Ishant Sharma talks about putting pressure on himself to excel, and how he hit his current purple patch
Most successful fast bowlers build auras over time - with deliveries that are vicious, with cunning plans, or just sheer pace. Ishant Sharma doesn't quite fit that template, but he is on the cusp of playing 100 Test matches, and within touching distance of overtaking his mentor, Zaheer Khan, to become the second highest-wicket taker among Indian fast bowlers since Kapil Dev.
In the popular imagination, Ishant is not quite a fluent speaker, but that is a fallacy. He is eloquent about his art and how hard he has had to work to reach the heights he has scaled, when most believed he would flounder during his mid-2010s slump. Here, he talks about his evolution into a dependent, consistent, attacking bowler. Not a workhorse or a racehorse, he is looking to be an impact player.
At 31, you are the most experienced, longest-playing Test player in the current India squad. Do you feel old?
I am 31, but I feel like I am 45 (laughs). I started at 18 and the journey has been up and down. Bowling in the subcontinent is not an easy thing, but it is a good challenge. In India [as a fast bowler] you are only bowling with the new ball or when the ball is reversing. But when you bowl outside India, you have to bowl longer spells, you keep going. The more you bowl, the more chances you have to take wickets.
You are not the sort to ever say it, but you are in a way the leader of the Indian Test-bowling pack. Do you feel you are?
I don't want that kind of a tag, that I am a leader or that person is a leader of the pack. It is too big a thing to handle. Because if you are thinking I am leader of the pack so I have to take wickets, I have to do this and that, all that just adds pressure. It is better to just go out there and take it one day, one ball at a time.
You have led by example in the last few years. Can you put a finger on roughly when you started finding more clarity in your process, your bowling?
Around 2017, I would say. A year before, 2016, I wasn't playing anything because we were playing at home. Umesh [Yadav] did very well, [Mohammed] Shami was doing very well. Even in the IPL [as a replacement player for Kings XI Punjab] I did not have a good season [in 2017], getting to play just six matches.
Then I thought I should go to county cricket, but unfortunately I did not get a visa on time [to go and play for Kent]. Considering I only play one format for India, I was very disturbed. The reason I wanted to go to county was, I wanted those overs and get the confidence in my bowling back. When I did not get the visa I was depressed. Then I went to play the Duleep Trophy with the pink ball. Again, I could not bowl much because one match was washed out. In the other one, I bowled 20 overs.
"I don't want that kind of a tag, that I am a leader of the pack. If you are thinking I am leader of the pack so I have to take wickets, I have to do this and that, all that just adds pressure"
Then Delhi made me the captain. After that, things started changing. I had added responsibilities. I began to feel like I am the only one who can take wickets and who can win games for Delhi. Since then I have been playing with the same kind of mindset. If you say it is only me who is going to take wickets in the match tomorrow, then it totally changes.
In my first Ranji Trophy match as captain, against Assam, I took a five-for. Then I was selected in the Test squad against Sri Lanka. I played Ranji - again I got wickets [11 in two matches]. Then I played the Nagpur Test and things have been going well since then.
You have never taken your seniority or your place for granted. A good example is the Adelaide Test in 2018, which India won. You did not join the team celebrations because you were angry about the no-balls you bowled. Can you talk a bit about that episode?
It was a close game. And if I am playing for so many years and making that kind of a mistake, it is a big mistake. To be honest, I felt like a fool. The partnership between Nathan Lyon and [Josh] Hazelwood was getting stronger. And I felt like I should do the job for the team - especially in close games.
I had already got [Aaron] Finch out in that match, but it was again a no-ball. It hurt, but I didn't feel that bad. But later on, the win was on the line. All kind of thoughts pass through your mind at the time. Suppose we had lost that match, it is not about what people would say about me, it is about what you feel yourself. So at the time I felt that [the no-balls] were my fault. If I keep hiding my faults under the carpet then you won't improve as a person and as a cricketer. Most important for me is, as a person I will only improve if I accept my mistakes. And I want to surround myself with people who will point out my mistakes to my face, even if I feel bad.
