It is good fast bowling when ball beats bat repeatedly. All of a sudden there is a contest. The bowler's run-up suddenly assumes greater speed and intensity, his length gains accuracy, his line becomes consistent. The batsman is reduced to second-guessing. All of a sudden a spell is born.
Spells are something that form an important segment in the drama of Test cricket. They remain etched in the mind forever. Take Andrew Flintoff v Ricky Ponting in 2005 at Edgbaston; Mitchell Johnson at the WACA last year; Dale Steyn against India in Nagpur last year; Ishant Sharma and his 60-minute tormenting of Ponting in Perth in 2008. And now, Ishant against England in the final hour before lunch at Lord's, where his spell read 5-3-4-3.
In order to enjoy a spell, it is important to stay clued in. That was always going to be difficult if you were an Indian fan, as the circumstances on Sunday morning were in England's favour. It was a wonderful sunny morning; the pitch had become much slower; England's powerful batting line-up looked set to secure their stranglehold over the series-opener. Both sides were resigned to a dull day. But what did they know?
Andrew Strauss left after a brisk start, but in walked Kevin Pietersen, who had trampled all over the Indian bowling attack once Zaheer Khan had limped off on the first afternoon, and gone on to get an unbeaten double-century. But, like everyone else, Pietersen had to start from scratch in the second innings. This time, Ishant had a new plan.
Pietersen was already trying to lord it over the India bowlers by walking across the off stump. In the first innings, Ishant had failed to maintain an off-stump line and an unerring length consistently. On the fourth day, with his first ball to Pietersen he dragged back the length, sensing that Pietersen would charge him. The ball was a screamer that took off and overwhelmed Pietersen, who walked back stunned having gloved the delivery.
It was a mode of dismissal that South Africa had successfully worked out against Pietersen last year. It was also a clever ploy to attack Pietersen before he could settle down. Four deliveries later, bowling slightly wide of the crease, Ishant bowled a perfect legcutter that pitched fuller and coaxed Ian Bell to offer a thick edge. Ishant rounded of a mesmerising spell with one of the best deliveries of the day. Sixteen minutes to lunch, he came up with an angled delivery that pitched on a length before it jagged in off the seam, beating the defences of Jonathan Trott, whose Alsatian-like powers have been well catalogued.
Ishant had taken three wickets in sixteen deliveries. England had slipped to 62 for 5. India were back in the match. There was even an outside chance of them winning it. Suddenly, there was a competitive atmoshphere. England went to lunch with a knot in their stomachs. India chewed with a renewed sense of vigour.
But Matt Prior and Stuart Broad took advantage of an exhausted Praveen Kumar and the absence of a third seamer. Normal service was resumed by the end of the second session as England fought back to take charge of the match.
But it was that hour before lunch that brought the day alive. This was not the first time the lanky Ishant has showed his ability to produce match-turning moments. His finest hour had come at the WACA, where he had dismantled Ponting's mental make-up with aggressive fast bowling in a Test which India won. In Galle last year, in a match India ended up losing, Ishant made Mahela Jayawardene look like a club batsman with both the old and new ball.
It was an admirable performance today, but Ishant was honest enough to admit that things would have been more favourable for India had he bowled with the same plans and intensity in the first innings. "I would have been happier if I bowled similar lines and bowled with the same energy in the first innings as then we could have been in a different position in the match," he said.
In the first innings, in which Ishant had figures of 32-5-128-0, he admitted that he was coming to terms with the dreaded slope at Lord's, as he bowled most of his spells from the Pavilion end. But Zaheer had strongly suggested to Ishant that he bowl from the Nursery end. "My natural ball is the inswinger but the odd ball was holding its line and I did not know much how it was happening," Ishant said about the difference between his lines of attack in the two innings.
There was one question that lingered immediately after lunch: why did Ishant, a rhythm bowler, not come back and re-start his spell? He said MS Dhoni had asked him if he wanted to continue but he decided that it would be better to play it safe. "I had bowled 11 overs in the first session, and there are three more Test matches coming and it is a long schedule."
In hindsight, he might think it was not wise to rest. Ishant is currently in the top 10 in the ICC Test bowling rankings. Last month, in Bridgetown, he took his maiden Test 10-wicket haul, joining the 100 wickets club in the process.
Ishant's spell at Lord's may not have a bearing on the result of the match, but if he lives up to his desire to be more consistent, to not commit the mistake of copying anyone else, to be himself, then there are many similar spells in the offing.