South Africa tour likely to be the end of rainbow for struggling Ishant Sharma

The upcoming South Africa tour, in all likelihood, is going to be Ishant Sharma’s last hurrah. With India’s pace department boasting of several young pacers, along with seasoned stars, the national selectors have decided to look beyond the Delhi seamer with 100-plus Tests under his belt. Ishant, along with the two other 33-year-olds in the squad, Ajnikya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara, will be under the scanner during the series that starts with the Boxing Day Test at Centurion.

“Rahane’s removal as vice-captain is a clear warning signal to him. As a senior member in the side, he needs to contribute more. Same is true for Pujara also. He too has been around for a long time and now the team expects him to play those crucial knocks in big games. In case they score and have a significant impact on the series, they might be able to extend their Test careers. But in the case of Ishant, this could be it,” a top BCCI official told The Indian Express.

With Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami rising to prominence, Ishant has long lost his status as India’s pace spearhead. He is now the third or fourth-choice pacer, depending on conditions and team combination. But the emergence of the likes of Mohammed Siraj and Shardul Thakur has given the team management a problem of plenty. Several other fast bowlers like Prasidh Krishna, Avesh Khan and Navdeep Saini have been waiting in the wings for long. Umran Malik, who created a lot of excitement with his raw pace during the last Indian Premier League season, is another fast bowler whose progress is being closely monitored by the selection committee. Ishant’s race is run.

India’s next Test assignment after the South Africa tour is a home series against Sri Lanka in February-March and the team usually doesn’t include more than two fast bowlers in the playing XI in home conditions. The next overseas Test is a one-off affair at Old Trafford in the summer, when the Covid-forced postponed game will be played to complete last season’s five-match series. This has also impacted the selectors’ decision to call time on Ishant’s career.

Over the past 12 months, Ishant has played eight Tests, taking 14 wickets at 32.71. He has also struggled to manage his workload, as was evident during the England tour earlier this year. After a good show in the second Test at Lord’s, where he took five wickets across both innings, a visibly- fatigued Ishant fizzled in the third Test at Headingley, conceding 92 runs in 22 overs without a wicket.

In the first Test against New Zealand in Kanpur last month, he looked woefully out of rhythm. The Green Park pitch barely assisted him, but during the 15 overs Ishant bowled in the first innings, the veteran seamer looked ineffective. He bowled just seven in the second innings and when, after lunch on the final day, India turned to pace, Umesh Yadav was preferred to get some reverse swing. Umesh bowled an excellent spell, taking William Somerville’s wicket and repeatedly troubling Kane Williamson, as Ishant became peripheral. A finger injury during the game ruled him out of the second Test.

After the Kanpur Test, India’s bowling coach Paras Mhambrey defended Ishant, citing his lack of match fitness. “He hasn’t played much for a long time. He wasn’t there in the IPL nor (did he play) the T20 World Cup, and that makes a difference. So yes, we are working on it,” Mhambrey had said.

Looking to the future

India’s Ishant Sharma celebrates the fall of England’s Jonny Bairstow with his teammates. (AP)

The World Test Championship final followed by the England tour earlier this year was the end of a cycle for the Indian team, with the team management looking to usher in a “seamless transition”. Ravi Shastri stepped down as the team’s head coach after the T20 World Cup. His successor, Rahul Dravid, has always shown a keen interest in nurturing youth, right from his days as India U-19 coach. Under him, Shivam Mavi and Kamlesh Nagarkoti burst onto the scene at the 2018 U-19 World Cup, grabbing lucrative IPL contracts with Kolkata Knight Riders after setting the speed gun on fire. Both are expected to carry on with their development under fast bowling coach Troy Cooley at the National Cricket Academy. Creating a pool of young fast bowlers, with an eye to the future, ranks high on the cricket board’s agenda.

Both Bumrah and Shami, the undisputed leading pair, have some years ahead left in international cricket. Siraj, since making his Test debut in Australia last year, has taken 33 wickets in 10 matches, including a five-for and two four-wicket hauls. His pace-burst during New Zealand’s first innings at Wankhede – 3/19 in four overs – was what India missed in the first Test. Bumrah and Shami were rested for the home Tests against the Kiwis, while a bloated 18-member squad for the South Africa tour has allowed Ishant to have a farewell series.

Throughout his career, Ishant has taken the rough with the smooth. The Perth Test in 2008 was his moment of recognition. Lord’s in 2014 – 7/74 in the second innings – was his crowning glory. When poor form forced him out of the Indian team, he turned to former Aussie pacer Jason Gillespie at Sussex to revive his career. After claiming 311 wickets in 105 Tests, Ishant will play out his last act against the Proteas.

Pujara, Rahane on borrowed time

Pujara and Rahane Both Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara couldn’t make strong cases in the Kanpur Test against New Zealand. (File)

It is also learnt that the upcoming Test series is the last chance saloon for Pujara and Rahane. “They have to score big runs (to avoid the axe), not 40s and 50s,” the BCCI functionary said.

Shreyas Iyer’s sensational Test debut against the Kiwis has made the middle-order competition even more intense. With Suryakumar Yadav, Shubman Gill (considered a middle-order option when Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul are available) and Hanuma Vihari vying for a spot alongside Iyer, the two senior batsmen have little margin for error. The selection committee has already given them a long rope.

Pujara has scored 686 runs in 13 Tests over the past 12 months. His average during this period, 29.82, is well below his career average of 44.82. His last Test century came three years ago. Rahane’s stats are even worse – 411 runs from 12 Tests over the last 12 months, at an average of 19.57. Surprisingly, his form nosedived following a match-winning hundred in Melbourne last year. Rahane was left out of the playing XI in the second Test against New Zealand under the pretext of a hamstring strain. He has now lost his Test vice-captaincy as well.

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