With rare Perth Test hat-trick in sight, Ishant Sharma turns another corner
Ishant Sharma claimed 4/41 and will be on a hat-trick when Australia bat again. ©AFP

PERTH: Only two Indians have taken a hat-trick in Test cricket. Harbhajan Singh was the first to enter uncharted territory, in that Eden Gardens masterpiece of 2001, and Irfan Pathan followed suit five years later by winkling out Salman Butt, Younis Khan and Mohammad Yousuf in the very first over of the Karachi showdown.

Ishant Sharma is on course to gatecrash into that select group when Australia begin their second innings, possibly at some stage on Sunday, in the second Test at Perth Stadium. The strapping Delhi fast bowler put himself on the verge of a three-peat by getting rid of left-handers Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood to bring the hosts’ first innings to a sudden end on Saturday, the second day of a contest that is shaping up quite superbly.

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The 30-year-old, in his 12th year as an international cricketer, might appear as much of an unlikely candidate for that rare accomplishment as Pathan had been a dozen and a bit years back. While he is in his 89th match, he has taken a wicket only every 64.3 deliveries – or 10.4 overs.

And though his strike-rate might not necessarily preclude him from picking up a hat-trick, Ishant himself will be pleasantly surprised if he gains membership to that exclusive group. After all, his has been a career less fulfilled, the promise that he showed as a teenager on debut in 2007 still to translate itself into full-blown potential.

MATCH HOME: INDIA vs AUSTRALIA, 2nd TEST, PERTH 

For a long time, Ishant fell in the classic category of ‘Well bowled, hard luck’ that accompanied the biography of many an Indian pace bowler. His length was often his biggest enemy; while he could hit the deck all day long, he didn’t necessarily pull his length up further when the conditions so demanded, which is why for nearly the first decade of his run in international cricket, he passed the outside edge of the bat far more often than he caught it.

His best figures in Test cricket – 7/74 – came at Lord’s in 2014 when he bounced England out and bowled India to a famous win, though the home batsmen didn’t do his cause any harm whatsoever by ridiculously offering catching practice to the numerous fielders who patrolled the leg-side boundaries while Ishant banged it in short while operating from round the stumps.

The two dismissals on Saturday that have now put him on the cusp of a hat-trick are, therefore, symbolic of the strides Ishant is finally beginning to take as a versatile quick with the ability to adjust and adapt to the demands of conditions – both came off full balls that drew the batsman forward. He is still coming to grips with his flirtations with the popping crease which have cost him many a well-earned international scalp, but in getting the ball closer to the batsmen and allowing it to swing, he has finally exploded the frustrations of the followers of Indian cricket who have always wondered how, and why, Ishant has given such a long rope by successive team managements

This year alone, midway through his tenth Test, he has picked up 37 wickets, including a five-wicket haul in Birmingham  against England. He has allied penetration with economy, and has lost none of his ability to bowl long spells, no matter if there is no assistance for him off the surface and if it is a hot day. That, at 30 and with so much cricket at the highest level under his belt, he is still willing to be the workhorse and allow his younger compatriots Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami and Umesh Yadav to soak in the glory is a reflection of his singular lack of ego and the admirable trait of always putting himself behind the needs of the team, qualities that have endeared him to think-tanks.

“There is more responsibility now, when you are the senior bowler in the group,” he admitted. “I am always ready to do the tough jobs. There were seniors who did that in the past, now it is my turn.”

Ishant Sharma's bowling in England this summer was proof of his development.
Ishant Sharma’s bowling in England this summer was proof of his development. ©AFP

As opposed to a career average of 34.6, Ishant has only conceded 20.65 runs per wicket this year. His strike-rate has improved by a whopping 15 deliveries. Perhaps, it isn’t just spinners that mature with age.

In Adelaide last week, Ishant had bowled 39 excellent overs across two innings to finish with 3/95, his most memorable wicket that of Travis Head, cleaned up by a screamer that got big and kept following him, forcing him to put up a catch to gully. In Perth over the last couple of days, he has kept the ball more up to the batsmen even though the temptation to test out the bounce in a surface with considerable carry might have been great. Three of his four wickets came both with the second new ball and with balls that sucked batsmen into playing expansively off the front foot. The deviation off the track, and the swing he procured on the second morning, were trusted allies as Ishant wound the innings down with four for 41 from 20.3 probing, testing, teasing overs.

All this, while being singularly conscious of his overstepping woes which have found tremendous airtime since the Adelaide victory. Ishant deprived the team of Aaron Finch’s scalp in the second innings by transgressing the line. Subsequent painstaking probing has revealed that the umpires missed calling 16 no-balls by the quick across two innings. Sixteen no-balls? Really? That is quintessential Ishant – essentially hugely frustrating, but eventually wearing your defences down with his perseverance and endurance.

Hat-trick or not, Ishant will have to put in a big effort both in the second innings here in Perth, and in the next two matches in Melbourne and Sydney, as India chase history. If the results don’t go his way, they most certainly won’t be for want of effort. Unless, of course, in striving too hard, he leaves the popping crease behind.