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'I was trying to copy Zaheer's action'

Having lost his way after a sparkling start, Ishant Sharma has returned stronger, wiser and more effective. He credits his senior partner, among others, for his comeback

Ishant Sharma is only 22 but has already seen many ups and downs in his career. He became the fifth-youngest bowler ever to reach the landmark of 100 Test wickets. He talks to ESPNcricinfo about the turbulent phase when his bowling deserted him and he ended up being dropped from the India team. He talks about the mistake he made, the depression he went into, and how he bounced back.
You seemed to have got your rhythm back in the West Indies...
The rhythm is back. The important thing is, I am now enjoying my bowling. I visualise every ball and what I need to do. I focus on my strengths. I believe in my strengths more now - the pace and bounce. The last one and a half years have been up and down. I struggled a lot. I would just like this form to continue .
Were there times when you wondered about what was going wrong at the start of your run-up?
I was trying to copy Zaheer Khan's action. No doubt he is a great bowler, but I guess I shouldn't have tried to copy his action. We are entirely different in styles. Zaheer told me that I am too much into the technical side of things and that I shouldn't be. Now I just stick to my basics and my strengths. When I started, I was just looking to enjoy and bowl fast. Slowly the expectations grew, my responsibility in the team grew, and I didn't know how to handle that pressure.
When and why were you copying Zaheer?
When South Africa came to play in India, I started to copy him. I wanted to be a swing bowler. I was forgetting my natural strength of bounce and hitting the deck. When I bowl with my natural style, the ball automatically starts to inswing. That was my strong point, and I should have just stuck to that. That was my greatest mistake.
I wanted to swing it from a fuller length and in trying to do that I was copying his action. I thought I could copy his action release, just to get my length fuller. The way I ran, the action, the whole thing was affected.
Did you tell him you were trying to copy his action?
I didn't. I didn't want his bowling to get upset, or for him to feel bad that this was why my bowling was going wrong. I just realised that it's all right to learn things from others but you shouldn't be copying actions.
I had become too technical, instead of being tactical. When you are in the Under-17 stage, if you are concentrating on your technical stuff, it is fine. Your body and muscles accept the changes in action. But when you try to change it later, it gets difficult.
So you lost your rhythm?
Yes. The ball doesn't land where you want to it to. You forget your positives and your mind starts focusing on the negative. You go into a shell. Everything is going against you. That feeling is really bad. I didn't know why these things were happening, why what I was trying to do was not happening. I didn't realise it then, especially as I was swinging the ball at the start of my career. Even in the second IPL, in South Africa, I felt I was bowling well. Then the bad patch started through World Twenty20 and the New Zealand tour. Things were going bad. I was putting too much pressure on myself.
Did you start to do that in the nets too?
In the nets I used to be relaxed, and I enjoyed it, so I bowled well. In cricket as long as you are relaxed and enjoying yourself and your game, you will do well. In the middle, I had forgotten that. I wasn't focused on the process but more worried about the results. As I had more experience, I became aware of my body and bowling, and things started to improve. That I learnt in the last IPL.
How bad was that phase of struggle? Did you stop laughing and enjoying life?
Yes, I did. During that time, even, say, if I was talking to you, I would be constantly thinking about cricket. How should I get that batsman out? What I should do, how I should bowl. I wasn't enjoying it. There was too much pressure. I was almost obsessed with cricket. Too much thinking about one thing isn't good.
I wasn't able to sleep well when I was dropped. I used to worry about what was going to happen to me. Suddenly from being a top bowler in Indian cricket you are nowhere. That time I was depressed. But seeing these good times I feel bhagwan ke ghar mey dher hai andher nahi [God will eventually reward you for your effort]. I now know how to react even when things are not going well.
How did you come out of that phase?
I met a man, Ramesh sir, during the IPL. He told me how to think positive, do meditation, visualisations, how to focus on your own strengths. He doesn't know cricket, but the mental power he taught me really helped. And with the help of friends and family, I recovered.
Then I spoke to Zaheer in the IPL. He talked to me about the importance of training. That has really helped me. I didn't much go to the gym earlier. I went to the National Cricket Academy, where they made a training schedule for me: what muscles I should develop and which ones I load more in my bowling style. That systematic training helped and I am sticking to it.
