Barney Ronay, courtesy of The Guardian, http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/blog/2011/jul/22/ishant-sharma-india-aggressive
Pic courtesy of AFP/Getty
The first Test between England and India has been infused above all with a sense of reverence for the valedictory appearances of assorted great batsmen. There has been much talk about Sachin Tendulkar’s inevitable 100th international hundred, plus a likely final Test appearance at Lord’s for both Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman, whom it is fashionable to say you prefer of the three for his humility, supreme stylistic refinement and excellent initials.
Happily, though, the beauty of Test cricket lies in its vast beaded curtain of competing narratives, an entanglement of private passions and secret crushes that entwines itself around the central act. Personally I’ve been just as interested in India’s bowlers and not just the wonderful spectacle of Praveen Kumar wobbling about his expertly swerved medium slingers. Praveen has been mesmerising at times, not to mention an agreeable throwback to Indian medium-pace bowlers of the 1980s, those sombre, well-groomed, unathletic men with fretful expressions who seem to have been called away in a terrible hurry from their desk at a regional firm of chartered surveyors, and who celebrated their occasional wickets with appalled transports of bewildered arm-waggling glee, as though scarcely able to believe such a thing could happen.
But really I only have eyes for Ishant Sharma, India’s fast-bowling hope and a player who now seems to be on a decisive upward curve. I first became an Ishant fan a few years back when Matthew Hayden challenged him to a public fist-fight in the middle of a one-day series. Who could resist the galloping absurdity of the slabbed and prowling Hayden picking a fight with a cricketer who even now has the air of a sensitive youth from the scholarship set? And he has the appealingly unstyled appearance of a man who, unable to decide on his best hairstyle, has simply decided to have every hairstyle all at once, a daring fusion of long, short, back-combed, front-combed.
Plus there is also his name, which earned him an automatic spot in my Test XI of uncooperative-sounding players. This currently has Ishant and Mohammad Asif taking the new ball and Salman Butt and Jamie How opening the batting, albeit beyond the Butt, How, Ishant, Asif axis, I am struggling to recruit. A sarcastic West Indian middle order of Bravo, Bravo is edging ever closer to selection.
There are more important reasons to delight in Ishant. He is now a high-class attacking fast bowler. Or at least he looked like one in the West Indies where he took 22 wickets and radiated wild-eyed menace, albeit he was bowling to a succession of short, awkward-looking men in maroon helmets who appear to have learned how to do this only last Thursday. Presumably this is the work of Duncan Fletcher, a coach who took Steve Harmison to the West Indies seven years ago and saw another damp-eyed hopeful transformed into a force of nature, bringing to the crease his own withering weather front of chin music, chest music, elbow music, bat-handle music and various other forms of unwanted music. Harmison was dubbed “the White West Indian” and perhaps, in Sharma, Fletcher has now found the Brown West Indian, the kind of flat-track bowling bully the coach writhes and sweats and mutters about in his dreams when he’s finally tucked up in bed with just his shades and his hat and his laptop and his catching mitt and his Hawk-Eye analysis tools.
Really, though, Ishant’s appeal is more deep-rooted. It has been several summers since a genuinely hostile fast bowler visited these shores. Pakistan brought the big-haired surgical menace of Mohammad Amir and Asif last summer, but I’m talking about the kind of bowler who can intimidate, roughhouse and simultaneously captivate, the peculiar joy of the evil overseas aggressor.
To qualify as an evil overseas aggressor you need two things: to be physically imposing; and to be in some obvious way eccentric, provocative, oddly striking. Merv Hughes brought with his aggressive fast bowling a sense of untarnishable authenticity, of a collision of spirit – and he was adored in England off the pitch (I once saw him strolling past a disco wearing a stonewashed denim suit and with a peroxide blonde on each arm and felt an overwhelming sense of all being right with the world). Allan Donald was a great bowler but also had his air of sharky menace, that throat-flushing kill-stare. Glenn McGrath only really crossed over from peerless seam bowler to evil overseas aggressor when he acquired, gradually, his provocative, toasted golden brown swirling highlights hairstyle.
The relationship with the evil overseas aggressor is heavily nuanced. You hate him – but you also secretly love him. You crave his darkly thrilling presence. The repeated buffetings by the fast bowlers of the great West Indian golden era were hungrily received: we wanted to be beaten, thrillingly, by these righteous, snake-hipped, colonially enraged charisma merchants. It is a little unfair to return to the callow Ishant in the same breath, but perhaps on bouncier pitches he too might confirm his credentials. Let’s hope so. Bowling stocks are at a generational low and there are few currently who can convince in the role. Ishant has the brawn, he has the right kind of prancing magnetism. It could be the start of a beautiful animosity.