Well, the hair is almost back. Almost back to the days when that cross between a mullet and a mere sneer towards the fraternity of hairdressers flew in the wake of his flowing bowling action. But so far, only the hair is back, not the bowling. In fact, he looks positively jaded. He could be tired, overworked, out of rhythm, off his game and any other possible prognosis that can be conjured up, but observing him, the only word that comes to mind is jaded. Jaded in his eyes, jaded in those shoulders and jaded in his gait and demeanor. In the blink of an eye, Ishant Sharma went from being the great Indian fast bowling hope to its latest casualty seamlessly. And right now, his bowling is just as seamless off the pitch. It is not just the hair, but he is quite unrecognizable from his brief stint as India’s hope for the future.
Well, has it happened again?
Sit back for a minute and ponder the reality of every Indian fast bowler hitting the skids like clockwork a year or two after an impressive initial showing. Zaheer Khan, Ashish Nehra, Irfan Pathan, R.P Singh, Sreesanth and Munaf Patel have all graced us with cycles of euphoria, downslides, banishings and the egregious comebacks during their careers now. Multiple callbacks and reinstatements in many of the cases, for the cycle to only start all over again. But as analyses of India’s batting woes and riches dominate the airwaves and print incessantly, the urgency of looking at the bowling picture tends to fall by the wayside. And Ishant right now stands as the perfect embodiment of that urgency which needs attention.
It is an urgency warranted by the changing dynamics of the Indian team’s batting and bowling picture for the years to come. Good teams grow a backbone over time that permits them to remain upright and steel themselves even as they are teetering under an assault by their opponents. A backbone of character, ability and willingness to fight that is necessary to sustain performance. India has been veritably blessed in this regard over the last decade and a bit. The four inimitable batsmen and the giant of a bowler who bolstered up the team’s torso during this period packed a pedigree and punch that teams can only dream about. Blessed was the Indian team really for the largesse of character and fortitude – not to mention ability – which they collectively walked in with and it is not something that will recur anytime soon. But time doth run out and the giants are staring into their twilights or have begun to walk into them. And they will leave a disconcerting picture behind.
All the hubris stemming from recent wins aside, it is imperative to realize that the long term prognosis on the possibility of the next lot sprouting a similar spine isn’t very encouraging. There is a lot of flab, muscle and puppy fat giving the illusory appearance of rosy health, but the frame is extremely fragile. Its propensity to run the distance and take the hits is very questionable to put it mildly. When the remaining stalwarts depart – as they will in the near future – the picture will look alarming all of a sudden, apart from the captain and the two openers. This illusion is bound to give soon. A scrutiny of the batting has to wait for another day, but the bowling picture it can be argued is far more worrisome right now.
Let us just face up to the pace bowling picture for now then: Zaheer is all venom, glares and bombast one day, and the next, he is recuperating from another niggle to an anatomical part he discovered overnight. RP Singh looks like he is irritated to be made to toil out in the middle and appears to be in a rush to be somewhere else all the time. Pathan saw visions of the halo of Kapil Dev over himself long before it was any good for his own sanity. Nehra looks like he might once again wander off aimlessly with his head rolling around, smiling in that dopey way of his. Sreesanth, we can only hope, spent his forced hiatus slapping himself silly, trying to drill some sense and sensibility into his immature head. And Munaf, his long legs intertwined like DNA strands, stumbles from one comical on-field fiasco to the next, looking like he doesn’t give a sod about the match situation.
The only one we are left with then is Ishant. And he is the only one we can be left with in five years time given his date of birth. And Indian cricket needs to realize really quickly that he is a good one to be left with.
When he was thrust into action against Pakistan on the supine tracks of India in 2007 and later on in Australia, the strapping lad with the retro locks had impressed. It wasn’t just the raw pace he was bowling at that caught the eye, but the manner in which he sustained the pressure on the batsmen. The line was probing, a la Glenn McGrath; the length manipulated adroitly like Curtly Ambrose – ergo, all the signs were good. He had absorbed well from the masters it appeared. Sound in his basics, well rounded in overall skills and possessing pace that promised to egg the speed gun upwards as he settled into his rhythm in international cricket, he was a prospect that excited. “Who is this guy?” we had all asked each other in amazement.
Why, all we have to do is ask Ricky Ponting. Ask him about that spell at Perth in 2008, just to remind ourselves what has been lost. Punter has been at the receiving end of two of the most riveting spells of fast bowling in recent times: Andrew Flintoff’s blistering over to him at Edgbaston in 2005 and Ishant’s at Perth in 2008. And the great man was felled dramatically in both instances, the only difference being that Ishant’s spell to him was an extended one. A sustained one in its ferocity and relentlessness. But Ponting was nailed emphatically that day in that famous over initiated by Anil Kumble’s query to Ishant: “Ek aur over karega?” But if nostalgia is all that is evoked by memories of that spell in Perth, India stands to lose a lot. Nothing will be served by wistful reminiscence of the sustained fist-clenching excitement Ishant had incited as we watched Ponting doubled over like a pair of pants hung up in a closet.
As we now watch Ishant bowl his two over spells for the Kolkata Knight Riders in the 2010 edition of the IPL, one fact is evident. The fixtures lined up for the Indian team for the year 2010 do not augur well from a standpoint of any bowler planning on rediscovering his misplaced rhythm. Between the IPL, the T20 World Cup that follows it and the mélange of ODIs to follow, it begs the question as to how a bowler like Ishant is expected to regain his composure. For he is not a surgical strike bowler of the Akhtar-Lee-Tait ilk now. Rhythm and variations are his forte and he will end up as just a footnote in every scorecard lest he wrests back all that has been eluding him. Expecting him to get back into the groove in those blink-of-an-eye spells in the cauldrons of the IPL and the T20 World Cup is foolhardy. At this point, the lad is desperately in need of a cooling off period away from the public eye, one where he can be allowed to slowly and gradually bowl himself into a steady stream of improvement that can be sustained.
The way he was deployed in recent times doesn’t bode well either. Turning half an ear to all the vociferous hand-wringing going on about his lack of penetration and incisiveness, the selectors employed the strategy of resting him for the odd ODI here and there. We see him sitting with his mates occasionally on the sidelines, “resting” and contemplating. And when he plays, post match interviews and press conferences have the inevitable comments from Dhoni and his team mates expressing their confidence in Ishant’s ability to bounce back. And therein lies the rub. There has been no downtime in Ishant’s life for a couple of years now and as his shoulders droop lower and the steady 145 kph speed gun readings he used to register become distant memories, it is imperative that the Indian team comes to the realization that in their own interest, he is an asset that needs some handling and mollycoddling. And right now, the timing is perfect to set some remedial steps in motion.
The IPL is well underway and there is no purpose in fretting about his performances with the Knight Riders. But when it has passed, it is critical to take him out of the picture for the T20 World Cup. Surely, the team can manage that hit-and-miss event without him? And there is absolutely zilch to be gained by packing him off to Sri Lanka to break his back and his confidence any further in the inexplicable return series that has suddenly materialized.
What would be more prudent is to line up a stint at an English county for him for the summer. Even a minor county, for that matter. Think back to the careers of the two successful fast bowlers India produced in recent times – Javagal Srinath and Zaheer Khan – and remember that their extended stints with Gloucestershire and Worcestershire (respectively) were precisely their defining moments, when things fell into place technically for them. It is even more of an ideal proposition for Ishant given his bowling style. A summer spent on the seaming pitches and swinging conditions in England would be a tailor-made situation for him to work away at all that seems awry right now – his shoulders, wrist positioning and variations in length. The payoffs from this will far outweigh any short term adjustments the team will need to make to deal with his absence. And the returns will come in time for the South Africa series later in the year which leads straight into the World Cup in 2011.
As the Indian team heads off to the Caribbean for the next T20 jamboree, and he awaits the start of the English season, Indian cricket would be even better served by reserving a room for him at the MRF Pace Academy in Chennai. And an extended appointment far away from the public eye with the professor, Dennis Lillee. And while he is there, if he pulls an Oliver Twist, a la Kapil Dev, and asks for the extra roti, just hand it to him please.
He looks like he needs it too.