When did you sense the turnaround during the IPL?
After two or three games I became confident. What I was trying to do was coming through. I started to enjoy my life around cricket. That's important to me. On the field give 100% and then switch off. I wasn't doing that before.
Ramesh sir made me change that. He made me meditate and visualise my bowling. He told me "Vahi socho jo aapko karna hai. Na socho jo nahi karna hai [Just think about what you want to do, not what you don't want to]". That was an important point.
How was the emotional support at home?
There was a time I was really depressed that I wasn't in the team. I used to sit alone and think cricket. About this and that. My mother and my sister backed me. They really believed in me and made me believe in myself, that I can do it again. When you have that kind of support, you feel you can do anything. They said it is just matter of time. It happens to every sportsman. They told me to accept the reality of my life and work hard, and that I would be back.
Did you learn about the drawbacks of being famous?
Absolutely. When you are doing well people ask for your autograph. Otherwise no one asks about you. That made me mentally stronger. I have now learnt to balance. I know how to handle success and failure.
"Sometimes even I don't know which ball is going to straighten, so how can the batsmen know? I try to swing with the new ball. I usually know when it's going to straighten or swing out when I try to do that, but on many occasions even I don't know"
Did any of your team-mates help you then?
I would like to thank Gautam [Gambhir] bhaiya. He had great belief in me. When I was down I wouldspeak to him, and he would tell me that I would make a comeback and do really well. A senior player like him was supporting me and telling me I should not lose hope in myself. When you are bowling well, everyone praises you. It matters what people are saying when you aren't doing well. I am really grateful to Gautam bhaiya.
You went back to play Ranji Trophy. What was that like?
I was happy to play cricket. I just wanted to play. I wasn't used to sitting out and handing drinks. That irritates me. With Ranji Trophy I was playing cricket, and that was always helpful.
The wrist release at one point had become skewed. Your wrists used to be behind the seam initially, but later you seemed to be pushing the ball sideways.
When you play too much cricket, bad habits creep in. You don't realise it. There is no one to tell you what's happening. The body gets tired, and you suddenly don't know what's happening. Now I know more about my bowling - how to train and recover. My wrist position gets bad when I get really tired. Training is very important for me. I have to put in more effort in my bowling than say Munaf, Praveen or Zaheer. I have to run in hard from a long run-up, and my style demands more effort. So I need to put in more training.
Venkatesh Prasad has praised you as the most hard-working fast bowler he has worked with.
I doubt if anyone else enjoyed bowling with Venky sir as much as I did. It was a great learning experience. After a point, we stopped being teacher and student and became friends. I could go up to him and discuss anything, from bowling to my life.
You have a great incoming delivery. These days you seem to be getting the odd ball to straighten as well. How much control do you have now?
My stock ball is the inswinger. The odd balls straighten on their own. Sometimes even I don't know which ball is going to straighten, so how can the batsman know? I try to swing with the new ball. Of course I usually know when it's going to straighten or swing out, but many times I don't know. It hits the seam and it can straighten. The ones under my control I know.
Many have noted a stutter in your follow-through.
It has been there since I started playing. I never worried about it. It all depends on how firm and still you are in your run-up and release. The follow-through follows from that.
What's your routine on match days?
I try to wake up happy and just stay away from cricket. On the field you are thinking so much about cricket, so off the field I try to get on my phone, chat with my team-mates, enjoy. Even if my day hasn't gone well, just enjoy the good times in it.
Tell us about your relationship with Zaheer.
I am lucky to be bowling with Zaheer. He is so aware of his own body, his bowling, and has so much knowledge. I didn't know about my bowling and my body at the start of my career. Now I know when to train, when to relax, and how much bowling I must do. Zaheer advises me a lot. He even sets fields - where to bowl, how to bowl. It was a great help. He is always positive. He never talks negative. He always wanted to dismiss the batsmen irrespective of whether he is set or not. He won't think, "Okay, let me give this guy a single and target the other." He used to say, "We must do the difficult thing." So to share the ball with someone like him is great, and good things are going to rub off on to you.
Do you remember any wicket in particular that came about after a plan with Zaheer?
During Australia's tour - when I was Man of the Series - I took Brad Haddin's wicket. I bowled a series of bouncers and then slipped in a slower one. It was in Bangalore. That's what we had planned: let's bowl bouncers at him, and then slip in a slower one, as he doesn't pick it up sometimes.
