“Good playmate”. Ricky Ponting was impressed with what had happened to him. An attempt at “mental disintegration” would have been typical Australian fashion. Instead, the Australian captain at the time chose to praise a newcomer who was only playing his fourth Test, to fast and furious Waca, in a bitterly acrimonious series.

Indian players who overheard the conversation between Ponting and Ishant Sharma up close agreed that the great Australian’s praise for the young, fast Indian bowler was sincere. Ponting fell prey to an Ishant delivery a little later after Virender Sehwag implored the “kid” to play one more. Ishant was tiring and Anil Kumble wanted to give him a break. But at Sehwag’s insistence, the melon persevered.

It was 2008. Thirteen years later, as Ishant, now 32, prepares to play his 100th Test, he has become perseverance personified. He will only be the second Indian fast bowler after Kapil Dev to reach the cap. His total so far is 302 scalps out of 99 tests.

There had been Waca’s highs or his winning spell (7/74) at Lord’s in 2014. The lows were just as categorical, so much so that in an ODI against Australia after conceding 30 points in Mohali, Amul came with an ad-liner: “Ishant, Sharm hai kya”? During all this time, the speedster accepted everything with serenity, even if a few years ago, in an interview with this newspaper, he had confessed to having collapsed after the ODI 2013.

He has battled a string of injuries, the latest being a side strain that ruled him out of the Australia tour. Ishant has always shown the strength of character to come back stronger, while remaining erased like never before.

Two days before the third test against England, which would be his 100th if he plays, the fast bowler has been asked about his recovery in form over the past three seasons.

Since 2018, in 20 tests, he has taken 76 wickets at 19.34. Ishant has decided to play more matches abroad. “To be honest, it was just conditions overseas.”

Forget his fort

Forgetting turned out to be Ishant’s strength. Forgetting (the stockings) helped him get rid of the negative vibes.

Dilip Vengsarkar was the selectors chairman when Ishant was chosen to play for India. Vengsarkar told, “We included him in the Bangladesh team and he followed from there to England and then to Australia. We picked him young because he was lively and his size allowed him to extract extra bounce off the surface. We knew he would be an asset in Australia. It was a thorough grooming process and he had a really good tour of Australia.”

For someone who made their debut in the country as a teenager and instantly made their mark, a fallow period had to be imminent. Ishant duly hit a bump in the road. His inswing has become predictable, forcing him to reinvent himself.

Enter Jason Gillespie. Ishant went to play for Sussex under Gillespie. The former Australian fast bowler’s advice was to hit the deck hard even for his fuller deliveries and target the knee rather than the top of the stump. It turned out to be a game-changer.

“The NCA is expected to spot the talent and to play county cricket send fast young bowlers to England. This will help them learn to play in different conditions and different situations. In addition, the players are very well trained there (in county cricket) and they learn quickly. I think County Cricket is a must have for U-23 or U-21 bowlers early in their careers.

The former Indian captain paid a heartfelt tribute to Ishant. “Playing 100 test matches is a big milestone. It takes tenacity, a lot of hard work and persistence.

The pleasure of captains

Ishant made his test debut under Rahul Dravid. From there to Virat Kohli via Anil Kumble and MS Dhoni; he played under high level captains. Ishant’s quiet nature complements them. From a bowler’s perspective, who understood it best?

And when he became captain and led the Delhi Ranji team, Ishant was awesome. The harbor master’s office also helped him find his mojo.

“Ishant was going through a difficult time. He didn’t get a game in an international series and was eventually released to play the Ranji Trophy. The tradition in Delhi cricket was to restrict the harbor master’s office to batsmen only, but that did not work. As Delhi coach I wanted a different perspective and the selectors accepted. To win games, we needed 20 opposition wickets and that’s why I wanted a bowler at the bar; how to do the job from the perspective of a bowler captain. Ishant played four or five matches for us during this phase and helped us win three of them almost on his own. It also helped him get a recall in India, ”said faithful KP Bhaskar of Delhi.

Former Indian fashion designer Atul Wassan lamented Ishant’s lack of recognition. It’s upsetting that people like Ishant don’t get their due… ”

Ishant, however, has no regrets. For nearly a decade and a half in top-flight cricket, he grew in stature without losing his simplicity.

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