As India seeks to seize the No. 1 ranking in world cricket, it is now expected to win regularly on foreign soil. With the loss of Anil Kumble and the ineffectiveness of Harbhajan outside India, the burden on the improving pace attack on the current tour of New Zealand will be greater than ever.
None more so than Ishant Sharma, who has dazzled cricket watchers across the world in the last 15 months with his rapid rise. It was not the raw statistics and wicket count that impressed, but Ishant’s ability to manoeuvre the batsman and make world-leading batsmen look inept.
At the same time, there has been ongoing concern about the depth in the Indian pace attack, with former players persistently raising the possibility that Ishant and Zaheer Khan could burn out.
And with good reason too. Both Ishant and Zaheer bowled far less Test overs in 2008 than Mitchell Johnson and Brett Lee, and were injured just as often. As a result, the Australian duo took many more wickets and were therefore more effective, although the Indian pair were deemed to be far craftier and skilful. But it isn’t how one looks, but what one achieves, and a classier player is only as useful as the workload he can shoulder.
At times, Ishant had been troubling the batsmen immensely, but was taken off and the pressure was released. The famous spell against Ricky Ponting in Perth is a case in point. But for a late change of heart, Ishant would have been relieved an over earlier and Ponting would have been reprieved.
One fact that went unnoticed in that mesmerising performance was the dropoff in Ishant’s performance as the day wore on. Up to Ponting’s dismissal, he had conceded 35 runs in 11 overs, beaten Australia’s two best batsmen many times, with many of the runs not coming from the middle of the bat. Thereafter he conceded 28 in six overs against lesser batsmen; three of these overs were against tailenders. It was a similar tale in the first innings. Ishant had taken 2/14 in five overs of seam bowling, but in the next two overs he conceded 20 runs to end with 2/34 from seven.
Clearly, Ishant’s stamina is a weakness, and it is something that needs to be rectified, lest India intends on regularly playing five bowlers, plays on a spate of bowler friendly pitches that result in short matches. Neither scenario is likely to occur. In the meantime, careful management is needed. The importance of both Ishant and Zaheer was shown by the absence of both players in the first two Tests against South Africa in 2008; their replacements were ineffective even on a green surface at the Motera.
Given all this, it’s hard to understand why Ishant has been selected in the Twenty20 matches against New Zealand. Workload aside, Ishant’s case for inclusion in the shortest form of the game on grounds of cricketing merit is dubious.
In 18 T20 matches, he has scored taken only nine wickets at 47.55 with an economy rate of 7.19, and has never taken more than one wicket in a match. Typically, he has bowled too much of a Test line-and-length, which is unsuited for T20. Combined with his propensity for overstepping and conceding free hits, this has made his bowling vulnerable to six-hitting. He is neither a useful hitter nor a spritely fielder. Furthermore, the amount of frenetic diving done by outfielders is only likely to test the resolve of his ankle, the main source of his recent injuries.
This is one dilemma where all sides of Indian cricket can prosper, something that can be rare with zonal selection politics, factional wrangling on the board, and persistent derision of administrators due to perceptions that they are interested only in money and not success.
Given the enormous financial windfall that the BCCI garnered from the Indian Premier League, which was in no small part due to India’s dramatic and unexpected victory in the 2007 World Twenty20, successfully defending the crown in England should be high on the agenda. Not for cricketing reasons or the overall prestige of Indian cricket, but for the bottom line of the BCCI.
Usually, this would be the subject of derision, as the increasing player focus on T20 would change their technique and repertoire to the detriment of their Test skills in addition to the physical attrition. T20 isn’t going to go away, but by selecting the World Cup squad purely on merit, with a fearless disregard for reputation, will do India a world of good.
Unless Ishant is among the leading bowlers in the IPL, he should not be selected for the World Cup. Otherwise, he would do no more than to diminish his Test performance and hinder his country in their quests for supremacy in both forms of the game. India’s win in South Africa did not come easily; they survived last-over thrillers in both matches against Pakistan and Australia were on course in their run chase until the 18th over. Last time, the veterans opted out of the team, and the younger players made important contributions in the field, such as Robin Uthappa’s direct hit against Imran Nazir when he was making a mockery of the Indian bowling. Would Ganguly and Dravid have been able to do this if they were patrolling the inner circle?
The IPL then confirmed that the veteran batsmen were far from being ideal for T20, with the growing economic power of the format, players are now loath to absent themselves from a format that they recognise as being inferior in terms of cricket. The BCCI, not known for bold selections, were spared the uncomfortable decision of having to snub the seniors in 2007, but they will have no such parachute this year.
One of the positive effects of the IPL has been the exposure that it has given to the youngsters. The professionalism of the international players and coaches is far removed from the Ranji Trophy fare, and the opportunity to work with not just one of leading cricketers of all time, but also one of the canniest in Shane Warne, has allowed the likes of Yusuf Pathan, Ravindra Jadeja and Siddharth Trivedi to transfer their new-found IPL improvements to great success in the other formats. Accordingly, their performances should be recognised with national selection. Not only will it blood new players appropriately, strengthen India’s chances of defending the World Cup and thereby the financial and grassroots state of game, it also keeps Ishant fit for what is most important: Test matches.