Ishant runs on ubuntu
Ishant Sharma is running on ubuntu. For the uninitiated, ubuntu, in the African Bantu language, stresses collective success over individual achievements. The Boston Celtics famously borrowed it from Bishop Desmond Tutu and made it a dressing-room mantra in 2008 as they won their first NBA title in 22 years after one of the greatest comebacks in the finals.
Nothing summarised India's spirit more than Ishant, to some an unlikely hero in India's 170-run series-levelling win against Sri Lanka in Galle. The pendulum swung throughout this Test, primarily because both sides threw away positions of strength, but the second half of the first session today sealed it India's way. And it was down to Ishant's brilliance that India regrouped.
Sloppy cricket in the first half of the morning led to a slide from an overnight 200 for 4 to 269, leaving Sri Lanka 307 to take the series. It was not an impossible target for Sri Lanka, whose captain Mahela Jayawardene had yesterday spoken confidently of chasing down any score. "We'll get 400," he said. "If they get 500, we'll go and get 500. Nothing is difficult for us."
Ishant, and India, proved him wrong. Running in hard, his lanky frame betraying a proper fast-bowler's tempo, Ishant kickstarted the proceedings for India. Malinda Warnapura's wicket was a basic set-up. He got on to the front foot too early and couldn't cope with a gem that deviated after pitching full. First strike to India in Ishant's opening over. Zaheer Khan took a cue and, the next over, bowled another beauty to dismiss Kumar Sangakkara.
Searching for swing, Ishant had mostly bowled full in the first innings and in his opening over today. But after that he switched to a back-of-a-length line. One delivery today was right out of that over to Ricky Ponting in Perth but Jayawardene played it very well. Unperturbed, Ishant altered his length and offered some room to Jayawardene, who cut the ball right in to Rahul Dravid's lap at gully. Dravid, having spilt Vandort off the second ball of the innings, had just been removed from the slip cordon.
Two wickets in two overs from Ishant had Sri Lanka on the mat and suddenly there was a spring in his step. The pitch hadn't thrown up a single demon since the opening session of this match but he produced a hint of movement and appreciable lift. As at Perth, he didn't produce just one top over. Two consecutive overs, Ishant's fourth and fifth, were excellent. Thilan Samaraweera was worked on in the channel outside off stump by five lifting deliveries, and was made to play at the sixth, which kicked up. Next, Vandort was beaten off repeated balls, which kicked up, straightened and deviated respectively. A spell of nine overs yielded just 12 runs.
Recalled for an over before tea, Ishant pitched one back-of-a-length that rose up to Samaraweera, who nearly edged it. The referral went in the batsman's favour but, two deliveries later, Ishant drew him into a loose drive back his way, which he spilt near his ankles, hitting the turf hard in the process. He hobbled for a few moments before waving medical attention back.
Then came his best spell. Regularly clocking above 135kph, and using pace, bounce, line and length he gave India yet another breakthrough. Tillakaratne Dilshan pulled him for four and Ishant reacted by pitching the next delivery around off stump; as it leapt up, Dilshan could only nick it to the wicketkeeper. Those who followed were made to hop and sway, fend and hustle. Ishant looked like getting a wicket off every ball in that spell and the other bowlers cashed in and ran through the tail.
"On this pitch, to crank it up like that as a 19-year old was something special," Anil Kumble said. "To get three of the top-order wickets and on a fourth-day pitch ... everybody saw what he is capable of."
After dismissing Ponting in Perth, Ishant credited his "rhythm" for his success. There is indeed a rhythmic method to Ishant, especially when he dons the whites. It is as if he switches himself on for the challenge of the five-day game, which can only be good for India. He was the difference between the two sides when it came to pushing for victory and his top-order strikes were crucial.
This spell was better than the one in Perth, because there was nothing in this pitch for the fast bowlers. Spinners had claimed 24 of the 30 wickets to fall before Ishant took the ball this morning and there had been nothing to suggest a pace-bowling revival. But he proved that if any Indian fast bowler can extract something from a dead surface, it's him. As he did on the most docile of tracks in Bangalore last December, when he triggered Pakistan's slide from 525 for 6 to 537, Ishant produced life hitherto unknown for three days.
Like a few of his team-mates, Ishant had something to prove to his detractors. An enthralling spell on the fourth day in Perth, during which he rattled Ponting, had everyone talking and catapulted Ishant into the public eye. But following that, there had been little to justify the hype. He fetched a whopping $950,000 at the IPL auction, the most for a bowler, as his performance in Australia was still fresh in memory, but was completely lacklustre in the tournament and took just seven wickets - at $135,714.28 per wicket. And apart from in the final against Sri Lanka, he was rather ineffective in the Asia Cup as well.
His feats today followed on from Graeme Smith's match-winning century at Edgbaston and, just as that innings gave South Africa their first series win in England since 1965, Ishant's 3 for 20 from 15 overs helped India to an overseas win that is likely to last in the memory as long as those in Kandy (2001), Headingley (2002), Adelaide (2003), Rawalpindi (2004), Kingston and Johannesburg (2006), Trent Bridge (2007) and Perth (2008).
Virender Sehwag's 251 runs in the match, Gautam Gambhir's consistency, Harbhajan Singh's redemption - these were all important strands in a gripping Test, tied together by Ishant. His resilience brought India back and if they take this forward to collective greatness in Colombo, and echo the Celtics' historic comeback, they may just embrace ubuntu as their official chant.
Jamie Alter is a staff writer at Cricinfo