On Jan 19, 2008, Ishant Sharma, still in his teens, bowled a defining spell against Australia at the WACA in Perth. Playing only his fourth Test, Sharma rattled Australia captain Ricky Ponting with his lengths and pace in nine overs in the second innings - a spell so good that even Steve Waugh, not one quick to praise, complimented it. It possibly also changed Sharma's life: a month later, he was bought for $970,000 in the inaugural IPL auction.
Weeks before the Perth Test, India were playing Pakistan in Bengaluru in a home series. Sunil Gavaskar reckoned, in a syndicated column, that perhaps it was "too early" for Sharma to play that Test. Sharma went on to pick up his maiden five-for there, in just his second Test. It is the story of his life: to surprise when no one expects him to. And Perth 2008 remains perhaps the most memorable such example.
Now on the verge of his 100th Test, Sharma looks back at his battle with Ponting, and at his other memorable spells down the years.
You were not even supposed to go on that tour to Australia, but injuries to Sreesanth and Munaf Patel gave you the spot.
I don't remember that. But I thought I got selected for the Australia tour because I took a five-for against Pakistan in Bangalore, which happened just before the selection.
Then you played in Sydney because Zaheer Khan returned home. You took 0 for 146, which did not really showcase the effort you put in. Can you talk about your first time in Australia and understanding what lengths to bowl?
The biggest adjustment I had to make was that we had not played any practice match [before the Test series]. It was my first tour of Australia. I didn't have much of an idea of the bowling conditions. I had never bowled with the Kookaburra ball, [didn't know] how much it swings, what kind of lengths to bowl in Australia.
We were on top in the first innings. We had taken their top four or five wickets early [134 for 6]. Then Andrew Symonds edged early on, but Steve Bucknor did not give him out. If he had been given out, that series would probably have been totally different, because Symonds scored 150 or something , Brad Hogg scored . After that, the situation changed completely for us.
At the time I felt I was bowling short. I spoke to Venky [Venkatesh Prasad], who was our bowling coach at that time. He told me I was bowling a bit short. It was proving very difficult for me to find the right length. It was not like I was playing at home, bowling with the SG ball, which swings even late [when old], which Kookaburra does not. It was a learning experience.
You played in the practice match in Canberra, before the Perth Test. Richie Benaud on commentary said he'd spotted that you'd made adjustments between the Sydney and Perth Tests, and how there was a big difference in the lengths and how consistent you had become. What did you work on?
Once you know that you are playing all the games, you get more confident. Then you prepare yourself accordingly. When I played the practice match, I bowled as if I was bowling in a Test match. I was trying to bowl fuller, to get more swing. I was talking with Venky about that in the practice game. Even Anil bhai [Anil Kumble, India captain for that series] said, bowl as if you are bowling in a Test match with the new ball.
In fact, I bagged three wickets in my first spell with the new ball. You then get the confidence. You bowl long spells. My body is such that the more I bowl, the better my bowling becomes. Venky helped me a lot at that time.
"Sometimes a fast bowler achieves rhythm: when you want to bowl where you want to, and that starts happening, suddenly things start changing"
You were 19 years old when you played your fourth Test, at the WACA. Had you heard about the history of the ground before the match?
I remember one incident. I was marking my bowling run-up. Sunny bhai [Sunil Gavaskar] was there at the time of the toss [as TV commentator]. He told me I was doing well, but he cautioned me, saying, "Don't bowl too short. Don't get carried away." He said he was alerting me because every fast bowler thinks since it is Perth you can bowl bouncers. I told him I will try and bowl fuller. He said that was the best way to go. In the first innings I got Michael Clarke and Ricky Ponting [by sticking to that plan].
[During the Perth Test] I also remember Gary Kirsten had come just for one match [as consultant coach], because he was taking over as India head coach after that series. The evening before Australia's second innings we spoke about how I should go about it. It was a good experience for me [talking to Kirsten].
On the third evening I had bowled just three or four overs, but I was literally bowling full tosses because I was trying to pitch fuller. So I was unable to stick to the plans. On the way back to the team bus that evening, Gary asked me, "What do you think?" I said, "I didn't bowl well." Gary actually looked shocked. He was like, "How can you say that? You are just 19 and you are taking the blame that you didn't bowl well." I told him, "That's the truth, right? So I need to pull up my socks and do better tomorrow."
I am from Delhi and we speak directly. I told him clearly that I was bowling full tosses. Then after that, that spell happened.
