What's the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Ishant Sharma? I'm guessing it would be an image of a tall, young fast bowler coming off a long run-up ball after ball, giving his all for the team. It is this quality that impressed me on India's wretched tour of England, where Ishant ran in with great zest and bowled long spells the whole day, with intensity - all in a losing cause. When others around him were falling like ninepins, Ishant carried on gamely, day after day, showing the same passion for bowling in the last 20 minutes of the day as he did in the first 20.
Such bowlers, who are ready to do the hard yards for the team, are a boon to a captain. But there are bowlers of another kind that a captain would much prefer: bowlers who take wickets. This is where Ishant has proved a disappointment so far; for all his talent and commitment he just does not take enough wickets.
When I looked at Ishant's bowling record, it took me by surprise. Until recently I hadn't bothered to look at his numbers, for there was so much to like about Ishant on the field that it did not matter what was on paper.
Ishant has played 43 Tests at an average of 36.8. That's right, the bowler India keep looking at as a bright young prospect, expected to take over the leadership role from Zaheer Khan, has already played 43 Tests. Forty-three Tests makes you a seasoned Test player - a player for the present, not one for the future. It's time Indian cricket started looking at Ishant that way, expecting results from him today instead of tomorrow.
Let's now move to the other eye-catching number in his bowling record - the average. Bowling averages somehow never get as much media- and mind-space as batting averages do. When it comes to gauging the success of a player, it's simpler for fans to understand batting averages. To give you a very rough estimate of Ishant's bowling average in batting parlance: an average of 36 runs per wicket is about equal to averaging just under 35 per innings for a batsman. Would India be tolerant of a batsman who averaged around 35 after 43 Tests? Ishant's strike rate of 64.8 is also below par. This means he needs to bowl nearly 11 overs to get one wicket.
Granted, India are not spoilt for choice when it comes to seam bowlers, but that Ishant has generally been an automatic pick in the playing XI and his bowling returns are never a talking point suggests we have all been slightly swayed by his demeanour on the field. It is always "unlucky" Ishant, a bowler who deserves more wickets for his lion-hearted performance in the field. "Unlucky Ishant Sharma" has become his brandname in Indian cricket today.
But there is no such thing as an unlucky batsman or an unlucky bowler. Over a short span, yes, but if someone is an "unlucky" bowler over a long period of time, he is simply not bowling enough wicket-taking balls. And that is the simple truth about Ishant - he has just not bowled enough potential wicket-taking balls, and it reflects in his record.
"An average of 36 runs per wicket is equal to averaging just under 35 per innings for a batsman. Would India be tolerant of a batsman who averaged around 35 after 43 Tests?"
Following a good series in the West Indies, where he picked up 22 wickets, his dry run resumed in England. After Ishant had another fruitless day in the field in the recent home series against West Indies, I asked Courtney Walsh, a fellow panelist on a TV show, for his take on Ishant. Walsh also bowled the same genre of seam as Ishant does, and he made an observation about what prevented Ishant from being a more potent wicket-taking bowler: the head falling away at the time of delivery, and the uncertain position of the wrist behind the ball when he lets it go were his two main deficiencies, Walsh said. Of course, this is not the first time these aspects of Ishant's bowling have been pointed out, but it is sad to see that these two critical issues have remained largely unaddressed.
All fast bowlers will tell you that the head falling away sideways at the time of delivery kills much of the speed, especially when the ball is pitched up. It's an important reason why Ishant is never quick when he pitches the ball up, and why the yorker is not a real weapon for him. This, along with his wrist action - where the two fingers on the seam tend to slide away rather than remain behind the seam when the ball is released - greatly diminishes the movement he would otherwise get in the air and off the pitch, and the zip.
When he tries to get the ball into that full-length area, it just does not respond. It reacts better when it's pitched shorter, which is why he feels compelled to bowl that length. But when the ball is short you don't find the edges, the leg-befores and the bowleds, as often. And that is what makes Ishant an "unlucky" bowler in Indian cricket.