Ishant Sharma 2.0

After an ankle surgery, the lanky pacer is taking baby steps towards his comeback.

For Ishant Sharma, this forced break couldn’t have come at a better time. It meant that he’d be watching his franchise play the IPL from either the National Cricket Academy or his home, located in the little vicinage of South Patel Nagar in the heart of West Delhi. He doesn’t regret it though, as the time-off from the rigours of bowling has given way to an ardent stint in introspection and study about his recent performances with the national team. The good news, however, is that Ishant, midway through his post-surgery rehabilitation has started bowling, albeit off six steps and if all goes well, is scheduled to put himself up for contention when England turn visitors this winter.

“I am not quite missing the IPL, because for me playing for the country comes first. If this injury break can help me come back better for India, I think it is worth it,” Ishant says rather assuredly when asked about this break. He adds, “I’ll take my time and ease myself into cricket. Last time, I didn’t rush myself, but this time I had two surgeries on my ankle.”

The first of which was a rather bizarre revelation, that of an extra bone in the ankle, which went unnoticed by the medical staff till the England tour, “I really didn’t know I had an extra bone in my ankle,” quips Ishant. The second of those surgeries was to tighten the ligaments up and add more flesh. “I had this ankle problem since three years and I have been playing simply because I didn’t feel the injury. I thought to myself that if I went for surgery before the Australia tour, I’d miss the series and it was a big series for me personally, like any other Indian fast bowler. It was paining in Australia, but I thought all along that it was only a niggle,” he says.

Press him further on the Australia tour, and the “unlucky” tag he subsequently acquired after decent, fruitless spells Down Under, and he reckons he was genuinely unlucky, in stark contrast to the public and media perception back home. “The way I felt about my bowling in Australia, I thought I could have taken more wickets there. I don’t think I need to complain about my bowling. I really felt I was unlucky about the wickets. For the public and the media, it’s all about results (i.e. wickets), but for me, it’s my bowling that really matters, my rhythm and importantly patience — to succeed in Test cricket, you need to be incredibly patient,” he says.

Ishant was quite the sensation in India’s previous tour to Australia, but interestingly, he reckons that he’d bowled much better this time than he did on his maiden tour there. “Believe me,” he pleads, “but I think I bowled much better this time in Australia. I knew more about my bowling, my form, what I could do with the ball, and definitely more experienced having played 40+ Tests.”

From a tactical point of view, one of Ishant’s problems in international cricket has obviously been that reluctance to pitch it up to the batsmen, which unfortunately has meant lesser wickets than he should have had by now. “Undoubtedly, I want to pitch it up and that for me or any international fast bowler is quite the mantra for picking wickets. If you’re playing at that level, and in bowling-friendly conditions, you have to pitch it up. From my side, I have been making a conscious effort to pitch it up and swing it at pace. I would definitely like to bowl a bit fuller, create more chances and take more wickets,” he says.

Another criticism that has come his way off-late is how he’s been reduced to a bowler whose inconsistency is defined by one great spell in a series, and a tapering of fortunes since then. And from a pace bowler’s perspective, that would begin with knowing what your length is. Ishant says his length, is somewhere between short and full, or good length. Hitting that length four to five out of six times would define consistency.

“For me, it’s about consistency and pace. If I keep bowling at good pace with a good rhythm, and keep picking wickets, the consistency will automatically come,” he says. He adds rather modestly, “People keep talking about that spell at Perth, but I really think I did nothing special. I just kept on bowling in great areas. I bowled one more over that day and it helped that he nicked. If I didn’t pick that wicket, would people have spoken of it as a great spell? Sometimes, my role is to build pressure and if the batsman is good enough to see me through, he should be given credit. Good luck to him.”