Didn't you shorten your run-up a few years ago to deal with the no-ball problem?
I did. But I never used to mark my run-up. What happened in Adelaide was, I was pushing myself because the game was close. So my foot might have gone a bit too far. It wasn't a big no-ball.
"To be honest, I felt like a fool," Ishant says about his no-balls in the Adelaide Test last year. Since then he has bowled only one no-ball
© Getty Images
"To be honest, I felt like a fool," Ishant says about his no-balls in the Adelaide Test last year. Since then he has bowled only one no-ball © Getty Images
Actually another factor ahead of that Australia tour was, I was coming out of injury. On the England tour I had a stress fracture in my right leg. That was because of the load. Patrick [Farhart, India's physio at the time] told me it takes two-three months to recover, so he was surprised to see me back fit for the Australia tour. But he advised me not to rush, so I was very careful. I did not bowl [in training before the Australia tour] as much as I do usually.
Virat [Kohli] made a very good point at the time. He said consistency is something that can be measured in terms of how long you take between committing the same mistake twice.
Do you know how many no-balls you have bowled since then?
No. I don't even remember if I have bowled many. I do know in the IPL  I did not bowl a single no-ball. [ESPNcricinfo's records indicate Ishant has bowled just one no-ball since the Adelaide Test - in the Perth Test in the same series.]
Your bowling, you will agree, has moved to a higher level in the last two years. The coaches say you are more assured, more clear, more confident.
Apart from the initial few years I have always known my bowling. I know what I am doing and why. I keep things very simple.
Why I am here in the team? If you have played 90 Tests or 140 Tests or only ten - why are you here? I am here to take wickets, score as many runs as possible and help the team win the game.
To get to the top, where you are now, what are some of the sacrifices you have had to make?
I have cut down on a lot of things. For example, straight after returning from the Caribbean recently, I had the opportunity to relax for a week or ten days before resuming training. Earlier after returning from any tour I would take it easy for a while, but this time I did not do that. The jet-lag was there, but I have become disciplined with my lifestyle. Yes, I want to spend time with my family, but my wife works, my parents have their own schedule. So instead of just staying home, doing nothing, I went running for a bit, I went to the gym. Because for a fast bowler his body is everything.
Also, I have cut down a lot on what I eat. I have cut down on sugar completely. I come from a Brahmin family. For my parents, if you are not eating sweets, you are not a Brahmin!
At least twice a month my mom makes aloo ki kachori, which is deep-fried. It is very tempting, but I do not eat. She will make kheer, but I will not eat. My parents complain I don't eat what they want me to. They think you need to eat ghee, drink milk, eat parathas with ghee to get strong. But I have given all that up.
Does strike rate matter to you? In the first ten years of your career, your average was 36.55 and strike rate 67.1. But between 2018 and now, your average is 19.78 and strike rate 44.3.
I just want to take wickets. As long as wickets are coming, I am happy. Early in my career I did not even know the meaning of strike rate in bowling (chuckles). As a youngster you just want to take wickets, doesn't matter how many balls you take for every wicket.
In England last year, you were the second-highest wicket taker, behind James Anderson.
Actually I could have ended up with more wickets because I was bowling well.
You seemed to be having fun, poking fun at the likes of Alastair Cook, Joe Root and Ben Stokes as you took their wicket more than once.
Yes, I was enjoying my bowling in that series. It is very important, that process of enjoying your hard work.
Adelaide, 2018: Ishant gets Aaron Finch bowled in the first innings. He went on to get the batsman out again in the second innings, but off a no-ball
© Getty Images
Adelaide, 2018: Ishant gets Aaron Finch bowled in the first innings. He went on to get the batsman out again in the second innings, but off a no-ball © Getty Images
I realised what my strength is early on: if the ball swings, I come around the wicket, and if it doesn't, I stick to bowling from over the stumps. I worked really hard on the angles in training to get the confidence before I brought that into matches.
