India pacer Ishant Sharma, at the age of 34, is a conspicuous name in Delhi’s first-class squad that will look to stem the state’s run of poor performances over the past few years in Ranji Trophy, the country’s premier domestic competition, which gets underway on December 13.
Except that the lanky bowler, who has played 105 Test matches for India and taken 311 Test wickets, will be playing only a few matches leaving the combination a bit shaken again.
Sharma, who played his last Test for India in November last year prior to last season’s Ranji games that were played in February-March this year, has been stretching his career as he finds himself in the final lap of his career.
In the national one-dayers for the Vijay Hazare Trophy last month, Ishant played just three out of Delhi’s seven games and took five wickets.
Even last season, in Ranji Trophy, he played two of Delhi’s three games as Delhi crashed out after finishing fourth in a four-team Group H.
Quite dishearteningly for Delhi, he bowled just 23 overs in the two matches out of the 293 overs in those Ranji matches.
It has upset some of the officials at the Delhi and District Cricket Association (DDCA) following last year’s poor results but the chief selector Gagan Khoda, who is into his first season in the job, says it is important to give Sharma breaks and they need him for the experience.
“We are looking at a senior player like Ishant Sharma to last the entire season. We don’t want him, with his age, to be in a position where we lose his services towards the business end of the tournament. It is we who are giving him the breaks and not asking him to play all the games,” said Khoda, a former India international who plied his batsmanship for Rajasthan in first-class cricket.
Khoda confirmed that, at the moment, he will be playing all the home games at the Ferozeshah Kotla grounds. Delhi will play three matches at the Kotla.
“Ishant will play all three matches at home because he would be expected to perform on the pitch here,” said Khoda.
The former India opener added that it is too much to ask for a title-winning squad in his first season in the selector’s role.
“Yes, Delhi hasn’t done well for some time now. We are not looking to win this year. This is my first year as a selector, so I am in the process of building the team. I am trying to build a base from which I can have a team in the future. It will take a couple of years. And I am sure after a couple of years, the team will be among the top three teams in the country,” added Khoda while speaking to The Patriot.
Khoda is among a number of coaching and selection staff that DDCA has called up from outside the state hoping for an unbiased selection process across age groups.
However, the start of the season – with limited-overs cricket — for the senior team hasn’t been good. They crashed out of the Vijay Hazare one-dayers in the group stage only, failing to make it to even the preliminary quarter-finals which is the prequarter-finals. Two of their wins came against weak teams from the Northeast – Sikkim and Meghalaya, not counting for much.
In the Syed Mushtaq Ali T20 tournament in October, Delhi won six of their eight matches in the preliminary group stage, finishing second in Elite Group B.
However, they lost their first game in the knockouts – the quarter-final to Vidarbha – to crash out of the tournament.
Last year in Ranji Trophy, they lost to Jharkhand and drew with Chhattisgarh and Tamil Nadu. They were expected to win at least the matches against the former two teams in which Ishant played. However, they allowed Chhattisgarh to get close to 500 runs in one of those games.
In the recent past, Delhi has struggled in the Ranji Trophy. The last time they did well was in the 2017-18 season, when they reached the final and lost to Vidarbha. In 2019-20, Delhi finished eighth in the Elite cross pool. In 2018-19, Delhi finished an abysmal ninth in nine teams in Elite Group B.
Bhaskar Pillay, a former Delhi prolific batsman, was the chief coach in the successful 2017-18 season. According to him, you need to take full points from many matches to ensure that your tally of points increases. For full points, you need to win matches outright and for that you need to take wickets, he says.
“When you take maximum points from matches, you qualify. If you want six or seven (with a bonus) points, you need to take 20 wickets. When I took charge, I realised that batsmen had been the captains and they had batsmen’s perspective. But I wanted Ishant [Sharma] to lead the team because I wanted the bowler’s perspective to take 20 wickets or more. He bowled so beautifully for us. He won us three games. He wanted to prove himself to make a comeback to the Indian team and that is how we qualified for the final,” says Pillay to The Patriot.
Ishant picked 20 wickets in four league matches, bowling 116 overs. He had motivation back then to return to the India team which he did and had to miss the knockouts due to India duties. But does he have any motivation left now especially since he is not in the India Test team reckoning?
That is a question that the team management needs to answer before picking him, say some experts.
“To win outright and get maximum points to make it knockouts, you need a good, strong bowling line-up. You bowl the opposition out twice and that is how you gather big points and qualify. All four of our pace bowlers back then could bowl at around 140. Ishant was brilliant not just as a bowler, but as captain,” recalls Pillay.
But bowling has been a bit of a weak point for Delhi in recent times and many of these players like left-armer Pradeep Sangwan (32) and Ishant are getting older. Even India international Navdeep Saini, who is currently playing for India A vs Bangladesh A and had a mixed outing there, is 30.
Khoda says some youngsters are being considered.
“There are quite a few players from among the youngsters – the U-19 and U-25 squads — that we are considering and looking at. We have some of them in the list of  probables,” said Khoda.
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