Former cricketers, his contemporaries and the media have all gone gaga over Ishant Sharma. Is he worth all the attention, the heady praise and the lofty adjectives that have been used to describe the young man and his bowling skills? You bet he is.
Over the years I have seen innumerable young cricketers hailed as messiahs only for them to falter early in their careers and fall by the wayside. Under the circumstances, I am always wary of handing out plaudits aplenty to an up and coming cricketer. I am no cynic but prefer to wait and watch before passing judgment. Ishant Sharma, however, can safely be recommended as a long-term prospect. In racing parlance, he is a stayer and not a sprinter.
Going further, I predict a very bright future and a bagful of wickets for the 19-year-tall, gangling lad from Delhi — if he is able to remain injury free. I am adding the rider only because pace bowlers are increasingly bearing the brunt of injuries of late. The examples of Ashish Nehra, Lakshmipathy Balaji, Zaheer Khan and RP Singh are too fresh in one’s mind and one can only hope that a prize catch like Ishant is able to last the course.
At this stage of his career, it would be hard for Ishant to pick and choose his matches. In his youthful exuberance and with all the success he is enjoying, Ishant would like to make the most of every opportunity that comes his way by way of Test cricket, ODIs or Twenty20. For the time being, I would suggest that he continues to play in all forms of the game, but once there are indications that today’s non-stop cricket is breaking him physically, he would be better off having a break now and then. And perhaps a visit to the MRF Pace Foundation and some time with Dennis Lillee will help too.
Like the other Sharma, Rohit who is very much the cynosure among up and coming batsmen, Ishant too does not have the kind of figures that warrants such gushing praise. In Rohit’s case, it is his approach to batting that has attracted considerable attention. It is the same with Ishant. In five Tests, he has just 12 wickets at the exorbitant rate of 45.5 apiece and a seemingly unimpressive strike rate of 76.5 with just one five-wicket haul. But anyone who has seen him bowl will realise that the figures are a misnomer and do no justice to his ability to make the ball bounce and dart off the pitch. His pace is disconcerting and the lift he can achieve can be positively unnerving as the best of Australian batsmen discovered much to their astonishment during the recently concluded Test series.
Ricky Ponting for one is still working out how to tackle Ishant. You could say he is a bit puzzled. Memories of the WACA Test when the Australian captain twice edged Ishant to the slips will undoubtedly continue to haunt one of the world’s leading batsmen. Ponting is also of the view that Ishant is one of the few right-arm fast bowlers who can bring the ball in and that makes him a difficult proposition. He is also quoted as saying Ishant has the variety that can also trouble the left-handers and compared him to Makhaya Ntini in this respect. "With the angles he creates he can be pretty dangerous against the left-handers as well and he swings the ball away from them, a bit like Ntini does,’’ said Ponting.
Ishant a picture of modesty has almost been embarrassed when asked about this. "Ponting is one of my favourite batsmen and if you get the batsman complimenting you, it feels good," he explained shyly. At the moment despite the heady success and the gushing praise he has kept his feet firmly planted on terra firma and that is a healthy sign.
If anything Ishant is giving the Aussies and the Lankans a torrid time in the CB series. ODIs are not automatically associated with raw speed. Even the fastest of bowlers are urged to cut down on pace and concentrate on line and length. But Ishant has wisely been given a free hand.
He is youthful exuberance personified as he hurls the ball down at speeds of over 150 kph. One of his deliveries has been timed at almost 153 kph making him the fastest Indian bowler of all time. Such measuring devices were not around in the days of Mohammed Nissar arguably the country’s fastest bowler ever. But it is safe to say that the legendary pioneering bowler of the 30s could not have been faster than Ishant. As much as the pace he generates, it is the inconsistent bounce that is the subject of much discussion.
Ishant is fortunate to have Dhoni’s backing. As he explains ``even after I went for 18 runs in one over (against Australia in the CB series) Dhoni told me to stick to my plans and continue to do what I had to do. I calmed down from that point."
With his physique and attitude, he brings back memories of a young Javagal Srinath who too made his mark first in Australia during the 1991-92 tour.
An injury to Munaf Patel provided Ishant an opening during India's tour of Bangladesh last year, but it was his five-wicket haul against Pakistan on a lifeless Bangalore pitch just prior to the tour of Australia that made the experts sit up and take notice. And during the current tour, he has gone from strength to strength relishing bowling on the rather helpful pitches `Down Under’. Steve Waugh has already hailed him as the next best thing in Indian cricket and one can safely say that this is not hyperbole.