Wednesday 22 August 2018

Third Test Notes: Ishant Sharma Keeps Running In; The Conversion Of Jonny Bairstow

Ishant Sharma was born in 1988. The Indian cricket team began that year by playing West Indies in Chennai, the final game of a four Test series. Opening the bowling for West Indies were Patrick Patterson and Courtney Walsh. Opening the bowling for India were Kapil Dev and Mohinder Amarnath. India won by 255 runs. Kapil sent down eleven overs in the match, Amarnath, in what was his 69th and last Test, just five.

Mohinder Amarnath took 32 wickets in his Test career and was really a batsman, but that didn't matter, because India was no place for fast bowlers. Kapil was simply the exception that proved the rule. Any cricket-mad parent would wish first that their kid was a batter, second that they were a spinner, thirdly, and impossibly, that they may be as good as Kapil. A fast bowler... Well in India, that was a calling of a different, far harsher kind...

When Ishant Sharma made his Test match debut in 2007, only four Indian fast bowlers had ever taken more than 100 Test wickets: Kapil, Karsan Ghavri, Javagal Srinath and Zaheer Khan, and of those, only Zaheer was still playing. At Perth in January 2008, Ishant Sharma, nineteen years old and running in like Peter Crouch trying to beat the offside trap, did something extraordinary. During the second innings he bowled a spell at Ricky Ponting that lives in the memory of all that saw it. Lightning-quick and with hurtful bounce, he barked the knuckles of the great number three, speared his head backwards on his neck, had him kicking at the crease-line open-eyed and rattled during eight overs that one reporter called: "as good as anything seen from a visiting fast bowler in a decade". Almost out on his feet, Sehwag urged him to bowl a ninth, and in it Ponting nicked to Dravid. India won. A star was born.

But it was just the fourth Test match for this nascent star. Ishant Sharma - gauche, gummy, rail-thin, accident-prone - had many miles still to travel. On dead pitches and in white-ball shoot-outs, he lost first his pace, then his confidence. When it happened, he stood out for the wrong reasons, too tall, too lanky, hidden in the field, lost at the bowling crease. His first fifty wickets cost him 31.76. By the time he had seventy-five, it was 37.40.

He came to Lord's in 2014 with 174, behind only Kapil, Srinath and Zaheer, the average still over 37, and bounced England out in one mad and glorious afternoon. With the old ball he produced what David Hopps described as "one of the most memorable spells in the history of Indian fast bowling," a careening rocket ride either side of lunch that brought India their first overseas Test win for more than three years, and only their second ever at Lord's.

Hopps went on: "India... will have eyes only for the performance of Ishant, who returned career-best figures of 7 for 74 and invited comparisons with the brilliant spell in Perth in 2008 when he roughed up no less a player of fast bowling than Ricky Ponting and encouraged India's hopes that they had a great fast bowler to reckon with. Ishant's career has never quite turned out like that..."

Ten months after Ishant had bowled that spell at Perth, Mitchell Johnson debuted for Australia against Sri Lanka. And the winter before Ishant destroyed England at Lord's, Mitchell Johnson had destroyed England in Australia. Johnson, who shared Ishant's capacity for haplessness as well as brilliance, had the classic, redemptive career arc, a three-act structure beloved of all scriptwriters: early promise, then rocky road, followed by last-reel, feel-good fulfilment.

In the week that Mitch hung them up for good, Ishant came to Trent Bridge with India needing something, anything, from a player other than Virat Kohli. They got it, too. England resumed their second innings miles behind but with their openers intact as the fourth day began. By inducing edges from first Jennings and then Cook, Ishant kicked open the door.

On the radio, Jonathan Agnew said of him: "He's not quite a one-trick pony, that would be harsh..." It was a backhanded compliment and you knew what he meant. Everyone understood how Ishant would bowl to England's left-handers, including Alastair Cook, who Ishant had dismissed ten times. Stopping him was another matter, and that is a hallmark of quality.

We invest great hopes and dreams in fast bowlers, yet even the real bruisers like Ryan Harris and Pat Cummins are physically fragile, always at the limits of what their bodies can do. Many of them, like Mitch and Ishant, are at the whim of the fates too, subject to a muse and rhythm that descends when it feels like it, rather than when we all think it should.

Things have changed for Ishant and for India. On TV commentary, Michael Holding noted that pitches for domestic competition there have become more conducive to fast bowling (well, it would have been hard for them to become less conducive...) and around Ishant were Jasprit Bumrah bowling in-slanting rockets for his first Test five-fer, and Mohammed Shami with his reverse swing touching 90mph. They have another swing bowling, hard-hitting all-rounder on the books, too, and plenty more where they came from.

