For much of his career, Ishant Sharma’s habit was to run in hard, tirelessly, pitch it short of a length, beat the batsman, and not get a wicket as often as top bowlers are expected to. And for much of his career, fans would watch the lanky fast bowler do all that and habitually call him unlucky or simply not good enough.
Habits are essentially tricks that help us get through our day. When we are doing something that is habitual, we are not engaged in the task in the same way as when we are doing something that is not habitual. It is a bit like running on auto-pilot.
And to get through a day of Test cricket, Ishant would habitually pitch it short of length and, as demanded by his skipper MS Dhoni, try to not concede too many runs. It was his natural length… it was his habit or so it seemed to all of us.
Now, that style of bowling led to him playing his first 70 Tests and taking wickets at an average of 37.05. It was an average poor enough to make most people wonder why he was still playing for India. Surely, a player of his experience needed to be taking more wickets.
But as he gets ready to play his 100th Test, those questions… and those habits have simply faded away. In a transformation that can only be described as remarkable, Ishant has gone from being a defensive workhorse to becoming an attacking spearhead at a point in his career when fast bowlers usually start to fade.
In his last 29 Tests, he has taken 97 wickets at an average of 22.00. If he had put up these numbers at the start of his career, he would have been hailed as a wonder of world cricket. But instead, he has somehow conjured up what can only be described as one of the greatest second winds in the game.
A lot has been said about how Ishant went about changing himself during his county cricket stint. Former Australian paceman Jason Gillespie gave him the solution he has been looking for all along.
“A lot of people would tell me that I need to increase the pace of my fuller deliveries,” Ishant once said “No one told me how to do that. When I went to play county cricket, Jason Gillespie told me the solution.”
He added: “Gillespie told me that in order to increase the pace of my fuller deliveries, you don’t just release it but hit the deck so that it should hit the knee roll. Earlier, I would put cones during nets. That’s okay for a youngster who wants to get his area right. But for someone like me, I need to see where my ball is finishing rather than where it’s pitched.”
According to Charles Duhigg, the author of The Power of Habit, to Duhigg, research shows that rather than “breaking” bad habits, you should attempt to transform them into better ones. And that is exactly what Ishant did. He transformed.
“Any habit can be diagnosed and shifted,” Duhigg said. “You need to give yourself time to really figure out the cues and rewards that are driving that behavior — and oftentimes the only way… is through a process of experimentation.”
Ishant also went looking for this change because the new captain Virat Kohli demanded it. While Dhoni could sometimes adopt a ‘wait and see’ approach in Tests, Kohli would almost never do that. He wanted to attack and that is when Ishant realised that his old approach would not work. If he didn’t change, he wouldn’t play.
“From the beginning, people started calling me ‘workhorse’,” Ishant said. “So seniors at that time would tell me that you need to bowl 20 overs, if you even give 60 runs, you will still end up getting three wickets.”
In essence, he had held himself back all these years. But Kohli wanted to win, he wanted 20 wickets and that meant every bowler in the playing XI had to attack. The change wasn’t instant – it took him almost two years to find his attacking instincts again.
But once he did, he was hard to stop. The numbers in the second half of his career show that Ishant was the strike bowler India always had but just didn’t use.
James Anderson is one other current great who has managed to keep getting better through his career, Ishant Sharma is the other.
Anderson’s average after 50 Tests was 32.08 – he has now improved it to 26.49 (after 158 Tests). It has taken him 100 Tests to slowly but surely improve his numbers. Ishant’s change is more abrupt, more unexpected because few thought it was possible for him to even attempt this. To most, he was wasted potential.
But then, all Ishant needed was a prod in the right direction. Once he found the right path, he also found the bowler who had troubled Ricky Ponting all those years ago. If there is one Ishant memory that has stayed with fans over the years, it is of that over to Ponting. For years, we obsessed over it because it was a glimpse of what Ishant could have been but also a reminder of what he wasn’t.
But now, at long last, we can forget Ponting that over. The current Ishant has probably long exceeded those expectations. Yes, he has been that good.
There is a reason why no one says fast bowlers are like fine wine. It takes a toll on your body and while you learn more about the craft of fast bowling, your body over time is simply unable to keep up. So even if you want to continue doing it, you can’t because you can’t bowl as fast as you once used to or you simply keep breaking down.
But Ishant has found a way to not just persevere, he has found a way to not just survive. Rather, he has found a way to excel and that, more than anything else, deserves praise of the highest order.
As he gets ready to play his 100th Test, one realises he is still only 32 and more than capable of producing the second essay of such exotic brilliance that we’ll completely forget about the forgettable first by the time he is done.
– A captain's bowler: Ishant Sharma unlearnt how to be himself so that he could forge a new him
– 'Lambu, you left me midway in my last Test': What MS Dhoni told Ishant Sharma before announcing retirement
– He felt that we need to start grooming Wriddhiman Saha: Ishant Sharma on MS Dhoni's 'sudden' Test retirement
– 'Playing 100 Test matches as a fast bowler is no mean feat'