Ishant Sharma, Delhi Capitals' senior-statesman fast bowler, talks about making an impact without quite having the figures to show for it, learning the knuckleball, his stint in county cricket last year, and more.
How has this IPL been different for you? Do you think in terms of your role, your job, and how you have done, something has been different?
See, I am not someone who thinks that much like yeh kya hain, woh kya hain. Woh sab [What is this, or that]. I just want to win games for my team. My main motto is to win the IPL trophy.
How much has the discipline with which you have performed for India in Test cricket in the last year, where you were the leader of the attack, mentally charged you for the IPL role?
Yeah, it is a big boost for me [the Test form]. Because if you are taking wickets for India you take that confidence into the IPL. The good thing about this season at Capitals, we are having good bowling-group meetings. We discuss the plans and then try and execute even in the training, where we think that we are not bowling to our batsmen but to the opposition batsmen. Then you are mentally ready. Then you know what's your Plan B, what's your Plan A to a certain player. And when you are more clear at the top of your mark, then things become really easy.
Once you get hit, obviously you are under pressure. Straightaway, doubt comes into your mind. It's a small word, doubt, but you can get mentally disturbed when it occurs.
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Can you give us an example of that?
Even in Tests when you are not getting wickets... take the first Test at Edgbaston during the England tour last year. We were behind in that Test. The doubt was, what if I can't take those wickets, what if we can't score those runs? In those moments you have to trust yourself, believe in your game. That's how I have changed myself.
Playing county helped me a lot. There is pressure on you being a professional, but you enjoy the responsibility. So I did that and enjoyed the county experience. And I have carried that to India and now in the IPL.
"My IPL economy is eight right now, but people still don't consider me a good death bowler. I don't know why"
You were unsold in the 2018 IPL auction, and the year before that (but you were picked by Kings XI Punjab as a replacement player). Did you expect to be picked this auction?
I did not even watch the auction. We were in Perth during the Australia Test series. [On auction day, December 18] I was sitting with Bhuvi [Bhuvneshwar Kumar] and his wife, having a coffee. The Australia tour was very important and we wanted to win away from India, having lost in South Africa and England. So we were talking about the Perth Test when I got a call from BCCI congratulating me for being picked by the Capitals.
But I should say this: what I missed, only I know. When I did not play IPL, I went to play county. It was a good experience, but you have to bowl a lot. There's no rest in between games. You have to travel, do everything yourself. So there's a lot of hard yards you have to do in county cricket. Every penny you earn there, it is hard work.
Sitting out the last IPL, was it a little bit hurtful?
Before that, when I played for [Rising Pune] Supergiant, and even at Kings XI, I was a replacement player. So I wasn't really shocked, to be very honest, because I knew I didn't do well [previously in the IPL].
It is better to be practical in life. If you didn't do well, you didn't do well. But what was my alternative? To go and play county cricket. Because I knew if I was watching my team-mates playing cricket while I was sitting back home, it would have made me frustrated. There [in county cricket] I was just playing, enjoying myself. That helped me a lot mentally. I was pretty happy with myself - yes, I took a good decision, although it took a toll on my body, but I was still happy.
You are not the highest wicket-taker at Capitals, but you have been creating an impact in the Powerplays. How did that come about?
Actually the role of bowling in the Powerplay was not planned. In the game against Mumbai , after I took two wickets, Shreyas [Iyer] told me I should bowl the rest of my overs later. But I said, "No, let me bowl one more over. Maybe if I get another wicket, the game will get over." I took Quinton de Kock's wicket. So after that game I started bowling three overs upfront in the Powerplay.
In the first three games [before playing Mumbai Indians] I was talking to Hopesy [James Hopes, bowling coach] telling him about not getting wickets. He was like, "Mate, you are doing a fantastic job for the team. Doesn't matter, I'm sure wickets will come. And I'm going to say this to you every single day because that's my job. But don't worry about the wickets, because what you are doing, it's not easy - bowling in the Powerplay, bowling to tough batsmen." I told him I'm doing my job but I need wickets as well.
So there was doubt even when you had a good economy rate?
Because if you are always happy with what you are doing, there's something wrong. There's always a chance to reflect on where you can improve your game. If you reflect and you don't execute, that's a different thing. But if I bowl a bad ball, I ask myself why I did that, what I was planning?
Your economy of 6.71 in Powerplays is the fourth best among fast bowlers who have bowled 15-plus overs in the Powerplay. Only Jasprit Bumrah, Jofra Archer and Bhuvneshwar have better numbers. Does it help your confidence?
See, as I told you I don't really think about these things. You just told me I'm fourth.
Didn't your analyst tell you that stat?
Seriously, we don't even talk about such things. We don't think about stats. Do your job, do your basics right. For me, I am expressing myself. I am doing what I can do best. End of the day, what matters to me is how look at myself. After you retire you can talk about how many wickets you took. But as a person, what will you take? You will take how many trophies you lift. You take what bonding you create as a team. You take good memories. I am fond of all those things, and not all the stats. I don't care about the economy. Seriously.
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So you don't use data to help your bowling?
No. It might add pressure on me now that you have told me (chuckles). On a serious note, I don't really think about how many runs I have given. I am doing what best I can do to win a game.
You have taken only four wickets in the Powerplay this year. Do you consider yourself a strike bowler?
Yes, I do. But what brings me a wicket, you have got to analyse that as well. That is important. In Test matches I don't get wickets in a clutch. Suddenly I don't take five wickets. So the way I take wickets in a Test match is by creating a lot of pressure, bowling a lot of overs, pitching on a good length and being consistent. I understand that. I do the same thing in T20: keep bowling, keep persisting for long enough. Even if you are not taking wickets in this format, if you are economical you are doing a fantastic job for the team. I want to take wickets, but you only get four overs.
