Ishant Sharma picked 41 wickets in Tests in 2018. In 2019, he returned 25 wickets. His bowling average in 2018 was just under 22 while in the next it was 15.56. In 2020, he picked a fifer against New Zealand in the only Test he played.
However, 2021 has been a quiet one for the lanky pacer so far. He’s picked just 14 wickets in the 13 Test innings this year, going wicketless in six of those. In his last three innings, he has bowled close to 50 overs for no wicket. Since January 2019, Sharma averages 23.45 at home and 18.91 overseas.
Wet and overcast conditions in Mumbai in the lead up to the second Test against New Zealand would mean that the track might just be nippier, where Mohammad Siraj could perhaps be more effective with his extra pace and zip.
“Ishant hasn't unfortunately played much Test cricket for a long time and didn't play in IPL or T20 World Cup (and) that does make a difference,” said India bowling coach Paras Mhambrey in a virtual press conference on Wednesday, acknowledging Sharma’s sedate phase.
“We are working on his rhythm and we are aware of it. I am sure he needs a couple of games to get that rhythm going. He will be back for sure.”
Sharma has played over 100 Tests and has 311 wickets to show. He is tied second with former pacer Zaheer Khan for most wickets by an Indian fast bowler, behind Kapil Dev’s 434.
No wonder Mhambrey backed the 33-year-old to come good and also guide the other pacers while he is around: “He has got enough experience under his belt and it makes a huge difference to have him in the dressing room. With the experience that he has and any opportunity for some other bowlers to spend time with him and understand the nuances of fast bowling, is of great help.”
More than their bowling, India’s issue lies in their batting, where Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane are going through an extended lean patch. While Pujara last scored a ton in 2019, Rahane made one in the MCG Test last year but averages under 20 in Tests this year.
With Virat Kohli, India’s captain, returning to the setup for the second Test, it remains to be seen if either or Pujara or Rahane get left out. Shreyas Iyer had an impressive start to his Test career, becoming the first Indian to score a ton and a fifty on debut. Thus, it would be tough to bench him.
The only other suspect area seems to be opener Mayank Agarwal’s spot and that’s where things get interesting. India could look at asking their wicketkeeper-batter to open the batting, in order to accommodate Kohli as well as give a go to both of Pujara and Rahane. With a tour of South Africa in store, Rahul Dravid and his coaching staff have backed the pair, saying they are “one good game away” from regaining form.
Wriddhiman Saha, the incumbent wicketkeeper-batter battled severe neck stiffness to score 61 in the second innings of the first Test. He didn’t keep wickets with the uncapped Srikar Bharat displaying his excellent work with the mitts in both digs.
“The physios are in touch constantly with the head coach Rahul and obviously Virat now and as we get closer to the game, we will take a call and see what condition he is in,” said Mhambrey.
In case India do go ahead with the senior statesman, it could be a final hurrah for Saha, who is 37, with Rishabh Pant being India’s first-choice glovesman. However, in his 48-match international career, Saha hasn’t batted above the sixth spot.
Bharat, on the other hand, has the experience of opening the batting in red-ball cricket, having done so until a couple of seasons ago. The 28-year-old’s First Class best of 308 was scored atop the order for Andhra.
If indeed Bharat makes his Test debut as an opening batter, alongside keeping wickets, it sure will be baptism of fire for him.