Ishant Sharma: I don’t play for numbers, I just play to win

“If we can play well and reach the Championship final and win, then, to me, it will feel the same as winning a World Cup or a Champions Trophy,” says Ishant Sharma.

‘Keep working hard on your fitness, I’m sure you’ll play longer’. That’s how I think and that’s what I’ve passed on to my team-mates as well,” says Ishant Sharma.   -  AP

Ahead of his milestone match — his 100th Test — Ishant Sharma discussed his 13-year-old journey in Test cricket in an interaction.

Can you recall the moment that defined your career?

I can’t exactly specify a highlight. Obviously when you have a career spanning 14 years — and I’ll continue playing — it’s very difficult to point one highlight that changed my career.

If you look at any sportsman’s career, the graph doesn’t remain the same — it keeps going up and down. It’s the same with me. So I can’t pinpoint at one thing that led to the graph going up, or went down.

Can you explain your journey from being a youngster who learnt a lot from Zaheer Khan early on to now leading young Indian pacers?

Obviously it feels great. I learnt a lot from Zak, especially the work ethics. He always kept on telling me how important fitness is for a fast bowler. So I always keep that in mind and that’s what I've told everyone in the team. ‘Keep working hard on your fitness, I’m sure you’ll play longer’. That’s how I think and that’s what I’ve passed on to my team-mates.

The spell to Ponting in Perth in 2008 and the Lord’s Test in 2014 are among the cherishable moments in your journey. Can you recall your memories of these two days?

When I went to Australia in 2007 I was a youngster. I just used to bowl and wasn’t thinking a lot — what to do, what not to do. Just like bowling in domestic cricket. When you play international cricket for a while, you learn about lengths, conditions and situations, and you try to adjust to that accordingly. In the Lord’s Test, there wasn’t anything special.

I always play with the motive of trying to win for the team. And as long as I play, the thing that motivates me is trying to win for the team. Obviously there will be personal milestones — when you are at the end of your career or retiring, then you can have a look at that. All these things, to be very honest, are just numbers for me. I don’t play for numbers, I just play to win. (I play) according to what the team requires and always think how I can be useful for the team in tough situations. That is the only motivation for me — help the team in tough situations, break partnerships, etc — I only concentrate on this.

Do you think that being omitted from the limited overs’ set-up has been a blessing in disguise in helping you reach the landmark?

I generally think that it is a blessing in disguise. Obviously I like to play white-ball cricket. A sportsman’s goal is to keep playing. If he doesn’t do that, all that he can do is to keep training. But I don’t think of things like that. If I’m not playing one-day cricket then it shouldn’t affect my Test cricket. At least I’m playing one format, I should be grateful about that. So I always think about doing well in whatever format I’m playing. If there are tough situations, I always believe thinking positively about it is better. You are grateful that you are performing in one format. It might be the reason I’m playing my 100th Test match but I don’t believe that if I was playing all three formats then I wouldn’t have played 100 Tests. I’m only 32, it’s not like I’m 42. Maybe I wouldn’t have played 100 Tests this soon if I had played white-ball cricket regularly. But I’m sure that considering the amount of time I’ve been playing and my fitness — the way I train and take care of my body — it (playing 100 Tests) wouldn’t have been a problem for me.

From Rahul Dravid at the start to Virat Kohli now. Who is the captain you think understood you the most?

It’s quite difficult to pick one ‘who understood me the most’. Every captain played his part. I think it was more important that rather than the captain understanding me the best, I try to understand my captain and look at what he expects from me. If that communication is very clear, then it becomes easier for you in the team. So the more time you spend in the team, on the field and speak to him, you get to know [your part] and then things become easier. So I’d say understanding the captain has made things easier for me.

READ| India vs England fourth Test: The road to World Test Championship final

Can you tell us your high point and low point of your career — and what did it teach you?

I think, you — looking from the outside — can tell better what was the low phase and what was the highlight. I’m the same, I still enjoy playing cricket the same way as I used to before. That’s why I am playing this sport — because I love this sport and not think about the highs and lows. When I say I enjoy the sport, I look at what I can do best to help my team win. I’ve always had one motive: how can I help the team win. If I was into analysing these things so much, I don’t think I would have survived in the game so long.

Was the wait for your 100th Test frustrating (due to injury)?

No. Obviously I would have loved to go to Australia and played my 100h Test there but some things are just not in your control. COVID happened, and then the injury and I couldn’t go to Australia. But the quicker you forget these things and move on in life, the better it is, and things gets simpler. This is my biggest learning in my career that if you can forgive and move on, it’s easier rather than getting stuck about your past performances. That affects your performance in the next games as well. So, I try to forget everything and move on and focus on what’s next at hand.

Since 2018, you have drastically improved on your average and strike rate. Which aspect of the skill set were you able to improve so well?

Nothing really. I just think I played too many Test matches in this period, outside India in particular, that’s why you can say I’ve taken all these wickets. In India,if you don’t bowl, how will you take wickets? Spinners rule the roost here and therefore tend to take more wickets, and when we go overseas, spinners have a different role. In India, fast bowlers have a different role. What is most important is that you understand what’s your role in particular conditions. In the last few years we’ve played more Test matches abroad. So I’ve bowled a lot and just because of that I’ve gotten all those wickets.

READ| Ishant Sharma: More than just a fast bowler

No Indian pacer besides Kapil Dev has played 100 Tests. At what point did you realise you can do this? Also, you’re only 32 — are you looking at Kapil’s 131 Tests milestone?

No, 131 is quite far, to be honest. What I have on my mind is to help India win the next Test match. I’m only focussed on how to win this series and qualify for the Test Championship. As I always say, I have just this one format to play and this [Test Championship] is like a World Cup to me. So if we can play well and reach the Championship final and win, then, to me, it will feel the same as winning a World Cup or a Champions Trophy.

Do you plan to keep bowling at 38, like Anderson?

(Laughs) 38, it’s too early to say that. I just go one game at a time. I don’t really think too forward because you never know what comes next. So it’s better to think about one game at a time. I understand my body and know what kind of training I need to do and I’m more professional regarding my recovery.

Earlier I used to train very hard but never thought about my recovery. As you grow older and bowl long spells, you need to look after yourself. So I’m looking after myself and everything paid off really well.

Playing against England — most Test wickets against them...

I don’t look at the stats. I didn’t know that I had taken most wickets against England. I just look at my preparation and the plans that we have against certain teams, we just stick to that.

Who do you think will carry forward your legacy among Indian pacers?

I can’t name anyone. Whoever plays for India is talented, and has performed well in domestic cricket and IPL. If there is someone after me who will do well, it is Jasprit Bumrah because he has to lead the way for the youngsters. How he grooms youngsters and works with them will also matter. Saini has good pace, Siraj has good control. They are all different. You can’t pinpoint one player and say that he will play for a long time. Everyone has a different skill set and different strengths. If you ask Saini to bowl in the same area all day, you won’t be doing justice to his strength. If you ask Siraj to bowl at 140+ all day, you won’t be backing his strength.

It is important to understand the strengths of each of the bowlers and their role in the team.