He is only 26. It feels like he has been around for a decade – which is not entirely untrue. He made his debut at age 18, and has already played 64 tests by now. He is closing in on 200 wickets, when many of his 70-test contemporaries are closing in on 300 wickets; he’s an Indian bowler who has done a vast majority of his bowling in the subcontinent, which sort of reflects in the stats. But any international bowler would take it if they were offered 200 wickets at age 26. And to think, he probably has his best years ahead of him. His average of 38 is looked at as – both – a fact and fiction. Sometimes, he is so bad that 38 is too high, but at times, like in this Sri Lanka series, he has been so good and so relentless, that you wonder how he averages 38. Where were the wickets?
Ishant Sharma has also been perhaps the most parodied and mocked Indian player over the last five years – for his shaggy hair, his tone-dead voice, his ‘length’ slow-over bowling, his brainless no-balls and his awkward gait. Tall and lanky, there are times when viewers wonder if he has anything else going for him other than his height. He can achieve bounce, which is perhaps far more useful in the 5-day game, but he can’t swing the ball. He has only just discovered the benefits of consistent seam bowling, and bowling to a plan. But time after time, he finds himself in the first team, and once again, he is the lead pace bowler in India. He is the one constant in the side, and even though he hasn’t been part of India’s limited over scheme of things consistently (only 76 ODIs and 107 wickets), Ishant is the bowler India has repeatedly needed, but perhaps not the strike bowler they’ve deserved.
Ishant Sharma is currently the senior-most player in the Indian team. He isn’t India’s best bowler – he never has been – but there have been spells when he has been the greatest bowler in the world. Think the working down of Ricky Ponting at Perth and in India, short bursts that will forever remain in the memories of purists, and bursts in South Africa and Sri Lanka, on pitches that have assisted bowlers far less than he makes it seem like. He isn’t even the highest wicket taker in the series – Dhammika Prasad has out-bowled him as a fast bowler – but Ishant Sharma has once again played a pivotal role to change the landscape of Indian cricket. He is like that quiet uncle at every family gathering, who has always been there to witness major outbursts, meltdowns and celebrations – an integral and invisible part of a journey that has shaped a generation. Think of India’s most famous modern victories; the Lords Test where Ishant was ordered to ‘bounce’ the English batsmen out (eventually taking 7 wickets), or the 2013 Champions Trophy final against England where he almost lost India the 20-over game with some wayward no-balls and length bowling, before, against the run of play, he snatched consecutive wickets of Eoin Morgan and Ravi Bopara in identical fashion. Think SSC (Colombo) in 2015, where, as we speak, he is sledging every Sri Lankan batsman after taking a fifer in the first innings, and is bowling with his tail up (and voice in tact, which could definitely merit a hefty fine) to terrorize the Lankan top order. Think his five-wicket burst for the Deccan Chargers with Dale Steyn in the same side, or his ’07 Bangalore spell against Australia, where he was luckless, but still managed 5 crucial wickets, or the victorious 2008 Test series against Australiaat home, where he was Man of the Series on the hot, humid, flat Indian pitches, or even the Mohali 2010 test, where he partnered maestro VVS Laxman with the bat to take his team home in a nail-biting chase.
Sharma has often been termed as India’s most luckless bowler, but in reality, he has never really bowled for wickets. He has been a rhythm bowler, and has bowled fast and straight for long periods, more intent on working up batsmen so that they give away their wickets to slower bowlers. In football terms, he provides the final ‘assist’ for many great goals that India have scored, and therefore does not always find his name up on the scoreboard.
A stat that may annoy him the most is the fact that out of his six 5-wicket hauls in tests, India has only won 1 of those tests (Lords). They have drawn the other 4, and lost 1, which shows that perhaps his spells haven’t quite defined or broken matches. That could change now, with him being the only assured place in a side that has been rotating bowlers faster than Shahid Afridi announces retirements.
He is only 26, but he could be bowling for years more to come – which could be, both, Indian fans’ most frustrating and most exhilarating experiences.