Home >Mint-lounge >Business-of-life >Ishant Sharma: picking up pace

On Day 4 of India’s third Test in Sri Lanka, at the Sinhalese Sports Club Ground in Colombo, a previously unseen side of Ishant Sharma came to the fore.

In an eight-year international career, the fast bowler has carried himself both on and off the field with humility, minding his own business and staying away from the limelight. He has never been one to stare at batsmen, even during threatening spells. Even if a batsman spoke to him, he would barely utter a word, preferring to smile and go back to the top of his run-up.

But as India inched towards a historic and rare overseas Test series win in Colombo, a new Sharma took centre stage. This was someone determined to give batsmen send-offs they would not forget. When he dismissed Dinesh Chandimal, he began banging his head with his hand.

Sharma had had words with Chandimal and Sri Lanka seam bowler Dhammika Prasad during India’s second innings and was, clearly, angry.

His antics have earned him a one-Test suspension.

But Indian captain, Virat Kohli, says, “That incident happened at the right time for us because we had to bowl and they made him angry.

“He bowled 19 overs without conceding a boundary. That’s the pressure he created on their batsmen because of one incident. He bowled his heart out like he has always done when the Indian team has needed to defend scores in Test matches. An angry fast bowler is a captain’s delight."

But it was not just Sharma’s outbursts that caught the eye during the Sri Lanka tour. There have also been some changes in the way he is bowling. Through the three-Test series, which India won 2-1, Sharma bowled with a shorter run-up, generating more pace than he has in recent times. Some of the fire could be thanks to the shorter spells Kohli is giving each bowler.

But aggression is not something that can be instilled by a captain. It has to come from within, and it would seem that Sharma has plenty of it at the moment.

He has always struggled for consistency, so what was impressive about his performance in Sri Lanka was that he managed to sustain his good form through the tour. He began by gaining rhythm in a practice match at the R Premadasa Stadium in Colombo. Bowling on a green wicket to a Board President’s XI side that included four Sri Lanka Test batsmen, Sharma took five wickets for five runs in his opening four-over spell.

Then came the Galle Test, in which he bowled with immaculate control with the new and old ball. In the next Test, at the P Sara Oval, also in Colombo, he took two quick wickets with the second new ball in Sri Lanka’s first innings to turn the game in India’s favour.

In the third Test, consistency was converted to sheer hostility. On a pitch assisting fast bowlers, Sharma rattled Sri Lanka’s top order and finished with 5-54 in the first Lankan innings, before taking three key wickets in the second. “Maybe I am physically stronger now," said Sharma. “I am running in pretty good and I am happy with the way I am releasing the ball."

India’s bowling attack is far from the finished product, but with each passing match, it is beginning to look more and more capable of winning Tests. India finally seem to have a leader in both the spin and fast bowling departments. If R. Ashwin established himself as India’s go-to spinner in Sri Lanka, Sharma showed there is no doubt who the pace spearhead is.

“Experience matters when you are the leader of the attack. Other Indian pace bowlers, myself included, cannot do that job because we haven’t played as many matches as Sharma has," said Umesh Yadav, who assisted Sharma well, ahead of the Sri Lanka tour. “When the captain throws the ball at you, you have to deliver a wicket if you are in this leadership role."

Sharma himself doesn’t like being saddled with the tag of leader. But though still 27, he has been around since 2007, and India have been waiting quite a long while for him to take up the mantle.

It was during the West Indies tour in 2011 that he first gave a glimpse of the bowler he could be, taking 22 wickets in the three-match Test series. That was the last time India had won an overseas Test series before their victory in Sri Lanka. It is probably no coincidence that Sharma performed well in both series.

Last year was an important one for him. India played away Test series in South Africa, New Zealand, England and Australia, and he was expected to lead the Indian attack in conditions suited to fast bowling. On the England and Australia tours, in the absence of Zaheer Khan, he was the most experienced seamer India had.

Since the beginning of the South Africa tour, Sharma has taken 56 wickets in 14 Tests at an average of 32.69. Since February 2014, he has taken more five-wicket hauls than any other fast bowler, ahead of the likes of James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Dale Steyn.

These figures are significantly more favourable than Sharma’s career statistics. Though he has now taken 200 wickets, only the fourth Indian pace bowler to do so, they have come at almost 37 runs per wicket, a figure that does not suggest a leader of the attack. But in the past year, Sharma has shown glimpses of turning his potential into consistent performances, and the series against Sri Lanka could be the dawn of a new phase in his career.

“He came on to the scene with a lot of potential. But Ishant has taken a long time to mature," says Chaminda Vaas, a former Sri Lanka fast bowler. “Playing in the subcontinent can be tough for any fast bowler, and you have to show patience and perseverance. Consistency and accuracy are key, and Ishant has to use that over the next couple of years to be a really great bowler for India."

One series doesn’t a season make. Even so, it is clear that India will depend heavily on him in the foreseeable future, and he may even join the elite club of those who have played 100 Tests. He is no longer the young kid—he has played 65 Tests and is a senior player in this young team.

So far, Sharma’s journey has been sprinkled with the odd spectacular performance. But the manner in which he bowled in three Tests here in Sri Lanka offers hope that he might finally be hitting his straps as the lead bowler.

Chetan Narula is the author of Skipper: A Definitive Account Of India’s Greatest Captains.

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