Are you confident enough of setting your own fields and planning dismissals in his absence, like here in the West Indies?
I now know my bowling, and have control over my body. So I am confident. I have done my homework. I have learnt to set my fields. I know what I want to do. I visualise at the end of the day. Go back on the good things and what I can add.
Visualisation is about feeling good about yourself and landing the ball where you want it to land it. Before I bowl a ball I visualise that I have bowled the ball where I want it to land. By doing that your heart has already gone there. If your heart has gone, the brain follows. So I visualise the end result as if I have already done it, and then I bowl. I learnt this from Ramesh sir.
I tug at my sleeve at the start of each ball. It has become a habit. I do it because I feel something's sticking onto my skin there.
A lot of people believed that playing ODIs was spoiling your bowling in Tests.
I didn't think so. My strong point is Test cricket. I bowl for long, pick up wickets, and I am aggressive. These are the things that help you in ODIs as well.
People say I shouldn't be playing in the IPL. I take everything as a challenge. I set goals for myself and see if can achieve them or not. I want to be a regular member of the Indian squad and play all three formats of the game.
How did you handle the money coming in?
It depends on the individual. I saw early success and then failure. I must thank my family. I never thought more of myself just because I was an Indian player. My father is always down to earth. He never complains. When I was doing well, he used to thank God. When I wasn't doing well, he would say it's all thanks to God and it is a learning experience.
You seem to have started concentrating on your batting.
I need to thank Gary Kirsten. He used to tell me that I can bat. When he came for the first time, in Australia, he saw me and said I can bat as well. I never took batting seriously. I never thought one day I can help India win a Test. I need to be really thankful to Gary for that. As a bowler, you know how much you struggle to take a wicket. So when I struggle so much to get a wicket, why should I give my wicket easily? Scoring runs is not the issue for me. I just concentrate on sticking around.
How has Eric Simons been for you guys?
He doesn't try to change the things I am comfortable with. He adds to it. When you gel well with a team, your relationship with players and coaches should be good in order for the team to be good. That relationship you develop over a period of time. Now my relationship with Eric Simons is how it was with Venky. He has a good bonding with the fast bowlers. Players listen to what he says. Like Venky, he allows our natural ways to be and then tries to add on.
I never used to bowl round the stumps to left-hand batsmen. I have learnt to go round now. Eric has helped me in that regard. I used to bowl a little too wide to left-handers, but that has changed now.
What has been your most satisfying dismissal since returning?
Every single wicket is satisfying when you are making a comeback. You learn that just because you had one bad spell it's not the end of world. You can always come back and pick up three wickets, and then at the end of the day you have bowled well. It's not like batsmen; we bowlers can always come back. There is more clarity with regards to my bowling.
What about reverse swing?
I love bowling reverse swing. Touch wood, I have control over it, but I don't think in cricket anyone is a master. I have better control over lengths but it all depends on how good you feel and in what rhythm you are. You can bowl seven overs on the trot when you are in rhythm; if you are not, it's a struggle to bowl even five. Some days you just wake up happy and everything and everyone around you feels good. There is this happy atmosphere around you. You go to the ground and feel you can do whatever you want. I think all fast bowlers know it.
How has it been bowling alongside the likes of Munaf, Praveen and Sreesanth?
Munaf and Praveen are really helpful. It's not that Sreesanth is not helpful, but it's all about bonding and gelling. Our thinking is the same. We hang out, enjoy, laugh, and we share that thinking on the field as well. When I am bowling, and Munna bhai is getting the drinks, he will tell me what I should be doing. It's great for team spirit.
Define enjoyment for you on tours.
Sitting in the hotel, enjoying each other's company. We don't get time to go on holidays together. We sit in the room, talk and laugh, or sit in the bus and laugh. It makes a great difference. You are able to switch off. Now I think about cricket when I have to. I relax at other times. I speak to mummy or to my friends. To relax, the best thing is to spend time with Munna bhai. He has a great sense of humour.
What's your career goal?
It's to play 100 Test matches for India and take as many wickets as possible. To play 100 Tests it will take 10 years. I hope my body lasts that long.

Sriram Veera is a staff writer at ESPNcricinfo