In 2015 you said in an interview to bcci.tv that when you bowl around the wicket, you have to be more open in your stride and bowl quicker, so that the ball cuts in the air and gets to the batsman faster and with more swing. You said that this is something only a proper fast bowler can do; a medium-pacer cannot do it effectively. Is that still the case?
Yes, that remains the case. Against a left-hander, bowling from around the stumps, you get outswing only when you are open in your action. Also, if you don't have the power, then you can't go around the stumps, especially if it is not swinging. If it is not swinging then you have to create that angle.
And you create that angle using the crease?
The key is to understand your bowling technique and then work out how to utilise it to your advantage. My leg was falling slightly to the outside on landing. A lot of people pointed out I should bowl close to the stumps. But if I bowl close to the stumps then the chances of me hurting my back are increased. Because for me to get the ball in to the batsman, I would be falling off to the left. That would take a toll on my body. There would be a possibility of me picking up a stress fracture. I could hurt my ankle, hurt my knee.
I realised I would need to bowl from the centre of the box or go wide of the crease. I realised that if I go close to the stumps, I cannot swing the ball. In international cricket, no matter how fast you are, if you cannot swing the ball or you cannot move it in some way, then it is very difficult to get a batsman.
Your body seems more upright now than compared to the first half of your career. Do you agree?
Yes, that is correct. My body is more upright. I am stronger.
"When your body is not behind the ball, your wrist tends to fall. I worked on my fitness. I trained like mad. I got stronger. Things will fall in place if you work on your fitness"
As much as you work out a batsman, he too is aware you are using the crease to tempt him. Let us say a left-hand batsman who knows you are going to move it away from around the stumps. Does it matter he can read your plan?
With that angle it is very difficult for the batsman to leave the ball. The batsman thinks that the ball is coming close to him, but with my action the ball is moving away. He has that fear [at the back of his mind] that if the ball goes straight, it can hit the stumps. To make sure that he does not let happen or get lbw, he feels he has to play that ball. That is why that angle is dangerous.
Other than that angle, late swing is a weapon for you. How have you developed that?
Late swing… I don't know, I have always had that. You remember that 2008 spell against Ricky Ponting in Australia, where the ball was coming in. That has always been my strength. Between 2012 and 2014, I lost that because of my wrist, which was not upright. That was because I did not have enough strength in my body. My body was not behind the ball. And when your body is not behind the ball, your wrist tends to fall. I worked on my fitness after that. I trained like mad. I got stronger. Things will fall in place if you work on your fitness.
Shankar Basu, who was the India strength and conditioning coach till recently, said about you: "He is another Virat Kohli. You have to stop him from doing things. Very, very focused fellow." Can you talk about the lengths you have gone to, fitness wise?
Bowling 138-140 kph for so long after so many years is not easy. It is because of the fitness.
If I don't to the gym, I feel empty, as if I have done nothing. If I have four weeks to prepare for a series, then for two weeks I will focus on basic strength: normal squats and exercise that will help build that solid strength. Then I do a lot of running as well, because you are doing the most difficult job in cricket - fast bowling.
"Being tall, I have to work extra, because I tend to lose strength very quickly compared to others. If I do not do that extra work, I will lose my pace"
"Being tall, I have to work extra, because I tend to lose strength very quickly compared to others. If I do not do that extra work, I will lose my pace" © AFP
Where do you run? On a treadmill?
No, no. I run on the ground because you are playing the sport on the ground. Also, it is not about how long I run. It depends on the type of training. If am doing interval training, then I will run 80 metres under 15 seconds, followed by a 15-second break and repeat 15 times. Then I will run 200 metres and walk 100 metres, then run 200 metres again with ten repetitions.
These kind of training sessions make me feel good about myself. Then I work on parts of my body, like, say, the glutes - that will help me bowl longer spells. As I get closer to the competition, I split my training between strength and power. If you focus solely on strength, the body can get stiff. Your body should have the strength of a rubber band - so you stretch it and when you release it, it will recoil with power. That is what fast bowling is also about: you can have a smooth run-up, but when you are at the crease, you should be strong enough to deliver the ball.
Basu said one of the first things he worked with you when he took over in 2015 was mobility, where he made you use hurdles. Do you remember that?
