, he is a sight to watch.
The good version can be brought on early after the opening pair of fast bowlers has not been successful, and can deliver wickets with the new ball. He can then keep charging in for as long as the captain wants, rarely wavering from a tight line and length. He did the first bit both in Auckland and in Wellington - and at the latter he did the second too.
At Eden Park Ishant, and India, ceded the advantage after having New Zealand three down. They repeatedly bowled short, and short and wide, to Brendon McCullum and Kane Williamson after lunch while the pitch was easing out, and paid for it. Ishant said after the day's play that India had got carried away looking at a fresh pitch in the first innings in Auckland, and accordingly tightened up in the next two innings.
There was no McCullum to deal with after lunch this time; he had gone to Mohammed Shami just before the break. The first ball of his spell in the second session, though, Ishant was swung for six over long-on by Corey Anderson. Three balls later, he was hit for four through mid-off. Both those balls were pitched up. The fuller length could go for runs on this pitch, as Shami had found earlier.
It is hard to say when it is easier to correct your length - when it is too short or too full. But Ishant corrected that length, and went back to what had worked for him in the morning to snare three batsmen. Short or short of a good length, the length that is his normal landing spot. He did show a sign or two of wavering, spraying a couple wide, but soon reverted to making Anderson play, and the wicket followed. The ball that fetched him his fifth wicket showed what Ishant could do on a helpful pitch. Not too full, not short, batsman going forward and Ishant's extra bounce, and some movement, defeating him.
It has to be said that this pitch was a very reliable ally, especially in the morning. There was bounce, zip and seam. But it is one thing to have help on offer, it is another to avail it. West Indies had allowed New Zealand to make 441 on the same ground on a slightly less spiteful surface after choosing to bowl a couple of months ago. Their fast bowlers had little control and little patience. Ishant had both.
Even his bowling colleagues trailed Ishant. Shami bowled some lovely deliveries and took four wickets, but he was often either too full or too short and conceded plenty of boundaries. Zaheer Khan had Kane Williamson caught at the stroke of lunch off a no-ball, but he did not make the batsmen play enough and generally lacked the bite, and consequently the threat, Ishant carried.
You would expect your senior bowler to step up in case the senior-most does not. It seemed to be happening in Auckland, but India and Ishant let it slip away. It happened in Wellington. Will we see more of the good Ishant from now on? That is for another day. For now, it was refreshing to see him bowl better than the rest, from both sides.
Abhishek Purohit is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo