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Cricket news - The Ishant reboot
Ishant Sharma was up and about on the balcony of the away dressing room at Grace Road in Leicester, eager to get his county stint underway. It was a nippy enough mid-April morning in the East Midlands to buoy Sussex's new fast-bowling acquisition, even though his team had elected to bat first in their County Championship opener.
Ishant wound up on the seat next to head coach Jason Gillespie with a cup of coffee, beginning the first of many engrossing balcony conversations that would start with hairstyle barbs and then swiftly turn into a fast bowling problem-solving exercise that would validate the former Australian quick's decision to sign an "Indian Star" for a county stint.
"He would look at county batsmen he may have never seen before and see how they grip the bat - which would give him an indication of if he is a top hand player or a bottom hand player," Gillespie tells Cricbuzz. "He would study how their backlift go - which gives you an idea of the sort of shots they are looking to play and open the possible opportunities of taking wickets.
"He would look at their pre-ball leg movements that sort of give an insight into the sort of areas they are looking to score. He observed, he listened, he asked a lot of questions of his teammates and the opposition, and he did a lot of it himself. He was an absolute professional at Sussex. Everyone loved having him there."
That summer of 2018 hadn't begun with such universal affection for Ishant. He had finished the South Africa tour with the best economy rate (2.17) but only the eighth-best strike rate (51.75) - returns befitting a bonafide Test match workhorse.
Nobody at the IPL auction was paying attention to how he had outsmarted a well-set Hashim Amla with an attacking leg side field, opening the door for India's famous win in Johannesburg. A decade on since becoming the most expensive signing (bowler) in the league, he'd gone unsold.
It was a big ego hit to an active India cricketer, establishing his one-format status, but one that opened his calendar up for an unexpected trip up to Brighton and Hove. Ishant headed to the South East coast of England with one steely resolve - to further his craft and banish some perceptions along the way.
Between 2007 and 2014, Ishant Sharma took 187 Test wickets at an average of 37.30 from 61 Test matches. These numbers coupled with a propensity to slip his inswinger far too down the leg side, the unkempt flowing hair that appeared to shroud his vision on delivery, the awkward landing on the follow through, had turned him into one of the earliest cricketing subjects of a fast-growing meme revolution. Even in the eyes of the less critical, Ishant was 'lucky' to have played the number of Tests he had.
Some others, including Gillespie, a self-confessed Ishant fan, silently hummed the "unlucky Ishant" tune. Ishant may have gone through good spells unrewarded, but that didn't bring any discernible dip to his efforts. He played each of India's eight Test defeats across England and Australia in 2011-12 even as his peers pulled hamstrings or faded away. Whatever the situation, he was willing to bowl that extra over, in the nets or in the final session of the day's play, many times without any statistical validation
How Ishant fares under Dhoni & Kohli
He has always been unflagging in his spirit, but Ishant, a veteran of more than 80 Tests, caught Gillespie offguard with his steadfastness to improve, even if it meant having to bowl eight-over marathons at five-degrees in a pre-season warm-up game.
"The first big thing that stood out for me when he arrived... even though he has played a lot of international cricket, he's played all around the world, he had this real desire to improve and learn," Gillespie says. "Ishant's biggest asset is his openness to have conversations about how to be better. Because you can get players who have played a lot of cricket and they feel they know it all, but Ishant was opposite," Gillespie remembers.
With a pupil already willing to go to any lengths, Gillespie simply began by nudging Ishant into the merits of going fuller. Instead of aiming for the top of off-stump, the batsman's knee-roll was the re-calibrated bull's eye to target with the choice of length. For much of his career, Ishant camped at short of good length, just like Javagal Srinath, the Indian fast bowler of the 90s who sparked several episodes of 'what if he'd bowled just a little fuller'.
The low-bouncing nature of the subcontinent wickets lulls bowlers into a false idea of lengths as even the natural back-of-length deliveries could go on to hit the stumps. When India travelled to SENA countries, these same balls would sail comfortable over the stumps, allowing batsmen to leave them on the bounce, even if the line of attack remained accurate. MS Dhoni, of course, turned often to this quality of Ishant to plug one end up while his other fast bowlers sprayed the ball around, leading, in a sense, to Ishant's 'defensive' and 'workhorse' tags.
In away Tests
The length was the obvious quick fix but Ishant was after more from Gillespie in order to turn himself into a complete Test match bowler, capable of both attack and defense. With two impressive fast bowling partners in Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami to bowl alongside, Ishant no longer had to just bowl obdurate spells and wait for a batsman to err. This obviously required some bio-mechanical tweaks at ball release.
"His main delivery is the one that swings back to the right hander, but what he wanted to do, to the right handers particularly, was he wanted a delivery that looked like it was going to swing in to the batsman but actually held its line and went through to the keeper," Gillespie remembers. "Ishant wanted to draw the batsman into a shot and bring the keeper and slip fielders into play" he says, unknowingly, but succinctly describing the successive dismissals of Jonny Bairstow and Jos Buttler at that summer's Test at Edgbaston.
"We adjusted his grip, the position of the ball in his hand and his release positions at the point of delivery, where his wrist and fingers were. He tried a couple of different things until we found that if he held the ball a certain way, it went straight on - it was just his wrist position at ball release. His fingers were pointing towards fine leg and his wrist was shaping towards fine leg as well. We adjusted that to get that going down the pitch as opposed to fine leg.
"We got him to stay nice and tall at the crease and following through straight down the pitch and not going off the pitch too early in his follow through and that allowed everything to flow towards the batsman. That's where I think he made his biggest improvement and that was all on Ishant - it was a lot of hardwork, he spent hours and hours in the nets just perfecting that one delivery," Gillespie adds.
It may have been just one type of delivery, but it opened multiple avenues of attack for Ishant, more so against the left-handers, who have found him unplayable from round the wicket. "He felt he was taking the LBW away from them from over the wicket. By coming around the wicket, if he got quite close to the stumps, he was angling it in and then naturally swinging it away to the slips. It committed the leftie to play. If they left and left and left, he bowled the one that didn't swing and that brought LBWs and Bowleds into play," Gillespie gushes.
Test record in matches featuring all three of Bumrah, Shami, and Ishant
It is no co-incidence that Ishant's career peaked into overdrive in the following months. Since the start of 2018, he has 52 wickets at an average of 19.78 and takes a wicket every 44.3 deliveries, numbers that can be stacked proudly alongside those of Bumrah (62 wickets at 19.24 and 43.73 SR), who broke through straightaway into a fab-four of Test bowlers, alongside Pat Cummins, Jofra Archer and Kagiso Rabada.
Gillespie is convinced that Ishant would continue to thrive even upon return to the the less conducive surfaces of the sub-continent, even with Bumrah ruled out. Ishant now has an alternative leg trap on flatter Indian wickets, a course-corrected strategy Gillespie & Co. used to great effect during the series win of 2004. Ishant now has also added a surprise bouncer to his arsenal, the kind of which dismissed a well-set Travis Head on the final day of the Adelaide Test.
"The key to bowling in India is getting your legside field right, a lot of players in the subcontinent feel they can score freely through the leg side if bowlers bowl at the stump," Gillespie says. "It's what we discussed, something that Ishant does very well. He looks to attack that middle and off-stump at all time, because of his natural angle in.
"If you get the field right - he'll have a catching mid-wicket, a square leg pushed back to the fence as well as a fine-leg. He will attack the stumps and that gives him a bouncer option as well. He will be just fine in India," says Gillespie.
There is a reason why India aren't sweating the loss of Bumrah to injury just yet. It is because they have a battle-hardened veteran in their balcony, whose epithets, hairstyle and that misstep on the follow-through no longer elicit sniggers.
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