It can happen to anyone. As you look down the list of most expensive overs, you will see that far better bowlers than Ishant Sharma have been taken apart in six-ball sequences where nothing they tried came off.
During the last World Cup, Shoaib Akhtar, once the fastest of them all, had to endure Ross Taylor taking him for three sixes and two fours in an over that cost 28. Four years earlier, Mohammad Asif had conceded as many at Centurion, with Mark Boucher and Jacques Kallis combining for three fours and two sixes.
Toward the end of his illustrious career, Allan Donald went for 27 in Perth, with Brett Lee (6-4-6-4-6), one of James Faulkner’s predecessors as a dangerous lower-order hitter, doing the bulk of the damage.
The similarities end there, though. Asif played just 38 games for Pakistan before being banned for spot-fixing, and his economy rate was 4.71. For Shoaib, who played 163 games spread over 13 years, the figure was 4.76. Donald, one of the all-time greats of the ODI game, conceded just 4.15 runs per over on average across a 164-game career.
Ishant’s economy rate? An eye-popping 5.70. When you consider that even a part-timer like Yuvraj Singh has been far thriftier over his 285 games (ER: 5.08), it is easy to understand the widespread disenchantment over Ishant’s continued selection.
Selectors are not altruists. There must be a reason why he has been a near-constant in the squad for the past 12 months. Once you move past the hysteria and angst caused by Ishant’s 30-run over in Mohali, the reason is fairly simple. He takes wickets, or at least more wickets than other Indian pace bowlers.
In 2013, only four Indian quicks have taken 10 wickets or more in ODIs. Of those, Umesh Yadav and Mohammad Shami have not really shown themselves to be wicket-takers, averaging around a wicket a game. Bhuvneshwar Kumar has been far more economical (ER of 4.27 compared to 5.74), but he has also taken seven wickets fewer than Ishant’s haul of 31. Only Ravindra Jadeja, with 40 wickets from 25 games and a stunning economy rate of 3.89, has been more penetrative.
Throughout his on-off ODI career, Ishant – though he appears to have the coordination of a newborn foal – has taken wickets. Of those Indian bowlers with at least 75 wickets (he has 96 now), his strike-rate of 33 is bettered only by another who was maligned for his efficiency.
Over 191 matches, Ajit Agarkar, who announced his retirement last week, took 288 wickets. His strike-rate (32.9) was comparable to the game’s elite, but for most of his career, he was an object of derision because of his penchant for bowling the one hit-me ball every over. Yet, compared to Ishant, he was a model of parsimony, with an economy rate of 5.07.
In a team with genuine bowling depth, Ishant would have no place. But in a side whose bowling teeth can at best be compared to those of an ageing canine, he remains an asset, one of the few capable of stringing wickets together. If he was the third seamer in a line-up led by Zaheer Khan and Javagal Srinath, he may well have thrived. But his limitations become ruthlessly exposed in an attack where Bhuvneshwar remains incapable of bowling at the death, and where Vinay Kumar is an even more wasteful option without the wicket-taking ability.
With less than 18 months to go before the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, India do not have much time to get their pace options sorted. A World Cup cannot be won without at least one world-class quick bowler in the line-up. The Sri Lankans of 1996 were a freakish one-off, and the chances of such a mediocre bowling bunch succeeding in Australia are as remote as that of finding a green top in Ranchi on Wednesday.
India’s bowling in the 2011 World Cup was nothing to write home about. They could not defend 296 against South Africa and even 338 on the board gave them only a tie against England. But they did have Zaheer, whose 21 wickets matched Shahid Afridi’s haul.
Almost without exception, Zaheer took wickets when they were most needed. There would have been no tie against England but for a superb old-ball spell that saw off Ian Bell, Andrew Strauss and Paul Collingwood. West Indies were eyeing victory when he summoned a masterful knuckle-ball-like slower delivery to castle the well-set Devon Smith.
In the quarter-final, an almost identical ball flummoxed the dangerous Michael Hussey. He started the final with three consecutive maidens to the hapless Upul Tharanga, whose misery he ended with the first ball of his fourth over. His first spell was 5-3-6-1, and he then returned with the old ball to dismiss Chamara Kapugedera in the 40th over.
His last two overs went for 35 runs, as Mahela Jayawardene, Nuwan Kulasekara and Thisara Perera all teed off. Sri Lanka took 63 off the final five overs. On another day, without Gautam Gambhir and MS Dhoni in such inspired touch, it might have cost India the trophy.
It did not, and Zaheer’s meltdown was forgotten.
On his good days, and there were many, Zaheer was a master of variation. Ishant has developed precious few effective ones. With all eyes on him, and the selectors keeping faith, he will need to learn quickly.