3 years


Ishant Sharma: There and Back Again

Ashish Sharma
Aditya Iyer is the sports editor at Open
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Before the new Test season, Ishant Sharma opens up on his journey from teen sensation to veteran of the attack

THE UPS/INVERTER spare parts vendor under the metro line in South Patel Nagar, Delhi, is armed with specific directions. Specific, to a fault. A moment earlier, we had handed him the address to Ishant Sharma’s home—withholding the name of the cricketer, of course—and after having taken a second look at the house number, he stopped swishing his palm left and right (as direction givers in India do) and said: “Arrey, yeh toh bilkul Ishant Sharma ke ghar ke paas hai.” The house you are looking for is right besides Ishant Sharma’s.

Mistaking our wonderment for oblivion, the spare parts dealer takes another shot at honing us in on our final destination. “Ishant nahi pata? Lamboo? Jisne Ponting ki band bajaya? Uske ghar ke paas.” When we narrate this incident to Ishant a few minutes later, on how his spell to Ricky Ponting in Perth—where he, as the UPS/Inverter guy remembered, beat the great Australian batsman black and blue—has become a reference point to both his career and his existence, the tall man laughs, then shrugs, then sighs. In the next instant, tired creases have started spreading around Ishant’s hirsute face.

“People still remember that only all the time,” he says, in a pitiful sort of way, like Frodo Baggins if he were reminded of the now-erstwhile ring. Next January, it will be a decade to the month since a teenage Ishant — hair swinging this way and that, ball swinging that way and this — bowled that spell to Ponting at the WACA, capturing the collective imagination of a nation starved of fierce fast bowling spells. Since then, Ishant has become a veteran of 77 Test matches, more than any other active Indian cricketer (batsman or bowler), and has claimed seven five-wicket hauls, the second most for any Asian/Subcontinental fast bowler in this 10-year period. He has his name printed on the honour’s board at Lord’s, has a Man of the Series award from a Test series in the West Indies and has played a major hand in India’s only outright ICC Champions Trophy triumph. Yet, his second innings bowling figures of 17-0-63-1 (overs-maidens- runs-wickets) at Perth, 2008, remain, at least for Indian cricket followers, his summit.

“Let me tell you something, and I’m being honest,” says Ishant. “In this Ranji Trophy season I played against Railways, correct? In the second innings, I bowled 16 overs, 4 of those maidens, gave away 30-odd runs and took 1 wicket. Same-like spell to Perth? Then why is there no hype around this performance of mine?”

In all sincerity, I try and explain, to an international cricketer who has played more Test matches than Virat Kohli (lest we forget), the difference between Indian first-class cricket and an international Test match in Australia; the difference between Ponting— then the best batsman in the world—and Railways’ Avinash Yadav, a left-arm spinner who bats at number eight. Ishant laughs again, exposing his teeth, this time minus the sadness.

“Back then I was young and I didn’t give a damn about who Ricky Ponting was, or who anyone was in the Australian team, for that matter,” he says. “Main yeh nahi soch raha thha ki mujhe Ponting ke pad aur bat ke beech mein se ball nikaalni hai, ya yahaan se daloonga toh outswing hogi aur yahaan se inswing.” (I wasn’t planning on beating Ponting through the gate or worrying about how the ball was swinging both ways).

“I read all of that the next day in the papers and laughed.”

For me it was about that feel, that pace. It was always about that pace

Does he, then, truly believe his feat, one that forced former Australia captain Steve Waugh to hail him as ‘the next big thing’ in cricket, wasn’t extraordinary? Ishant shrugs—the same shrug that we see on the telly when he is struck for a boundary or when MS Dhoni is giving him an earful for not bowling to his field. “It never excited me. Even today I feel no excitement when people remind me of it. And I don’t care enough to tell everyone again and again that I’ve bowled much, much, much better spells than that. In international cricket. In Ranji Trophy. In IPL…”

Listening to Ishant mock his pièce de résistance instantly brings to mind a long list of artists (from 19th century impressionist painters to 21st century rock & roll stars) who readily rip apart their most famous work. Still, what even Ishant cannot deny is that that single spell to Ponting changed his life, both as a cricketer and as a celebrity, irreversibly. Just a fortnight after Perth, the fast bowler was bought for Rs 3.6 crore by Shah Rukh Khan to represent Kolkata Knight Riders in the inaugural edition of the Indian Premier League.