Ishant has walked the bridge between then and now, and at times it has been a treacherous one to cross. The average is down to 35.16, and he has 249 wickets, behind only Zaheer and Kapil on the list. He has served his calling the best he can. He may not get Mitchell Johnson's final-act finish, but Ishant Sharma keeps running in.

NB: Sky produced an interesting stat: At the Trent Bridge Test, every Indian seamer bowled at least one delivery quicker than any of the England seamers

The Conversion of Jonny Bairstow

In a moment that felt like a Passing Of The Gloves, Jonny Bairstow got a broken finger and a golden duck, departing the crease moments after the standing ovation for Jos Buttler's century. The Gods seem to be pointing one way: Bairstow as the specialist batsman England crave, free from the onorous physicality of keeping wicket, Buttler as keeper, batting enforcer and captain in waiting.

England have middle order problems for sure, but they're nothing like England's top-order problems, where the openers don't score any runs and the number three looks tired, haunted and desperate to come in at number four. A thought emerged, from some knowledgeable ex-pros and commentators, that perhaps Bairstow, sans gloves, should open the batting.

My view, which is becoming, like many of my views, less popular by the second, is that Bairstow is not an opener in five-day cricket. His technique for the short forms is radically different, as demonstrated by the trouble he had in the first Test of the India series when he was so leg side of the ball he was almost conversing with the square leg umpire.

But there's a more interesting reason too. Bairstow would be making a strange kind of history should he successfully make such a switch. Trent Bridge was his 56th Test. He has batted 98 times, once, in 2016, at number four, and that aside, never higher than five. It poses the question, has anyone in the modern era successfully converted to opening so late in their career having never batted in the top four?

I couldn't think of anyone immediately, so I put out a Tweet, which produced this list of suggestions: Virender Sehwag; Justin Langer; Sanath Jayasuriya; Brendon McCullum; Simon Katich; Shane Watson; Tillakaratne Dilshan; Alec Stewart; Michael Vaughan; Ravi Shastri; Graham Gooch; Greg Blewett.

A pretty quick and unscientific search of cricinfo turned up the following info on when each first opened in a Test; their average as opener; and overall career average (F/T = full-time opener):

Sehwag: First opened in 6th Test; 8027 runs at 50.04; career 49.34
Langer: 2nd Test (F/T 42nd Test); 5112 runs at 48.22; career 45.27
Jayasuriya: 14th Test; 5932 runs at 41.48; career 40.07
McCullum: 1st Test (F/T 52nd Test); 1316 runs @39.87; career 38.64
Katich: 24th Test; 2928 runs at 50.48; career 45.03
Watson: 9th Test; 2049 runs @ 40.98; career 35.19
Dilshan: 55th Test; 2170 runs at 42.52; career 40.98
Stewart: 3rd Test; 3348 runs at 44.64; career 39.54
Vaughan: 16th Test; 3093 runs at 45.48; career 41.44
Shastri: 11th Test; 1101 runs at 44.04; career 35.79
Gooch: 3rd Test; 7811 runs at 43.88; career 42.58
Blewett: 34th Test; 588 runs at 29.40; career 34.02

On closer examination, many of these are easy to discount. Sehwag, Vaughan and Jayasuriya shifted early in their careers, and were top order batsmen already. Shane Watson also moved early and later dropped back down, as did Ravi Shastri. Justin Langer spent almost all of his first 40 Tests at number three. Simon Katich had been out of the Australian side for two and a half years when he returned as an opener. Graham Gooch spent the 1978-9 Ashes at number four plus a portion of the following summer, but opened for virtually all of his international career. Greg Blewett moved relatively late, and his record as an opener was worse than I remembered.

The remaining three are more intriguing. Tillakaratne Dilshan had played just two Tests fewer than Bairstow when he began opening, and like Bairstow, had never really batted higher than five.

McCullum and Stewart both kept wicket for long periods of their careers, and their key stat is perhaps average with and without the gloves. McCullum averaged 34.18 as keeper and 42.94 as a batsman. Alec Stewart was even more affected, averaging 34.92 with the gloves and 46.70 without.

Bairstow turns that stat on its head, averaging 42.33 when keeping and 28.96 when not. Surrendering the gloves and moving up to open after more Tests than anyone in the modern era would be quite a feat - according to the numbers at least.


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