If I talk about the game against RCB [in Delhi], I went for 41 in the four overs. But early on in my spell I bowled a knuckleball and PP [Parthiv Patel] tried to cut but the ball did not carry to [Rishabh] Pant. Then there was a misfield from [Kagiso] Rabada, there was a top edge. Then there was the edge from Virat [Kohli], which was ruled not out. And then he hit me for a six, which would not have happened had he been out. So the analysis would have changed completely had those things gone in my favour - instead of taking just one wicket, I might have had three. In IPL there is always pressure at all times, but if you can keep the belief then it comes handy.
I get to bowl 18 balls in the Powerplay, but I have got fantastic support from the management even if I have not taken too many wickets. Also, having KG at the other end was a big boost for me as he bowled the tough overs.
"There's a lot of hard yards you have to do in county cricket. Every penny you earn there, it is hard work"
Was Kohli out in that match?
I think it carried. I told him, "You are out, walk, go." He said, "No, it was one-bounce, you go and bowl." The umpire gave it not out. Virat hit me for a six next ball. Even against Rohit [Sharma], against Mumbai Indians in Delhi, I was having fun in the middle. I told him, "Maar na" [Hit it]. He said, "Yeh kya wicket pe khelte ho tum? Kahan se maroonga?" [What kind of wicket is this? How will I hit it?]. After the match I told him, "Maara nahin tune yaar" [You didn't hit big]. He said, "Udhar aa na" [Come to Wankhede]. I told him: "Out kiya na tujhe" [But I got you out]. So these are fun moments we have despite playing with intensity. Yes, we are playing the IPL, but the Indian team is my first family.
You usually come back to bowl your remaining overs at death. However, people who have picked teams at the auctions have had a perception that you are not a good death bowler. Do you agree?
If you look at the stats, in the IPL every bowler from every team has gone for more than ten runs. My IPL economy is eight right now, but people still don't consider me a good death bowler. I don't know why. Yes, in the past I did go for runs, but that's the past. You have to see what I'm doing right now.
Even in the last match [against Royal Challengers] I went for 16 in the 17th over, but in the 19th over I came back for only four runs. As a cricketer what I have realised is, if you win a game, that is the happiest thing. Ricky [Ponting] told me that. Even if you win Man of the Match but you lose the game, it is of no use. Making even a smaller impact is the key.
You have not won a Man of the Match yet, but you have earned Ponting's Man of the Match. (Ponting gives a badge to a player he thinks has made an impact in a game.)
Yes, I have won twice (smiles). First was against KKR, where I had four overs for 21 and then against Hyderabad three overs for 17 bowling in the Powerplay to Jonny Bairstow and [David] Warner.
Can you talk about that Sunrisers spell? Now that both players have left, you could tell us the plan?
My strength is swinging the ball into the batsman, so I was focusing on getting the swing. Against Bairstow I did not want to give him a boundary. The best part of the planning has been to keep things simple. You cannot get a team out in one spell. That does not happen in T20 cricket. If you can get the new ball to land on a length then it becomes difficult for every batsman. Maybe he can hit one ball, he might hit two, but he will find it difficult to hit the third one if you pitch on length.
Talking about the length ball - you have become very consistent in hitting the same spot against all batsmen in all cricket. Is that helping your confidence?
After the Australia tour I returned home and played for Delhi in the Syed Mushtaq Ali tournament. Even there I bowled pretty well. I trained a lot bowling against a single stump. I also placed a cone on length with the aim being to hit top of off stump. Or I placed a shoe and hit it if I wanted to execute the yorker. That is called target bowling. The main goal for a bowler is to finish on top of off stump with the new ball, irrespective of the format. I have been doing that ever since I have been playing cricket. Maybe having had a good Test season and doing okay in the IPL, people are realising these things.
Which are the spells you have enjoyed?
Other than SRH and KKR, against Rajasthan Royals I bowled two overs in the Powerplay and two at death. I only gave 28 [actually 29] runs. Against Kings XI Punjab, first two overs I gave 16 , but then bowled a four-run third over against Chris Gayle.
In the Powerplay you are bowling against the best batsmen in the tournament. Do you want to make a statement straightaway, like a batsman wants to hit a six first ball? What is your aim?
My mindset is to just to create that pressure ball by ball. I want to get him out. I want to play competitive cricket against the batsman. Yes, if you are good enough you can hit me one ball, but I will back my strengths - whether it is a yorker, length ball, knuckleball.
What variations have you added this IPL?
I have started bowling the knuckleball. In the past I went for runs with the new ball because I was just bowling the same length again and again. So there was no variation in the pace. With the knuckleball, due to my height I get bounce but the ball also comes slow in the air - batsmen think it is a normal ball and get beaten at times.
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How much time did it take for you to learn the knuckleball?
I started training virtually the day I returned from Australia. I started developing new skills like the knuckleball, back-of-the-hand slower ball.
Did you ask Bhuvneshwar about the knuckleball?
I asked him what length he tries to hit with his knuckleball. I thought he tries to float his knuckleball, but he said he tries to hit a length. Then I realised if you hit a length, it is very difficult for the batsman to hit. If you float, it might wobble and not land on the right length.
Right now I am just getting up and hitting the length whenever I want. Touch wood. But holding that ball till the last moment, changing your grip, these are things I need to work on. I asked Bhuvi a lot of questions, and how he changes his grip with the knuckleball. He said he does it during his gather. Even I am doing that when I load. If you change the grip when you are about to deliver, then it can get very late.
What is your aim for the rest of the tournament?
Just one aim: to win the IPL trophy this year. Jeetna hain. I'm pretty sure we will win. I don't know why, but I have that belief.
Nagraj Gollapudi is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo