Ahmedabad, February 22: The press meets of MS Dhoni when he was the Indian captain were often laced with cliches, abstracts and phrases coined in his own mind. But the after-the-press-meet Dhoni was much more fun as he would often drop a line or two that would carry far more juice. Dhoni did not waver from the tradition at Lord's in 2014.
That summer day in England would not have been brighter. India had completed a comprehensive 95-run win over hosts and Ishant Sharma led from the front with a 7-74 at the Lord's. Dhoni captured the momentous occasion in rather prosaic words as scribes shot questions after questions, mostly on Ishant and the strategy to bowl short-pitched balls to English batsmen.
As he was returning to the dressing room after the press do, Dhoni dropped that customary casual remark: "Telling Ishant to bowl short (on that day) was tougher than facing your questions. He was very reluctant to do that."
That sentence, perhaps, contained the early travails of Ishant in Test cricket. There were flashes of brilliance like that tearing spell against Ricky Ponting at Perth in 2008 or a five-wicket haul against Pakistan in Bengaluru. But Ishant was not consistent. Those were the days of 'unlucky' Ishant.
The strapping Delhi speedster beat the bat a number of times followed by those 'oohs' from the slip cordon. But the wicket column seldom showed a matching tally. As Dhoni indicated, Ishant, perhaps, was struggling to execute the plans to the T then, while reminding us of the innate ability through those rare spells.
Back in 2014 Ishant had completed 50 Tests and not even came close to 200 wickets. He was supposed to fade away. But something clicked for him since 2016 onwards to the time till the second Test against England at Chepauk. He played 32 Tests in this period and his strike-rate plummeted happily to 22.91 from the mid-30s of previous years. If you take the stat from the start of 2018, when India largely played abroad, the average is 19.34, better than any current bowler including No 1 Test bowler Pat Cummins.
You can say that Ishant began to understand his craft much better than earlier, a lot more thinking into his bowling than just as a hustler who is trying to outmuscle the batsmen. He became a perfect fit in the role of a stock bowler, cutting the run flow and allowing other bowlers to prosper around him. He did not take wickets in a heap but ensured that there were no bad balls for batsmen to feed from his end. He has been dearly valued for that in the team. A captain's bowler, if you may!
"It is tough to say which captain understood me the best. It is not about the captain understanding me but it is the other way around. It is important to know what the captain wants from me, when this communication is done, it makes things a lot easier," Ishant told a virtual press conference on Monday (February 22).
"When I went to Australia in 2007-08, I was just a youngster and I was just focusing on bowling. I did not think much. I was bowling as I was doing in the domestic cricket, I just followed the same. Over the years, I learnt as a bowler by being in different situations," he said.
The learning reflected in his length too. Till about a couple of years ago, he mainly bowled back of the length but a stint with Jason Gillespie at Sussex in 2018 helped him find a new length, a lot fuller and into the knee roll of the batsmen. It has enabled him to break the barriers and become a true strike-bowler in the latter quarter of his career, evidenced by the way he harrowed Australian opener Aaron Finch in the 2018-19 series.
The development of awareness was not just about his bowling but he began to understand his body too much deeper. "I understand my body and what type of training I need to do. Right now, I have understood that as you grow older, you need to think about the recovery process as well. I am looking after myself, everything has paid off for me nicely," he said. It may appear a straightforward assessment but over the last four years, Ishant has become stronger and has been able to maintain his intensity and thereby his skill-level and potency across longer spells.
The 100 Test milestone and 300 Test wickets are tangible proofs. Imagine in the history of cricket only 10 fast bowlers have played more than 100 Tests - Kapil Dev, Glenn McGrath, Wasim Akram, Courtney Walsh, Shaun Pollock, Ian Botham, Chaminda Vaas, Stuart Broad, James Anderson and Makhaya Ntini. It is certainly not an ordinary place to be in.
But Ishant is not worried over numbers. "It feels great to be playing 100 Tests. I have always had this motive of making the team win, and till the day I play, I will play with the same motive. Personal milestones can be there, when you are about to leave your career you can see these milestones. But these are just numbers for me. I just play to win. I do not play for numbers," he said.
Yes, Ishant cannot be valued or defined by mere numbers!