It didn’t stop there. An Economic Times article dated April 12, 2008 (less than three months after Perth) states: ‘India’s fastest bowler is also among the country’s hottest sports property today. After signing contracts with Pepsi and Reebok, Delhi-boy Ishant Sharma is all set to endorse three more products. One of them is Glaxo-SmithKline’s health drink, Boost.’ His earnings from these endorsements? Rs 75 lakh-Rs 1 crore per deal. Money that, ostensibly, helps construct each of the five storeys that is his South Patel Nagar house today.

In the same article, ad-guru Piyush Pandey gave the young Ishant a most generous testimonial when he said: “Companies are eager to grab Ishant because he personifies India’s current we- can-do-it mood. His success shows the confidence of new India.”

“I even had to refuse a contract with a kid’s television channel because he is short of time,” Latika Khaneja, the director of Ishant’s then-PR company, is quoted as saying in Business Standard . The kids didn’t complain too much, though, as they got to be their long-haired hero, thanks to a Zapak.com game called Ishant Sharma: Power Bowler. The software developer was kind to a fault to India’s emerging superstar. The 2D Ishant’s hair swayed as he ran in to bowl in his inimitable style, and with the help of just the arrow keys and spacebar on the keyboard, the user could, for an instant, slip into the world of Ishant—the boy-wonder who clocks 150 kph; the teen-champ who sends stumps rattling; the man-child who fears no one.

This, then, was Ishant circa 2008. Post-Ponting. All of 19. “Even when all of this was happening, I didn’t change as a person,” Ishant says today, a decade since those whirlwind days, looking a little sheepish. “Really. I didn’t have more than three friends growing up. And during this phase, I didn’t make many—preferring to stick to the ones I had instead of going out.”

“But, yes, on a professional front, as a cricketer, as a fast bowler, I was taken a lot more seriously.” Seriously enough for him to become, almost overnight, the deputy to Zaheer Khan, India’s then long-standing, then slowly-withering, guardian of fast bowling.

When I first joined an academy and started bowling with a cricket ball, my coach used to throw the ball at me and say, ‘Now don’t stop for eight hours’

Of course, then, like Zaheer, he too was going to be over- bowled. Between February 2008, a week after Perth, and February 2011, a week before the World Cup, Zaheer delivered 1,247.5 overs in international cricket, across all three formats. Ishant, still in his formative years, checked in at 1,194 overs—677.4 overs, or 4,066 balls, more than the next most Indian pacer on the list, S Sreesanth (516.2 overs). A fresher, faster Sreesanth was picked for India’s World Cup campaign, in place of a considerably slower, visibly fatigued Ishant. It broke his heart, and then his will.

“I was 22 and had lost my pace. I wasn’t feeling the way I usually feel. I couldn’t hear the bhochuk as the ball left my hand. For me it was about that sound. For me it was about that feel, that pace. It was always about that pace,” he says, voice bubbling over a low flame, fidgeting fingers caressing a tuft under his chin. “So I spoke to Zak pa [Zaheer] about it and what he said changed my life.”

“‘Look,’ Zak pa told me, ‘You have been bowling non-stop for past four years. Four years, day in day out, without proper physical training. You have an injury in your ankle that you take injections for. You have been abusing your body and that is one thing, as a fast bowler, you cannot afford to abuse. So take a break, educate yourself on how your body works, train hard and your pace will come back’.”

And so, he did. Ishant decided to train. “Ab khelna hai, I thought to myself, toh training karni hi padegi.”

ON THE MATTED floor of his home gym, built in the mezzanine area between the parking lot and the basement, Ishant’s near 2 metre frame is turning elastic, knotting itself into inconceivable positions. His right calf is tucked under his left thigh and a resistance band pulls away at the exposed ankle— the same ankle that saw him limp out of 2015 World Cup squad. On the damp mat in front of him sits a mobile phone, its timer running down a three-minute clock. When the phone beeps, Ishant rises to stretch his calf.

“Not stretching, mobility,” corrects Ishant, already having broken into a sweat, his slick hair glistening under a blue India cap worn backwards. “These exercises are to improve your mobility. If you have good mobility then there are less chances of you getting injured in the gym. Stretching can be done after a session. But before, you do mobility.”