He told me there was less mobility in my left glute, compared to the right one. It does not activate properly. So he made me walk over the hurdles.
Even when I am home I have to work on my body. Being tall, I have to work extra, because I tend to lose strength very quickly compared to others. If I do not do that extra work, I will lose my pace, which will affect my game.
Bharat Arun, the Indian bowling coach, has said the one marked difference he has noticed is that previously you would be restrictive but you did not make the batsman play frequently. Now you make them play more, while continuing to be economical. This means the batsman is under pressure all the time.
Yes, you can say that, because I am taking wickets regularly. I just bowl in good areas and believe that if I keep sustaining it with enough patience then I will get the batsman out. That is all I think about.
"How do you become a senior? Not by the amount of years you have played. Seniority should be by the amount of wickets you take"
Now that you are able to swing it consistently, are you confident of bowling much fuller? In the last two Test series - Australia and West Indies - nine of your wickets have come when batsmen have driven you.
Yes, the more the ball swings, the fuller you pitch, you create more chances, because the batsman sees that length and he thinks it is easy to drive, but at the same time the probability of him getting out increases - nicking, caught behind, bowled, lbw.
Can you give us an example of this type of dismissal?
Tim Paine in the first innings in Adelaide is a good example. At the time the ball was reversing very slightly. Generally when the ball reverses, you have to pitch fuller. People might feel the batsman can drive you for a four if you overcompensate. But you need to back yourself: is saving a four more important or getting a wicket? So I backed myself and in a three- or four-over spell I got Paine caught behind.
Is there a spell in particular that you enjoyed bowling in the last two years?
Second innings at Edgbaston  where I got a five-for. I felt it was a game-changing spell, because if I had not taken those wickets, instead of us chasing 190 , we might have ended with a target closer to 350 or 400. If that had happened, maybe my career would have been over.
Because if I am playing for so long and if you don't take wickets - in the first innings I got just one wicket. I had played county [for Sussex] that summer. What kind of impact player am I then? All these things only matter if you take wickets. Before that second innings when we bowled, the previous night I could not sleep. I knew that if I did not take those wickets, my career was over. After that I would watch cricket only on TV. I am speaking frankly.
Ishant was the second most prolific wicket-taker in the England Tests last year
© Getty Images
Ishant was the second most prolific wicket-taker in the England Tests last year © Getty Images
With that kind of mindset, don't you put yourself under pressure?
No. Before entering the ground I had only thought of one thing: until they were not all out, I would not stop bowling.
Did you say that to Virat?
Yes. I told him that until I tell you I am tired, don't take the ball away from me. The great thing about him was, he never asked.
Can you talk about that over where you got three wickets?
I had already bowled five overs and I had not got any wickets. But suddenly I went around the stumps and got Jonny Bairstow, then Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler. I was in my zone.
Do you find yourself in that zone more frequently now?
Now I only think: if I don't take wickets even in one innings I am done. I am not going to play for India again.
Again, does it not feel like you are putting pressure on yourself with such thinking? Or do you think it charges you positively?
No, it is a good pressure. It is a challenging pressure. You are here to take wickets. Everyone tells me you are the senior. But how do you become a senior? Not by the amount of years you have played. Seniority should be by the amount of wickets you take. People will call me senior when I take wickets at a crucial time. That is why I feel every match I play is crucial for me. That is my mindset.
You started your career in Zaheer Khan's shoes and you have now played the same number of Tests as him. How proud is he?
We don't talk too much. He is busy with his life, too. But what I learned from him, the kind of bowler I am, I cannot thank him enough. What he told me no one else would have been able to tell me about my bowling.
"I just want to take wickets. As long as wickets are coming, I am happy. Early in my career I did not even know the meaning of strike rate in bowling"
Can you give us an example?
One thing that Zak said will stay with me is: never let your head drop, always believe in yourself. That is very important for any sportsperson. Let it be any situation. Maybe you are not taking wickets, maybe you are not bowling well, but always believe in yourself, that you can come back always stronger, irrespective of whatever is happening.
