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Sanjay Manjrekar

What's eating Ishant Sharma?

His misplaced aggression in Sri Lanka, and the fact that he offended more than once, is a poor reflection on India

Sanjay Manjrekar
Sanjay Manjrekar
Hear me roar: why does anger follow the success of taking a wicket?  •  AFP

Hear me roar: why does anger follow the success of taking a wicket?  •  AFP

For far too long he was "Unlucky Ishant", a bowler who came off a very long run-up, bowled his heart out for India, and beat batsmen often enough, though the wickets seemed to elude him. Around the 50-Test mark, he had the second worst bowling average ever.
Then things started to change for him - the wrist position improved, so the ball started to move laterally after it pitched, unlike earlier, where it would go bolt straight onto the bat after pitching. This also gave him the courage to bowl fuller.
Ishant now bowls a lot of balls close to full length, a length that generally gets you wickets in Tests. So it's not rocket science that his record has started improving: good luck generally follows good performances.
But this bowler who India have been extremely patient with has let the side down at a vital time. Just when Ishant has hit the form of his life, he is now not available for India's crucial series opener against South Africa in Mohali, having been suspended for bad behaviour.
One can sympathise when an absence is injury- or illness-related, but India will not have the services of its strike bowler, who happens to be in top form, because he did not behave himself on a cricket field.
You can never condone bad behaviour, but you can at least understand it if it comes in one flash of madness, which you are unable to control.
I remember in 1989 in the West Indies, being astounded when one of the best-behaved cricketers I knew, Kapil Dev, lost his cool. He was denied a wicket off what looked like an appeal for a plumb lbw and went dejected back to his bowling mark, where, without warning, he suddenly erupted, shrieking at the ground with his head down. I will never forget the shocked expressions on everyone's faces when they saw Kapil do that. For us, it was as if a monk had suddenly gone mad.
When a batsman gets out, his whole world comes crashing down on him, and he is emotionally extremely vulnerable. It's a surprise that no Sri Lankan batsman punched Ishant in the face
Now that was not the first time that Kapil had been denied a wicket that had seemed rightfully his, so it may have been just one of those things that happens to players when they are trying really hard in challenging conditions.
But Ishant, he kept going from one misdemeanour to the other in Sri Lanka. Even after being docked 65% of his match fee in the previous Test for two instances of screaming into the face of a departing batsman.
It's important to note here that when a batsman gets out, his whole world comes crashing down on him, and he is emotionally extremely vulnerable. It's a surprise that no Sri Lankan batsman punched Ishant in the face.
Remember 1981 in Melbourne, when Sunil Gavaskar's world came crashing down on him after he was given out lbw and just then something was said to him by the bowler, Dennis Lillee? Remember how Sunny lost his cool? Imagine what could have happened if Wing Commander Shahid Durrani, the Indian team manager, had not done the right thing at the time.
It's for situations like this that you need older, wiser men around a cricket team, to put some sense into the side, which is basically a bunch of excited twentysomethings.
I did some silly things as a player. An umpire sent me off the field in a Ranji game once, and he was right to do so. Sunny was as much at fault in Melbourne as was the player who instigated him at a bad time.
Not once as he took his 15 wickets in the series did Dhammika Prasad scream angrily into an Indian batsman's face. Instead he chose to join his team-mates to savour the moment with a smile. Right there, I thought, was a lesson for Ishant and India to learn.
But India may say, "We won the series, and this is what you need to be a winning team - a bit of aggression." A simple retort would be: "Why didn't aggression win you games in Australia?"
What I can't fathom about these send-offs is: when a wicket falls, it means the batsman has failed and the bowler has succeeded, but it's the bowler who is angry for some reason. Why should anger follow success?
When the anger of the victor is aimed at the vanquished, it's a brawl waiting to happen.
If the batsman has been given not out a couple of times when the bowler thinks he is out and then the bowler finally gets him out, you can understand the angst against that particular batsman, and the bowler venting his frustration. But Ishant seemed to do it for no apparent reason in Sri Lanka.
There was one instance right towards the end of the last Test that the TV cameras did not show. Prasad came out to bat in the second innings with India within arm's reach of a win. Ishant was on high, having got India back into the game with a superb spell with the second new ball, in which he picked up the big wicket of Angelo Mathews. Believe it or not, Ishant was still keen to have a go at Prasad, but Virat Kohli stopped him.
That moment told me that, one, Ishant was not willing to learn a lesson on his own, and two, that perhaps - and this is speculation - he was not talked to sternly enough by the team management for him to have dared repeat the offence.
This is where I am a bit concerned with the Virat Kohli-Ravi Shastri partnership. That the Indians are not trying to tone their behaviour down after Australia, and have got into ugly confrontations with even a team like Sri Lanka, tells me that they don't see these actions as misdemeanours at all.
Perhaps this is all part of their new brand of aggressive cricket. If that's the case, it does not make any cricketing sense at all. For this version of aggressive cricket has cost India the services of their strike bowler, a player who is in great form, in a crucial Test match.

Former India batsman Sanjay Manjrekar is a cricket commentator and presenter on TV. His Twitter feed is here