As he begins working on his hip flexor, I ask him if he was always this aware of his body, knowing fully well that the answer is going to be a resounding ‘no’. He replies by straining his circumoral muscles into a look of amusement. “When I first joined an academy and started bowling with a cricket ball, my coach used to tell me, ‘to become a good fast bowler you have to bowl from morning to evening’. Subah se shaam tak sirf bowling. He used to throw the ball at me and say, ‘Now don’t stop for eight hours.’”

Few are aware that for a boy who was playing Test cricket at 18, Ishant only began playing with a cricket ball at 15. Before that he spent in time in tennis-ball pick-up games, in maidans and alleys, earning Rs 100 every time he bowled an over without being hit for a boundary. Between sets of overhead squats, Ishant says: “For someone from my financial background, a lower middle class joint family [my father has five brothers and all our families lived together], earning my own pocket money felt amazing.”

Then he holds two fingers to his temple and clicks his thumb. “To earn Rs 100 was mind blowing. But once I decided to take my talent seriously and join an academy, I needed more than Rs 100 at a time and luckily my parents didn’t kill that dream with their hopes of ‘yehi hamari gareebi mitayega’. Anyway, they knew I wasn’t a very good student outside of cricket…” Just as he says this, his wife Pratima Singh (who represents India in basketball) walks in with a cup of coffee and Ishant regales us with his classic backbencher tales from high school.

One story, enacted in a solo performance by Ishant in the gym, goes something like this. He was sleeping in the classroom when the vice principal barged in, dragged him out to the assembly yard by his long hair (“I always loved my hair long, without it I look like a boiled egg peeled.”) and made him run around the field for 2 km. “I didn’t mind the running so much—they help grow bowling muscles at that age. But when the vice principal said I had to cut my hair, I told my coach I’m not going back to that school,” he says, subconsciously grooming back his locks.

Coffee drained, Ishant is now wheezing his way through deadlifts, well over a 100 kg. Six reps of 110 kg, 5 reps of 120 kg, 4 reps of 130 kg. “During off days like these, when I’m not playing cricket,” he says, panting between sets, “I prefer to do power training. It really makes a difference once you are on the field.” When he returned from his ankle-lay off, in August 2015 in Sri Lanka, Ishant looked more powerful than ever, and he bowled with the venom of old, or, in fact, the venom of young Ishant Sharma. In the final Test, with the series squared 1-1, Ishant took eight wickets (5 and 3) to hand India their first away series win in four years. A jubilant Virat Kohli went as far as to call Ishant a ‘revelation’.

This is who he was always supposed to be—the leader of the pace attack, the successor to Zaheer Khan, the captain’s go-to man in times of crises, a fearsome strike bowler. Until, a year later, when a fully sculpted body was felled by a mosquito. In the hours leading up to India’s longest-ever home season, Ishant was ruled out of the New Zealand series with Chikungunya.

“You can prepare for an injury and fight back. But you cannot do anything about a virus like Chikungunya. Even God can’t help you recover in time,” says Ishant, tugging at one of the many pink threads that loop around his wrist. “It was the worst day of my life. Actually, make that second worst. The worst day still remains Mohali.”

In 2013, in an ODI series against Australia where 300 became a par score, Ishant was given the ball when 44 runs were needed from three overs. When the over ended, Australia needed 14 runs from two—James Faulkner had walloped Ishant for 30 runs in an over, with the help of four sixes. Ishant claims he was depressed enough to not speak to anyone for a week, until his now-wife Pratima shook him out of it.

Still, the trolling began that day and hasn’t ever really stopped. Flooding the Internet are memes of Ishant that range from hilarious (a blogspot called IshantSharmaDoingThings), senseless (‘Ishant declared 8th wonder of the world because his hair can be seen from space’) to downright nasty (‘Need 30 runs? Call me’). He has been trolled by commentators, fellow players (imitating him imitating Steve Smith) and by several parody accounts on Twitter, making him arguably the most trolled cricketer in the world. It begs the question, ‘have you ever met a troll in person?’

“No, yaar,” he says, shaking his head. “And even if I do, do you think they will make fun of me face-to-face? No. All they will do is take a selfie and remind me, again, of that bowling spell.”