He spent his childhood in the congested lanes of Ranji Nagar in west Delhi. He gained height rapidly and came to be acknowledged as someone “special.” He looked a good prospect to play basketball — tall and wiry — even though he was not athletic. He still lacks that fluent movement of the body on the cricket field. Not the best of actions but 100 Test matches to his credit. For Ishant Sharma, life on the cricket field has been a grand success story of determination and discipline. His love for Tests has helped India grow in stature — Ishant last played in a One Day International in 2016 and has not played a T20I match since 2013.
He watched the skills of his fellow players and imbibed them. His childhood coach Sharvan Kumar recalled, “He was ever-ready to punish his body, bowling long spells at the nets. I have not come across a student who would not return the ball after a few overs during practice. The ball that I gave him would be used right through the afternoon, batsman after batsman. Ishant can be the most lovable trainee for any coach.” His rise in Delhi cricket was rapid with his raw pace and ability to extract bounce. Batsmen would back away. We have seen that in first class matches — batsmen taking a step towards the square leg umpire as Ishant spat fire. “It was for real,” remembered Mithun Manhas, his first captain in Delhi.
Ishant and Virat Kohli were two names who caught the attention on the local circuit. Virat’s batting exploits matched the bowling skills of Ishant and they progressed to the State squad. It was not easy for Ishant though. Atul Wassan was the chairman of the selection committee that picked Ishant and Virat.
“It was in keeping with the Delhi cricket culture to keep the juniors waiting. Some of the selectors wanted to accommodate undeserving players and I just walked out of the meeting. I was fighting for Ishant to be picked,” said Wassan. “I have been a cricketer and I know the meaning of recognition at the right time. I am happy Ishant grabbed the chance. His work ethics and discipline have carried him this far.”
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Ishant actually grabbed that chance firmly. With a spell of 34 overs and four wickets he made an impression on everyone present at the Feroze Shah Kotla from November 23 to 25, 2006. His first-class debut, against Tamil Nadu, was a precursor to his awesome potential. He had done well on the under-19 tour to Pakistan the previous month and was rightly backed by Wassan to play the Ranji Trophy.
“He was fast,” said Tamil Nadu left-hander S. Sharath. “He was hitting the blind spot like Javagal Srinath, getting the ball to come in and he was the one wanting to preserve his energy. He bowled flat out and we were stunned by the bounce he got.” In the years to follow, Ishant, who had an effective bouncer, excelled in straightening the ball to mix it with the one that came in or went out.
Wicketkeeper Vijay Dahiya has strong memories of Ishant in the first season. “I had seen him a lot in the nets and, believe me, he looked class. His forte was the bounce he got. His ball thudded into my gloves just as Srinath’s. I also had to adjust to the late swing that he managed and it was not easy at his pace. The length that he commanded was brilliant and he has only grown in stature from that first day in Ranji Trophy.”
Among those who watched Ishant’s first-class debut was Dilip Vengsarkar, the man solely responsible for the young bowler to be fast tracked into the Indian team. Vengsarkar was the chairman of the National selection committee and had flown down to just watch Ishant. “We all knew he has the height and the pace and could be developed into a good fast bowler. That’s the reason we took him to England (in 2007). I knew he won’t get to play but he could have learnt from watching Zaheer Khan and Sreesanth. The debut against Bangladesh (a month before the England tour) was planned to make it comfortable for him. I am glad we were spot on in recognising Ishant’s potential,” said Vengsarkar.
Ishant never shirked. He would bowl tirelessly for hours in the nets, even to the tailenders. He always took his batting seriously. His batting coach, V. V. S. Laxman, was all praise. “I am most impressed by his commitment and passion. From the first time I saw him, his speed and bounce was the most noticeable factor. His fitness is amazing and he has really improved with every season. I know he loves the game so much and toils to excel for the team. It is not easy to bowl 20 overs a day right through your career.”
Laxman agrees Ishant may have sacrificed white ball cricket to stay relevant and available for Test cricket. “He has never been dejected because his focus has been red ball cricket. I have played him in matches and at nets. Believe me, he could unsettle you with his pace and bounce. Not as sharp as Srinath when he brings the ball in but he can rattle the best. Remember the spell he bowled to Ricky Ponting in Perth in 2008. Ponting was at his peak but Ishant left him embarrassed, hitting the right length to keep him guessing. His first and last ball at the nets has the same speed and intensity. Wish he had developed the yorker.”
For Laxman, it was Ishant’s batting that also stood out at times. “He took his batting seriously. He had good technique and strong defence. It came from his mental toughness. In that partnership in Mohali (against Australia in 2010) I had back spasms and he also had some muscle injury. We were 92 runs from the target and just Ishant and Pragyan Ojha as my partners. I had faith in his batting and he assured he won’t get out. I gave him strike without a worry. He contributed 31 and we won the match. Big credit to Ishant’s commitment.”