There was a time when you were trying to copy Zaheer, trying to get that swing. Now you have it. You also have learned to read batsmen and conditions better. Can you talk about a couple of wickets you took recently that shows that strength of understanding the batsman's mindset or the match situation or the pitch conditions?
Recently in West Indies, in the first innings of the first Test, Roston Chase was going really well. It was raining, so the ball was not swinging, and nothing was happening on the pitch. He was playing the ball on merit and playing brilliantly.
But I noticed that he was vulnerable against the inswing. So I opened the field: I put just one slip and one gully. I felt if I set a straightish field and swung the ball and placed a short midwicket, I could get him caught there. And he got caught exactly there. You feel good that you did your homework and you executed your plans.
This Indian Test bowling unit has developed into one of the best around. According to Kohli the series wins are only possible because the bowling unit is now taking 20 wickets on any pitch. Does such praise help your confidence?
Yes, he is right. Without taking 20 wickets you cannot win a Test match, no matter how many runs you score. To get those 20 wickets, he gives us the freedom. And whenever he comes up with any idea, we try and execute it. It is not like we have to always follow what he says.
On Kohli: "Sometimes earlier if you got hit for a four despite getting the freedom to set your own field, then he might have got angry on a few occasions. But now he does not get angry at all"
© Getty Images
On Kohli: "Sometimes earlier if you got hit for a four despite getting the freedom to set your own field, then he might have got angry on a few occasions. But now he does not get angry at all" © Getty Images
Has he become less emotional, more calm, now that he has so much confidence in all of you?
Yes, he is less emotional on the field. He now understands how things work out in a Test. He listens. But as far as I am concerned, he always used to listen to me. Even on the 2015 Sri Lanka tour or later, he has never imposed on me and said I have to do only what he says.
What used to sometimes happen earlier was, if you got hit for a four despite getting the freedom to set your own field, then he might have got angry on a few occasions. But now he does not get angry at all. He is very flexible. If he thinks I am not happy or if I think he is not happy, we always change our plans. He is very accepting of what the bowler is thinking or saying.
Does speed matter to you? Some critics say that in 2008, when you rattled the Australians, you were bowling at 145kph-plus. Now you operate at about 138-140.
Speed does matter. If I am playing shorter formats - in the IPL I bowled 150kph. So I don't think pace is a problem for me. But does pace give you wickets or does moving a ball with consistency give you wickets? It is good if you can swing the ball at 140-plus, but if it is not swinging and you are bowling 145-150 kph and you are not getting any wickets, I will say that I will stick to bowling 138-140 kph. I will swing and take wickets.
One good example of how brains matter more than speed is Vernon Philander.
Yes. The biggest example is James Anderson. He is the highest wicket-taker, and he is not even bowling 140kph. Of course, they play in different conditions. But the biggest positive I take from these two is that they are really consistent in their bowling. Their length is always the same. They do not move away from that length. If you can come back in your fifth spell and consistently bowl the same length, that is a big strength. By doing that, you are making the batsman constantly play.
Eight Tests short of 100. You will be only the second Indian fast bowler to reach the landmark. What does that mean for you?
There are a lot of people - my well-wishers and friends and team-mates - who keep telling me I will be this, I will be that, I will become only the second fast bowler after Kapil paaji to play 100 Tests. But it doesn't excite me. After having experienced so many ups and downs from when I started, all that matters is to win a game for the team. How big an impact player are you? Yes, I will be great if I play 100 Tests. I will be great even if I don't play 100 Tests. But how much of an impact player am I?
Do you think you are now an impact player?
I think I am.
In 2011 you told us your career goal is to play 100 Tests and take as many wickets as possible. You hoped your body would last ten years - the time you felt you would need to reach the landmark.
At that point I was young. You don' know playing 100 Tests will be a big thing for you. But yes, I am grateful that I have served my country for so long. And I still have five-six more years. If I maintain my fitness, bowl at the same pace and take wickets, I will end up with good numbers.
Nagraj Gollapudi is news editor at ESPNcricinfo
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.