Friday, 7 February 2014

Despite wickets, Ishant Sharma still doesn’t know what he’s doing

Ishant Sharma: lacking adaptability
If you look at raw physical skills to be a great fast bowler, Ishant Sharma has a lot going for him. Height and genuine pace, those are the attributes which roughed up Ricky Ponting back in 2008, and made him into the man who looked likely to take over from Zaheer Khan in the long term.

A couple of years of reasonable success followed, but with a lack of big hauls. Then after a brief purple patch which brought him 31 wickets in five Tests against West Indies and England, he embarked on a dry spell. In 15 consecutive matches he failed to get more than three wickets in a match once. That spell brought him 23 wickets at 64.26.

Since then, he’s been marginally better, with 11 wickets at 40.63. Even with a six wicket haul today and yesterday, it still seems he doesn’t quite know what his plan is. His struggle is similar to Steven Finn’s, but whereas Finn has had tinkering with his action, the problems with Sharma look to come down to a loss of pace and confusion about his role in the attack.

At times, when bowling to Southee in particular, he attempted the enforcer role, but in one incredible over, he not only managed to discomfort Southee three times with short balls, but see two more of them travel over fine leg for six.

At other times he tried to settle into a line and length, but any chance of movement was lost by a seam so scrambled you could serve it with bacon and call it breakfast. It’s difficult to see how this would be deliberate. Occasionally he gets some lateral movement with these cutters, but more often he would be well advised to land the ball on the seam.

If he’s going to be the weapon, he needs short spells, and not too many of them, but he also needs to push his pace up. When he emerged as an international bowler he was genuinely quick, but as with a lot of most Indian bowlers, he’s lost pace since he burst on the scene.

Now the option opens up to him of being a Glenn McGrath style metronome. To do that, he’d have to straighten his seam. McGrath didn’t get 500 Test wickets by bowling cutters, he did it mainly by landing the ball on the seam, and letting the pitch do its work.

Despite all the issues, this Test brought his first five-for since 2011, an extraordinarily long gap for a bowler who has kept his place in the side throughout

Compare all this to Tim Southee. He had a more difficult to start to his Test career with the ball, but in the last year or two he’s been sensational. His first spell was a masterclass in bowling to a plan. Five balls out of six were on or outside off stump and an in between length. A few subtle variations among those lines and lengths, and crease position, a surprise bouncer or inswinger for the sixth ball, and the Indian batsmen were having to work very hard. Boult served up a few more loose balls, but also created chances and took two wickets himself .

Ishant may have had a good day today, but as any bowler will know, in one innings, the number of wickets doesn’t always correlate with the skill of the bowling. Ishant got two caught in the slips off half-decent balls, but one slashed to point, one driven to short mid off, one fortunate LBW and one brilliantly caught at long on.

While it’s churlish to deny him those wickets, as most wickets will come down to some sort of batsman error, in the long term Ishant hasn’t bowled well enough for these type of hauls to come more regularly than four times in 54 matches.

It’s all very well to blame his struggles on unresponsive Indian pitches, but that’s not borne out by the facts. In Asia he has 85 wickets at 35.05, not great, but not too poor considering some of the pitches he’s had to bowl on. Outside Asia where the pitches should help him more he has 70 wickets at 40.97. If you take out his wickets in the West Indies, he has 48 wickets at 53.47 in conditions which should favour seamers.

It all adds up to an odd sense that Ishant is bad at adapting to new conditions. In Asia he’s worked out his job and does it reasonably well, and on the bouncier pitches of the West Indies against a poor batting line-up, he makes hay. Then he is given conditions he should exploit, but against good batsmen, and he struggles to find a threatening line and length.

Compared to the master of angles and swing Zaheer, Ishant seems to be a remarkably unthinking and poorly skilled bowler. How much longer can he rely on his natural talent? Not much.

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