Fourth morning, you came on to bowl the fifth over of the innings. What was the plan?
At 19 you don't plan, to be honest [laughs]. You just bowl. When you play a lot then the planning starts, about what you should do and not do. I knew just one thing: I have to bowl in good areas and after that somehow I should get a wicket. And the more consistently I bowled in good areas, the greater the chances of me getting a wicket.
On the fourth morning when I arrived at the ground I felt a bit of pressure. I was nervous because I felt then that if I don't bowl well here then it might be the end for me. But I tried to stick to my basics.
It was not so hot, so the Kookaburra ball was actually swinging despite being 30 overs old. That was a surprise for me. In Sydney that didn't happen. [In Perth] the ball was swinging, coming in and everything, and when that was happening I was actually enjoying it. I was just bowling. I was then not thinking this or that will happen, how will I get the guy out.
Sachin paaji [Tendulkar] was standing at mid-on at the time. He asked me [initially]: "What are you doing?" I said, "Nothing, I am just bowling." He said that's great, just carry on doing that, just enjoy your bowling.
He just kept on telling me after every ball, "Don't try anything [different]. Don't change anything. He [Ponting] is not comfortable with whatever you are bowling and you'll get him out." I said, "Theek hain, paaji.". With the ball moving in naturally, I did not even need to try hard.
There was a ball that hit Ponting's pad early on. He did not play a shot. It appeared the ball hit him under the knee, but Billy Bowden overruled India's appeal. TV replays showed the ball would go on to hit the bail. When you walked back to your mark, what did you think?
Nothing. Good thing was paaji said, "Don't worry. Keep bowling. You'll get him out." Like I said, I just kept bowling. I wasn't thinking whether he [Bowden] gave it out or not.
Sometimes a fast bowler achieves rhythm: when you want to bowl where you want to, and when that starts happening, suddenly things start changing. You can say that like a batsman enters a zone, a bowler also enters a similar zone - you are running in well, you are bowling well, your ball is swinging, automatically the ball is going straight from the same spot. So when I myself did not know, how would the batsman know when the ball was straightening? (grins).
And your speeds were the same throughout the spell, around mid-130kph?
I have never been a fan of the speedometer. If I was running in well I didn't get worried about the speeds.
Did you get tired at all during that spell?
No. I just wanted to carry on bowling.
"Anil bhaiasked me: 'Will you bowl another over?' I said, 'Yes, I will.' Ponting got out next ball"
When did Kumble tell you that he was going to replace you?
After the eighth over [of the spell] Anil bhai said, "Okay, you stop now. Bowl later." He felt having already bowled in the first innings and then now eight overs on the trot, it was better I took a break. But Viru bhai [Virender Sehwag] told Anil bhai that I was bowling well and Ricky was uncomfortable. He also said that I can bowl long spells. In the entire domestic season before the Australia tour, Viru bhai was the Delhi captain. So he had seen I had bowled quite a few long spells.
Viru bhai said that even if you bowl him continuously for an entire session he will not tire. Anil bhaiasked me: "Ek aur over dalega?" [Will you bowl another over?] I said, "Haan, daloonga." [Yes, I will.] He said, okay, come bowl. Ponting got out next ball.
What was the length you were bowling, about six metres from the stumps?
Yeah. But the ball [Ponting] got out on, it was slightly fuller. It did not come in that much. That ball just went straight. That was the first delivery of the ninth over. There was only just one more delivery that had straightened, which was around the sixth or seventh over, in which again he was beaten.
Otherwise the rest of the deliveries mostly moved in or were swinging in the air or seaming off the pitch. I really did not know it would straighten. If you ask me now, I can tell you when I'm bowling straighter and when I'm swinging it.
Can you recount the delivery as it happened?
The way I held the ball as I ran in to bowl, I wanted to swing it in. It did swerve a bit in the air, but after pitching it went straight. [Ponting] did play the right line, because the seam position suggested it would come in, but the ball went straight and took the outside edge.
What was the difference from the dismissal in the first innings?
The difference was that I wanted to get him [Ponting] out early. Bhajju pa [Harbhajan Singh] was not playing that Test, so I told him, you are not playing, so I will get him [Ponting] out. Bhajju pa and Yuvi pa [Yuvraj Singh] made us comfortable by joking around. [Harbhajan] said, "If you get him out I will come out on the balcony and clap because he is such a big player."
