Match Analysis

Ishant Sharma, exorcising one ghost at a time

Ninety-one Tests is a long time, but Ishant now has the control over his craft that observers were desperate to see team up with his unrelenting spirit

Sidharth Monga
Sidharth Monga
Ishant Sharma erupts after completing his five-for, West Indies v India, 1st Test, North Sound, 2nd day, August 23, 2019

Ishant Sharma erupts after completing his five-for  •  AFP

Admit it. You have all made fun of Ishant Sharma at some point or other. Of the faces he makes, of the croaky voice, of the hair, of the era of the "unlucky Ishant", of the return catches dropped because he had hair in his eyes, of the things he says that are caught on the stump mic, of his being the slowest to a few landmarks. He is Alastair Cook's only wicket, caught down the leg side to an absolute pie. Moments after his greatest hour - the seven-for to seal a win at Lord's in 2014 - his captain said he had to practically force a reluctant Ishant to bowl the bouncers that got him his wickets.
You get the picture. Ishant is the awkward misfit used mostly to do the dirty work - hold one end up, bowl tirelessly on tracks where other more illustrious bowlers suddenly pull their hamstrings, take some blows when batting - but never in the spotlight. His team-mates value him, of course, but in a way that can appear patronising to an outside eye.
Not to say that it is patronising. Not to anyone who has batted alongside Ishant. Virat Kohli will, of course, remember his first Test hundred, in Adelaide, one that almost didn't happen because of the cavalier attitude of Zaheer Khan when the youngster was on 91. It was Ishant, the No. 10, who saw Kohli through to the hundred that told him he belonged in Test cricket when many were waiting for him to be dropped. Since Ishant's debut, only James Anderson has faced more balls at Nos. 10 and 11, and yet Ishant has had to often come out to bat after the likes of Zaheer and Mohammed Shami.
Living well is the best revenge, and Ishant is making up for all those years of ridicule. And he is doing it through precisely that: living well. Unlike India's other Test specialists, he is at peace with playing only Tests. Apart from the better fitness, it is perhaps this clarity that has been the biggest change for him as a bowler. He doesn't have to adjust the lengths he has to bowl as often as multi-format bowlers have to. He is not chasing wickets, but just bowling enough good balls and cutting out bad balls. It has taken him a while but now he knows that if he keeps doing enough of that, those days with bagsful of wickets will keep visiting him.
One of Ishant's great all-round days, though, began with the typically obdurate batting. He knew the pitch was flattening out, and that if the team didn't add many to the 207 for 7 at his entry, the bowlers were looking at a hard day of toil in the field. Ishant dug in, put a premium on his wicket, kept getting behind the line of the ball, kept refusing to follow the away movement and kept keeping out the ones that came in. Not once did Ravindra Jadeja have to think of farming the strike or shielding his partner from any bowler.
After a partnership of 19.1 overs, Ishant walked off a bitterly disappointed man, having played on a slower full toss. He hugged his bat in disbelief - both funny to watch and a reminder of how much he values all his contributions on a cricket field.
That each of these runs was crucial was evident from how every West Indies batsman managed to get a start. The flashy John Campbell could hit through the line and send Ishant out of the attack; none of the dismissed non-tailenders faced fewer than 27 balls. Only once did a wicket bring another quick one. The pitch was so reliable that moments before he got out, Shimron Hetmyer could lean back and guide with an open face a short-of-a-length ball between the two slips and gully, all along the ground, for a four.
India had batted in the worst conditions, and were now at a risk of letting West Indies establish a hold in the match when batting in possibly the best conditions in the Test. It was in these conditions that Ishant snatched a five-for. That is a wicket every 16 balls without much help from the pitch.
Two of these were return catches, exorcising the ghosts of his hair in his eyes and the consequently dropped return catch on the 2011-12 tour of Australia. Even Jadeja, India's best fielder, was in awe. "To bowl that many overs in this heat and humidity, and then to take those catches, it completely turned the game our way," Jadeja said at the press conference.
The third was a chip to short midwicket, a plan that he executed expertly to get Roston Chase out. Immediately Ishant started to point at his captain in celebration with a told-you-so look on his face. These wickets were not conventional, and not an accident either.
For his other two wickets, Ishant made expert use of the cross-seam delivery, which for some reason left the right-hand batsmen and left them late, almost after pitching. Ninety-one Tests is a long time, but Ishant now has the control over his craft that observers were desperate to see team up with his unrelenting spirit. Ishant is a late bloomer, but like late bloomers, he is making the most of this period in his cricket, along the way exorcising one ghost at a time.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo