Maybe Ishant Sharma’s strength, like Samson, lies in his hair. His splendid black mane, resplendent with the care and attention it gets, has often been more noticeable than his bowling. Thankfully, things changed for the better in Sri Lanka, as India came away with the rarest of rare prizes — an overseas series win.
The lessons learnt from this series were important. Some need to be implemented, some need to be discarded.
One of the biggest lessons, or shall we say, the biggest takeaway from this series was Virat Kohli’s credentials as a captain. Kohli is quite an antithesis from Mahendra Singh Dhoni. He is a more transparent person, who makes his ambitions, likes and dislikes, even his tactics in the field, quite evident. Quite the opposite from Dhoni, who would be obdurate, evasive and downright indifferent at times.
So when Kohli decided before the series that taking 20 wickets in each match was key, it was a change from an approach that Dhoni, or the other captains before him had been implementing.
Kohli decided that five batsmen and an all-rounder would have to deliver the goods, so that five bowlers could be deployed. So India threw in two seamers and three spinners right from Galle.
Effectively, it worked. India should have really won the series 3-0. Ending Day Four at 23 for one, chasing a very moderate 175, they had no business losing. But they managed to conjure up a loss.
But that said, Kohli’s five-bowler plan had worked. It was the batsmen who had let them down.
There were changes, naturally, after the loss, but the essence of the attack was kept intact. Kohli obviously wasn’t too impressed by Harbhajan Singh, who couldn’t make the most of a rather unmerited return to the big league. In came Stuart Binny.
Binny may not be most suited as a Test batsman but he did his part as the fifth bowler and with the bowling combination being dictated by the pitches — both the P Sara Stadium and Sinhalese Sports Club pitches ending up being remarkably pace friendly — Kohli went in with three seamers in Ishant, Umesh Yadav and Binny, with R. Ashwin and Amit Mishra adding the spin variant.
The result was that India managed to come back from a crushing 0-1 deficit to win the series, something that the side has hardly ever done before.
While the win was great, it wasn’t without its question marks. The batting was unsteady throughout and barring some displays, always left a lot to be desired. Ironically, the best batting display came in the first innings at Galle, with Shikhar Dhawan and Kohli getting centuries and Wriddhiman Saha adding his bit as the all-rounder. But thereafter, it was a litany of on and off performances. Granted, there were injuries — India lost Dhawan and soon were short of Murali Vijay and then Saha. Granted too that Dhammika Prasad and the other Lankan bowler probed and questioned the Indian batting mercilessly. But to see the same batsmen getting three figures in one knock and then struggle to reach 20 in the next was pretty symptomatic of the problem.
Then there was the No. 3 position. Rohit Sharma is not a Test No. 3. To be honest, he is still barely a Test batsman, his half-century in the last innings (at No. 5). Kohli got one hundred and then faded. K.L. Rahul did pretty much the same. Cheteshwar Pujara carried the bat at SSC in the first innings and was cleaned up for a duck in the second. Ajinkya Rahane battled on with the shift in batting positions to claim a century in the second Test as No. 3, but struggled otherwise. So India are now a side which has good bowlers, an aggressive captain and no No. 3. This worked because Sri Lanka themselves were too confused and disorganised on the batting front. May not work against a more cohesive unit.
But in all, the plus side had more ticks. On top of the discard list would be Ishant’s temper tantrums. Given that the third Test was the last in this series, any action to be taken by the International Cricket Council (ICC) would likely take effect from the next series, which would be the one against South Africa. So in the event there is a ban or such, India will miss his services. So would that be worth it? Ishant’s job is to get wickets, be as hostile on the pitch as he can be. Does he need to bellow at dismissed batsmen from a distance of two feet? Does he need to get into arguments with the opposition? Or do those antics of hitting himself on the head, which could only result in an injury to his bowling hand.
Or worse, damage his hairdo. That would be sacrilege!