In those days, you didn't, and still don't, go by the name - who is playing in front of you and who the batsman is. In the first innings the ball pitched and went away a little, but there was a bit more bounce. His bat was hanging and the edge went to slip. It was a similar delivery against Michael Clarke [in the first innings in Perth], but that ball was slightly fuller compared to Ponting.
Did Bhajji come out on the balcony?
Yeah, he did come out. After that, during the lunch break, he said, "Lambu, tu out kar hi deta." [You would have got him out anyway].
Did that ball change your life?
That ball changed my life! But to be very honest, I'm still surprised. Because, such spells, in Ranji Trophy, in first-class, you need to continuously bowl them. The more consistently you bowl, you get that much bigger an opportunity to get a wicket. First-class cricket is all about patience - only then you can get the batsman out. If your aim is only to get a wicket then you can go for runs.
That patience, in my bowling, has come only after playing first-class cricket - that having bowled two balls inswing, now I will try to bowl one going-away delivery. With experience you can do such things.
So, actually, I was surprised when I saw that spell, and all the hype that followed. I felt it is my job - I do this daily in first-class cricket - that if I am bowling 20 overs in a day, I have to give 40-45 runs and I can get three wickets. So what I was doing in the Ranji Trophy, the same thing I was doing in the Test match.
Not long before that, you delivered a spell of 15 overs in Vijayawada in the Ranji Trophy.
Yes, I had bowled continuously throughout the session. It was against Andhra Pradesh. We [Delhi] had to win the match outright or save it, and one of our bowlers had got injured. Mithun Manhas, who was the captain in that match, asked me to just keep bowling, so I bowled 15 straight overs.
"I never watch that spell. There are a lot of people who tag me on social media in clips of that spell, but I never watch it"
At that young age it is about adrenaline, isn't it? You don't bother about workload and all that, you just go with the rhythm.
Yeah, at present everyone tries to manage their workload, bowl so many overs in the nets and all that. That was not the case when I started. And for that I should say thanks to my coach, Shravan Kumar. Because when I started to play, whether it was the afternoon heat or the cold, you started to bowl at 1pm and until it got dark you could not stop bowling. If you stopped toh seedha gaali padti thi [you would be scolded]. That is why I am used to bowling long spells.
Ponting wrote in his book that if he had survived, he was confident he could have scored a century. Did he ever speak to you about that spell?
No, he never has spoken to me.
Has that been the spell of your life so far?
Can't really say that. I feel that spell became famous because I was young, was playing my fourth Test, bowling to a legend, making him struggle a bit. That is why it became big.
I don't know if you remember a similar spell I bowled in Galle with the new ball, where I got [Mahela] Jayawardene and Angelo Mathews out. Same kind of spell I bowled in the 2008 Irani Trophy when Rest of India were playing against Delhi. I bowled five maidens on the trot to [S] Badrinath in the second innings.
Do you watch videos of that Perth spell?
I never watch that spell. There are a lot of people who tag me on social media [in clips of that spell], but I never watch it. Okay, that spell gave me the confidence, it was pretty good. Yes, people started to recognise me.
When people have confidence in you and have expectations, then you get confident, right? After that spell, I realised I deserve this praise. That was very important.
Which are your top five spells in first-class cricket?
Obviously, Lord's 2014.
My first five-wicket haul against Baroda in Delhi .
That New Zealand Test series [2019-20], in Wellington where I took five wickets. That is special for me because I had torn my ligaments and I was not sure whether I would go on that tour or not. Just two days before the Test match, the team asked me, "You want to play or not?" I said, "I'm here to play cricket. I'm not here on holiday." Yes, I was struggling, no doubt about that. I was jet-lagged. But I had bowled a lot at the National Cricket Academy [during rehab in Bengaluru]. But that is one spell that told me there is no limitation: that if you don't put the burden of expectation on yourself, you can go on. It taught me that if I can just focus on bowling in good areas… that spell taught me to trust myself more.
And that spell in Jo'burg in 2013-14 where I took four wickets [in the first innings]. Around that time I had been hit for 30 runs in an over by James Faulkner. After that I could have gone wrong any time - both emotionally and mentally, I was struggling. But suddenly something clicked in me. I was like, I can't play like this. If I have to be the best version of myself then I have to pull up my socks and do well. So something sparked inside me and suddenly I picked up four wickets.
I am talking about these spells from memory. I can't really pinpoint one spell [as the best].
You will obviously add Perth to that, to make it a top five?
I am still thinking (laughs).
Nagraj Gollapudi is news editor at ESPNcricinfo