Ishant Sharma’s bowling figures of three for 33 on Thursday do not seem extraordinary, but they were still his best returns from an ODI for over four years.
It is tempting to extrapolate Ishant’s work against Sri Lanka in Cardiff to a recapturing of form and all the elements that made him a fine fast bowler once, but if anything, that performance has provided a little glimpse into what India has been missing from the squad’s most experienced bowler.
“I don’t feel like [the leader of the attack],” he said afterwards. “I don’t even consider myself the experienced bowler, because I have just played 59 ODIs. So we’re just helping each other out and doing work with the bowling coach.”
Ishant has been part of the National set-up for five years now, featured in over 50 Test matches, played seven ODIs more than Ashwin and a couple dozen more than Umesh Yadav or Bhuvneshwar Kumar. His remarks could have been made out of modesty, but the reality is that when he should have been the spearhead of India’s seam-bowling group, in the absence of Zaheer Khan, Ishant has not made the next step.
“Wickets are for the outsiders [to judge me by],” he said. “If I’m bowling in good rhythm and landing the ball the way I want, that’s the most important thing for me. There is support in the team and support from the captain, which is very crucial.”
It is difficult to be convinced that he is not discouraged despite no outcome to his efforts, which in themselves cannot be faulted. It is telling that the 24-year-old’s display at the Cardiff Wales Stadium felt like a happy surprise when it should have been a matter of routine.
Conditions overhead and underfoot were supportive, but Ishant did well to remove Lahiru Thirimanne and Kumar Sangakkara.
He landed it almost on a length, his height earning him better bounce than his colleagues, and moved it frequently away from the left-handers.
“I was just coming in and hitting the lengths; sometimes it just happens, but you’re not god, so you can’t pitch every single ball in the same spot,” he said.
Some hope had been induced after a bright showing in the West Indies two years ago, but Ishant tailed off again, injury perhaps a factor in the downslide. There was improvement in Australia last winter, but it wasn’t overwhelming.
A sharp Ishant is invaluable to India in the existing scheme of things. The Champions Trophy has thrown up an exciting picture, of three young seam bowlers with varying skills. Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s beginning as a swing bowler promises much, while Umesh Yadav is the sort of simple pacer India has sought for some time.
“Ishant is someone who gets a decent amount of bounce, who is tall and can have a big impact, especially in the middle-overs once the ball gets slightly old,” M.S. Dhoni said ahead of the semifinal. “I think, on and off, each and every bowler will have a few games where he’ll go for runs.
“Umesh had a bad game, and then Ishant had a bad game. So I think it’s important to keep backing the guys and also the fact that they learn a lot out of these games.”
India’s seamers may not compare favourably with their English counterparts ahead of the final at Edgbaston. But if conditions approach those at Cardiff, the former bunch may well be a handful. “If you’re bowling in good areas, no batsman can be a challenge for you,” Ishant said.
“That’s what we’ve been doing in the last five games, and we’re going to do the same thing in the final as well.”
Dhoni will hope Ishant quickly recovers the spark that once made him special, in the future beyond if not on Sunday.