Ishant cherishes success after gloom
It's easy to forget Ishant Sharma is just 22. He's had so many ups and downs already. He's experienced not just dips in form but long, barren stretches of gloom. On Thursday, he grabbed his 100th Test wicket in his 32nd Test, statistics that surprised some, including himself. "In the last one-and-a-half years I have been struggling with my bowling," Ishant said. "When I started to play cricket, I didn't expect to be the fifth-youngest bowler to take 100 wickets."
Ishant's decline from the heights of that spell against Ricky Ponting in Perth is well known. He never had a smooth follow-through to start with, and then began to stutter even further. That was just the beginning of the nightmare. The release gradually turned awry. The wrist that was so firmly behind the seam was finding its way into awkward positions. While at his best, his lithe fingers whipped the ball on to the deck. In his decline, he merely floated the ball across. The left shoulder fell away alarmingly. The head was no longer still. Ishant's life as a bowler was falling apart in front of his eyes.
"Everyone told me there will be ups and downs in any sportsman's life," Ishant said. "I have age on my side. I just had to work on my bowling and my fitness. That's what I did. Us time sabse jyaada difficulty tha ki koi kuch nahi poochta hai; aap kahan pey ho, kya kar rahe ho. (No one was asking about you: what are you doing, where are you?) My family's support was really helpful at the time."
Ishant admitted he hadn't been listening to his mentors, including Zaheer Khan. "I'd like to thank Zaheer for [his advice on] fitness. He always used to tell me about fitness but I didn't take him seriously because I didn't think fitness was that important. Now I have realised it is. If you want to be a fast bowler, you've got to be fit."
Why did he lose his pace? Ishant didn't elaborate, and the press conference didn't offer enough time for probing, but he said he "maybe tried to copy someone else," but added, "now I have learned that whatever is my strength, I should stick to it. And be fit."
Ishant also showed signs of maturity when bowling during his six-wicket haul, a departure from the times when the aim was to just bowl quick. His duel with Ramnaresh Sarwan offered sufficient proof. Ishant kept pushing Sarwan back with his short-of-length deliveries before getting one to pitch fuller and cut in and trap him in front.
"Now, I think more," he said. "I have plans against each batsman; where and what you should bowl at different batsmen. I don't know what was going wrong at that time. Now I am looking to go out there and follow whatever plans we have - visualise and think about what you are going to bowl."
Ishant also had problems bowling different lengths in ODIs. "You have to be clever when you are bowling in Powerplays and in the slog overs. I wasn't that clever before. Now I am learning [about] my bowling and body. I hope I will come back into ODI side and bowl well whenever my team needs me."
Ishant has had to lead the pace attack in the absence of Zaheer and Munaf Patel, a role he has taken a liking to. "I am enjoying the responsibility. MS bhai [Dhoni] has given me the fields I want. I talk to Harbhajan [Singh] about all my field plans and what I am going to bowl at each batsman."
Only time will tell whether Ishant is back to his best, but he said he is readier than ever, mentally and physically. "I learnt during this IPL that jo aap ho aapko vahi karna hai (you should stick to your strengths). I learnt how to recover from tiredness. You travel a lot during the IPL and I learnt more about my body and the importance of training."
It's slightly surprising that he learnt all that in his fourth IPL, but then sometimes you forget he is just 22.
Sriram Veera is a staff writer at ESPNcricinfo