Ishant was fortunate to have been groomed by a captain like M. S. Dhoni. That he was a workhorse was well known and Dhoni exploited this quality to the hilt. Ishant was always there for the team and Dhoni knew how to use him with the new ball and the old too. Ishant’s skill to reverse the ball came in handy when Dhoni wanted to rest a spinner. Ishant was game to bowl at any stage of the match and in all conditions. He was also good at creating the scuff marks.
It is credit to Ishant’s dedication that he could withstand the rigours of international cricket for close to 15 years with the same intensity. What works for Ishant is his unpredictability. The best of batsmen are kept on toes when facing Ishant. Former India all-rounder and captain Kapil Dev said, “I am most impressed with his wrist position. He is able to set up the batsman and that is a great quality to have when playing international cricket. I can say from experience how tough it is to be where Ishant is today. He has been the strike bowler and a great asset with the old ball on lifeless pitches. Hats off!”
Some coaches advised Ishant to change his run up. They thought he ran in awkwardly. Bowled too many no-balls in the initial stages of his career. But he stuck to what Sharvan Kumar told him. “He is not a person to be swayed by praise. He comes from a middle-class background where values have been taught by the joint-family tradition. His grooming is strong and he just won’t let go the lessons learnt from the hardships of his early days in cricket. He has used his experience well. I remember he was subjected to snide remarks at the Ranji Trophy trials but I just told him to ignore them. The batsmen who passed comments at those nets session were left in awe the same season. Ishant made them hop around during the practice sessions.”
Ishant has come a long way from those days of struggle. “He uses his brains like few,” said Rajat Bhatia, who played in that debut match of Ishant at the Feroze Shah Kotla. “He has developed his wicket-taking abilities well. He has learnt to control the swing, especially the lethal inswinger. He has learnt to reverse the ball (from Zaheer). Some people say he got the India cap too early but I always thought he had the mindset of an international bowler.”
Watching Ishant play his 100th Test, Ishant’s first captain in first-class cricket, Mithun Manhas was delighted. “He learnt the finer points from Zaheer and Ashish Nehra. He has become a thinking bowler now. His longevity is a tribute to his talent and, importantly, fitness. His planning and execution is most professional because he has seen all the phases of cricket — white ball and red ball. I was his coach when he led Delhi and loved the way he showed interest in the future of the State. He is more than just a fast bowler. He is a complete cricketer for all seasons.”
Former National selection committee chairman M. S. K. Prasad has seen the best of Ishant. “For any Indian fast bowler to play 100 Tests is a phenomenal quality. With Umesh (Yadav) and (Mohammed) Shami he formed the most potent fast bowling trio. Ishant played the lead role and graduated from being a defensive to an attacking bowler. He was very good giving you breakthroughs.”
It was hardly a surprise that Ishant married Pratima Singh, who comes from a family of basketballers. Off the field, Ishant is a calm and happy-go-lucky person, and complements the humble Pratima, whose sisters Prashanti, Divya and Priyanka have all represented India in basketball. As Prashanti, an Arjuna Awardee and Padma Shri, said of Ishant, “He is a very easy person in personal life with a simple agenda of acha khana khao aur khush raho (eat good food and stay happy). He calls me dada (big brother) since I met him in 2011. I am still the dada and he is very much adored in our extended family for his behaviour and politeness.”
He is not built like a typical fast bowler — muscular and broad shouldered like most of the West Indians and the Australians. He is one of the most admired among contemporaries, an emerald green among the Indian fast bowlers, a most lovable exponent of the new and old ball. He is a rare bowler who can embarrass the batsman and the wicketkeeper with the same ball, beating them all ends, batsman with the swing and the wicketkeeper with the late swing.
Dhoni and Kohli have benefited from Ishant’s ability to hit the opposition hard. Kohli praised him profusely, “It's a great achievement in modern-day cricket. To maintain your body and play 100 Tests, it’s rare to see a pacer have such longevity these days. He could have easily prioritised white-ball cricket but full credit to him that he didn’t. A lot of people even lose their motivation. He has the skills, if he wanted he could have improved his four-over, 10-over cricket and played in the IPL regularly, or presented himself in T20s and ODIs. But he gave his full commitment to Test cricket. I couldn’t be happier for him, to play in 100 Test matches as a fast bowler is no mean feat, especially playing in our conditions where things can get so difficult. But he persevered and kept working hard.”
Kohli was right when he said, “To play 100 Tests for a fast bowler is as good as 150 Tests for a batsman.” Ishant is a stalwart of Indian cricket.
Maybe not a fast bowler in pure sense but a delightful colleague to be proud of. As Ishant once told this writer. “Nothing excites me more than the ball hitting the stumps.” He is 32 and can look forward to carrying on this business of hitting the stumps for some time now.
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