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How Ishant Sharma left the 'unlucky' behind

He knew he had to bowl fuller, but it took Jason Gillespie to show him how to do it without losing his pace and bite

Ishant Sharma loads up in his pre-delivery jump, Australia v India, 2nd Test, Perth, 1st day, December 14, 2018

Ishant Sharma loads up in his pre-delivery jump  •  Cricket Australia/Getty Images

It was 2011-12, and India were going down 4-0 in Australia. Their bowlers were enduring a torrid time, but the word from the Australian dressing room was that whatever wickets they were getting were the result of the pressure created by Ishant Sharma, who himself was not getting many. It was on this tour that "unlucky Ishant" came into being, almost as a way to mock him.
The inference was that Ishant was not unlucky but was bowling shorter than the length that draws edges. Commentators knew it, hardcore fans knew it, casual fans knew it, coaches and captains knew it. It was almost as if everyone but Ishant knew it. "The problem here is, everybody knows what the problem is," Ishant says now. "'But nobody shows you the solution. Those who can find you a solution, they are good coaches and mentors." Apart from the frustration at not being able to find a solution, this is also an earnest admission that he didn't know, that he was lost.
It wasn't as if Ishant didn't try adjusting the length. Except that when he did, he would end up floating the ball up. "Everybody kept telling me, you have to bowl the full ball just as fast, but nobody told me how to do it."
That was until he found Jason Gillespie, the Sussex head coach, when he played a season of county cricket in 2018. The problem was, Ishant was just releasing the ball when he tried to pitch it up. He needed to find a way to hit that fuller length hard. Gillespie made him move away from the old practice of trying to hit the cones placed at a full length on the pitch. He asked him to hit the batsman's pads, at the level of the knee roll. Forget where you are pitching it, concentrate on hitting the knee of the batsman as hard as you can.
"The practice is almost similar, but the outcome is vastly different," Ishant says. "What he told me made my full ball fast too."
That change in the length has done wonders for Ishant, especially over the last two years when he has gone from honest workhorse to genuine strike bowler, taking 66 wickets in that time. None of the six bowlers who have taken more wickets than him over this period has done so at a better average than his 19.43. Only Kagiso Rabada has a better strike rate than his 42.7. By his own admission, it has taken Ishant longer than it should to understand his bowling, but he is making up for the lost years in a hurry.
The other truism Ishant had been handed down was: bowl 20 overs for no more than 60 runs, and you will get three wickets more often than not. "You are thinking you will have to bowl 20 overs, and you bowl to restrict the runs," Ishant says. "You keep bowling back of a length, back of a length; the batsmen keeps leaving and leaving. And once he gets set, you invariably end up conceding 80 in those 20 overs. It took me time to understand what matters is how you concede those 60 runs: by bowling in good areas or just back of a length."
Before he knew it, Ishant was the workhorse of a team in transition, bowling long spells. "It wasn't a role I was given," he says. "I was just told, go get the wickets, it is your job. It's just that I am much more professional now; I understand my body and my bowling better."
As a result he has enjoyed his cricket much more. Instead of spending sleepless nights worried about the results, he is now focussing more on the process and loving every minute spent with his team-mates, with whom you spend "more [time] than you do with your family". It is not just Ishant who has matured, but also Mohammed Shami, and, to a lesser extent, Umesh Yadav. At the same time, a readymade world-class bowler has emerged in Jasprit Bumrah.
That has helped captain Virat Kohli, who in turn has driven the fast bowlers forward with his increased focus on fitness. Asked to compare the two captains - MS Dhoni and Kohli - under whom Ishant has played most of his Test cricket, he says: "They are both different captains, but under MS we didn't have too much experience as a bowling unit. And we didn't nail down our positions so we kept being rotated. Because of that there was no consistency.
"Now we have three to four regular Test fast bowlers. Earlier we used to have six to seven. By the time Virat took over, we were already experienced Test bowlers. We had got a comfort level with each other. We were communicating and sharing our experience better."
Ishant knew with his ankle surgery in 2012 that fast bowling was 80% fitness and 20% skills. Now he could add experience and communication to the fitness, the three attributes of a successful bowling attack according to him.
Ishant has just come back from a grade-one hamstring tear, and has put in a Ranji Trophy game for Delhi at Feroz Shah Kotla after missing the first two matches of the season. He is at ease with having to bowl a few extra overs because of an injury to the third fast bowler Pawan Suyal. "Once you play a game - and this is no club game - you bowl till you get the opposition out. India team management doesn't tell me how many overs to bowl. I know my body well enough. They do tell us which matches to play in."
Ishant will miss the next two Delhi games, but is likely to play one more Ranji game before he flies to New Zealand. His right big toe is so swollen there is a big visible bulge on the foot. It is a bunion, numb, the "cost of fast bowling". He is asked how he manages to stay so fit when others start to falter when they approach 100 Tests. Ishant, a veteran of 96, jokes: "This is the flicker of a dying flame."
Ishant knows, his captain knows, the country knows that this flame is no mood to die anytime soon now that it has finally learned to shine bright.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo