Since the ominous day Zaheer Khan hobbled off the ground at Lord’s, Ishant Sharma (above) has managed a mere 25 wickets in 13 Tests at 63.88 with an atrocious strike rate of 115.20 © Getty Images
Ishant Sharma stands fourth among the Indian pace bowlers in history in terms of Test matches played and number of wickets taken. Arunabha Sengupta finds it baffling that he is not eager to don the mantle of the leader of the pack.
India has never been the breeding ground for fire-breathing fast bowlers. Talented and durable pacemen have come rarely, and seldom have sides been armed with the firepower to blast the opposition out on the quick foreign pitches.
Of course, we can endlessly speculate about the figures of Mohammad Nissar and Amar Singh had they been born in eras that witnessed more frequent Test matches. But, when the cold hard numbers are tested against the dispassionate background of time, only three names manifest themselves with claims of being of all-time greats.
Leading the way, standing head and shoulders above the rest is the legendary figure of Kapil Dev with 434 wickets in 131 Tests. He is followed by the hardened Zaheer Khan with 295 wickets from 88. After them comes tearing in that ever-striving soldier of Indian cricket who perhaps never got his due from the cricketing community, Javagal Srinath with 236 wickets from 67 Test matches.
Running in to bowl following their giant footsteps, both in terms of matches played and wickets taken, we find the youthful Ishant Sharma. The five and a half years that he has played for India has resulted in 47 Tests and 137 wickets.
Seen in this context, it is extremely surprising to hear Ishant saying: “I don’t think I am the senior fast bowler in the team because everyone is of a similar age, though I have played more matches and I have played with other boys as well.”
Not ready to be a leader?
Age, that timeless foe that dogs fast men with relentless purpose, has now caught up with Zaheer Khan. He is no longer a regular spearhead of the Indian attack.His form has been under constant scrutiny since he limped off clutching his hamstring during the disastrous English summer of 2011.
None of the other names discussed in the plans of the fast-bowling future have yet played 10 Tests. Compared to the Umesh Yadavs, Varun Aarons and the others, Ishant’s experience seems immense. Common sense dictates that an experienced player of 47 Tests is the ideal figure to mentor and nurture the young crop. However, Ishant’s unwillingness to be branded as the leader of the lot is a matter of concern.
He has said that right now there are plenty of bowlers in the same age-group. Yes, Ishant himself is just 24. However, when has age overridden experience in cricket?
By the time Kapil had played five and a half seasons, he was also just 24. By that time he had already been hailed as one of the best all-rounders of his era. He had been for several years the undisputed head of the Indian pace attack which started and stopped with him. He had already led India in Tests, and had also lifted the Prudential World Cup. Karsan Ghavri, Madan Lal and Balwinder Singh Sandhu were all considerably older than him and had shared the new ball with the “Haryana Hurricane”, but there was no doubt about who the senior partner was.
When Srinath entered his fifth season as a pace bowler, he had already led the attack in England in 1996, and had bowled India to a thrilling win at Ahmedabad against South Africa. And, since his career had taken off late, due to the rather protracted last phase of Kapil Dev, Srinath had played just about 20 Tests in that period. Yet, it did not stop him from charging in with the new ball, assuming full leadership of the Indian pace attack.
Zaheer had not enjoyed as much success in his first five years, but he has not shrugged off the responsibility either. With Srinath no longer around, he had taken up the role of senior bowler, and had matured within the next two years into a phenomenal match winner.
||After 47 Tests
||Leader of the pack?
||“I don’t think I am.”
Seen against the backdrop of these three exemplary men, Ishant’s comment does drop dangerous hints of refusing to assume responsibility. Apart from the Test matches, Ishant has also played 53 One-Day Internationals for India – making his overall appearances for the country exactly 100 in these two formats. If we take Twenty 20 Internationals into account, the figure reaches 173. If that is not enough, no amount of future experience is likely to prepare him for the task.
Ishant’s average and strike-rate in Test cricket is not exactly brilliant, but neither was Zaheer Khan’s at this stage of his career. The transition from promise to delivery can be achieved with the right sort of attitude. Kapil Dev had plenty of it, as did Srinath and Zaheer. However, in that respect Ishant’s hesitation is ominous.
We can find the reflection of this attitude in his performance as well. As long as Zaheer Khan was the undisputed leader of the attack and Ishant performed his role as a junior bowler, his figures had been impressive. He had shown great promise, picking up 112 wickets in 34 Tests at 32.60 at a reasonable strike rate of 57.
Since the ominous day Zaheer hobbled off the ground at Lord’s, Ishant has managed a mere 25 wickets in 13 Tests at 63.88 with an atrocious strike rate of 115.20.
Going by the numbers or by Ishan’s own words, there are discouraging signs that the big hope of Indian pace bowling is not comfortable bearing the mantle of the leader of the pack.
|Before Lord’s 2011
|Since Lord’s 2011
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)