Ishant, not surprisingly credits Zaheer Khan for being that mentor you could not just learn from, but open up to and that partnership has only blossomed - both on and off the pitch. He says, “Zak has played a big role in my cricket career. Whatever his experience is, he shares with me, both on and off the field. I met him in Bangalore recently, and kept telling me the same things i.e. keep working on your fitness, kept reminding me about what I needed to do to get back to that level again. He’s been a great help. As long as Zak is around, I think our bowlers will only improve.”

He also points to an anecdote from England, where after Zaheer Khan broke down, the Indian bowling line-up showed signs of listlessness we’ve come to know off-late. Ishant, after a bowling a wonderful spell on Day 4, walked into the press conference and quipped about his lack of knowledge when it came to using the slope. “I was being honest by saying whatever I felt that day. In the first innings, I was bowling with the wind and with the slope and I learnt that the slope usually assists fast bowlers there (in the second innings). Zaheer would have known everything about it, but him breaking down didn’t exactly help. It’s a part of cricket and sadly, sometimes you learn things the hard way,” he says.

Has Zak spoken to Ishant about county cricket, you ask? And importantly, would he like to play a season or so at some stage of his career? Not really, says Ishant. “For me, being a part of my country’s squads is a bigger thing than playing county. I feel there’s no better place to learn more about my bowling and life than international cricket. People go to county cricket to do what? Know more about their game and their bowling. I feel I can benefit more by being with Indian squads. Also, there is less coverage of county cricket, so your performances there may not get noticed, unlike international cricket.”

The bigger picture of India’s emerging fast bowlers is something that quite excites Ishant, presumably. He reckons that this is the best time for Indian cricket as far as pace bowling is concerned. “It’s great to have good competition amongst the fast bowlers. Initially, everyone used to say that India can’t produce fast bowlers, but now you can see the number of fast bowlers that are cropping up (the likes of Umesh Yadav, Varun Aaron, Shami Ahmed and Parvinder Awana). The focus, from now on should be on building a bowling unit. Zaheer is always around to mentor the group and guide them, I have also played a lot now, so the key for me is to share my experiences too.” he says.

Ishant says he’s also keen to link up with Joe Dawes, India’s new fast bowling coach, who he briefly met at the NCA during the IPL. “Everyone says he’s a rigorous task-master,” he jokes, “but we’ve also heard that he’s a very nice coach.”

Ishant also feels hard done by when he’s labelled as a “Test specialist”. “I miss playing the limited overs format, big time. I want to play all forms of the game, ODIs and T20s also. And till date, I haven’t been told by them (selectors) about being a Test specialist. Whenever I get a chance, whichever format, I’d like to think I give more than a 100 percent for the country.”

The time-off from cricket that he’s enjoying at the moment has been a real exercise in introspection for Ishant. “I don’t see it as a complete break from the game,” he quips, before adding, “I can’t not keep thinking about my game. I keep watching my old videos, trying to look for areas I can improve on,” he says. On what he needs to do to get back to the national team, Ishant feels that discipline during the lay-off is critical to his comeback. “I need to keep doing my rehab and keep progressing. I can’t afford to be lazy and being punctual is the key. Being dropped from the Indian team, it taught me a lot about life,” he muses.

Ishant’s life-hack these days is pretty simple and somewhat philosophical. “If you get a bad day, you need to move on in life and if you can’t, there’s a hangover.” The objective, he reckons is to “keep learning and bowl well.” He also adds by saying, “Know your limitations, it makes it easier for you to do whatever you want to do. Stick to your plans, keep it simpler and stick to the basics.” The proverbial “basics” are by far the toughest to execute in any sport. And Ishant, come the near future hopes that the very execution of these basics improves as he goes along.

For now, it’s back to rehab, gymwork and gradual bowling for Ishant — a gruelling schedule that would mean a progressive upping the ante as far as intensity is concerned. He hopes to play a few games for Delhi or his corporate team to test his ankle before he puts himself up for selection, come England. Hopefully, for Indian fans, that would mean a start of something new — say, Ishant 2.0.