India pacer Ishant Sharma's rollercoaster journey reaches 100th Test milestone

Veteran pacer has transformed into a potent weapon since arrival of world-class quicks and Virat Kohli as captain

Ishant Sharma of India bowls  during day four of the second PayTM test match between India and England held at the Chidambaram Stadium in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India on the 16th February 2021

Photo by Pankaj Nangia/ Sportzpics for BCCI

For years he was the nearly man of Indian cricket. Always testing, always bowling his heart out, always beating the bat and never quite taking the wickets.

"Ishant Sharma is unlucky", were generally the first words uttered whenever his name came up. No matter how hard he tried, the India pacer came nowhere close to the four/five wickets per Test mark that great fast bowlers operate in.

Analysis of his stats can seem underwhelming. After 99 Tests, the lanky quick has 302 scalps. Dale Steyn, Richard Hadlee and Curtly Ambrose played less than 100 Tests and had more than 400 wickets.

But Ishant's story is unique. His career can be neatly divided into two halves - pre- and-post 2014.

The Delhi pacer made his debut as a spirited 19 year old who had pace, height and could move the ball sharply. It seemed like India had unearthed a gem. But the gem had hidden flaws.

Ishant's wrist position, run up and pace, all began to fail him and he was soon consigned to mainly Test cricket, where his averages were scarcely believable.

In 2010, Ishant took 33 wickets at an average of 37.57 from 11 Tests. His numbers in 2012 were shocking, with Ishant's average ballooning up to 75.57 before coming down to 48.16 in six Tests in 2013.

Then began the turnaround from 2014. His averages for the next six years dropped off a cliff, which is good by the way - from 31.36 in eight Tests in 2014 to just 15.56 in six in 2019. His strike rate went from a staggering 138 balls per wicket in Tests in 2012 to 32 balls per wicket seven years later.

Ishant's reversal of fortunes can be attributed to three major changes that happened in Indian Test cricket.

In 2014, Virat Kohli took over the captaincy. That was the single most significant development in the fast bowling ecosystem as Kohli, like Clive Lloyd of the great West Indies teams of 1970s, put fast bowlers at the front and centre of his plans. He demanded pace and aggression. The quick men, including Ishant, responded.

Then there was Ishant's own evolution: he changed his bowling angles, smoothened his run up, and bulked up to take on greater workloads with improved efficiency. India bowling coach Bharat Arun also helped in getting his alignment right, which is now visible in a smooth delivery stride, consistent pace and prodigious swing.

And finally, every fast bowler needs a partner and Ishant got two world class operators – first Mohammed Shami and then Jasprit Bumrah.

In a 2019 interview to broadcaster Gaurav Kapoor on his YouTube show Breakfast with Champions, Ishant revealed Bumrah casually mocks him if his pace 'falls' to 130kph in a Test. It's the presence of, arguably, more potent pacers at the other end that has allowed Ishant to focus almost exclusively on his bowling and not worry about stopping runs.

It seems a shame that he had to spend the better part of a decade learning his craft while on international duty. And that is reflected in his overall numbers. But reaching the milestone of 100 Tests is a rare achievement in the modern game for a fast bowler. He will be just the 11th pacer in history to do so.

"I don't play for numbers, I play to win. How can I make the team win, how can I become an impactful player?" Ishant said ahead of the third Test against England in Ahmedabad which starts on Wednesday.

"How can I pull out the team from tough situations, that is the only motivation. If there is a partnership, how to break it, that is only my focus."