Mohammed Shami’s fine spell on the last day of the first Test against South Africa perhaps masked how tough the wicket at the Dr YS Rajasekhara Reddy Cricket Stadium, Visakhapatnam, was for the fast bowlers. With an incisive burst on the fifth morning, the India pacer made it appear as if he was bowling on a juicy deck. After all, he was extracting movement at sharp pace.
There was another story in the game—the performances of the other pacers. Kagiso Rabada, the new pace sensation, had one wicket in the match, his senior partner, Vernon Philander, had a tally of two wickets in two innings and Shami’s new-ball partner Ishant Sharma had one wicket in the match.
It is in this comparison that Shami’s match-winning haul (5/35) really stands out. What it underlined was how Shami simply took out the pitch out of the equation in dismantling the Proteas batsmen. That he did with no help from the fielders, getting four of his victims bowled, adds lustre to his performance.
OLD BALL SKILL
It didn’t just happen. In the days leading up to the game, Shami had prepared exactly for such a scenario where the challenge was to overcome the conditions, an unresponsive pitch in hot and humid weather.
“Before joining the team he was here only with us (Moradabad in Uttar Pradesh), and spent almost 10 days training at our academy working with the boys,” said his childhood coach Badruddin Siddique.
“His main focus at training was on bowling with the old ball. Bowling in India, he is aware that he will have a limited role to play with the new ball.”
The feature of Shami’s spell to the South African middle-order (T Bavuma, Faf du Plessis and Quinton de Kock) was how he surprised the batsmen with movement. “It’s not about getting reverse swing; if you don’t get to reverse from the right length you won’t get any benefit. It’s not easy to control reverse swing, and Shami was working on the accuracy of bringing the ball from outside off to hit off-stump,” said Siddique.
It begins to explain why Shami is a tough customer even on the slower home pitches.
Soon after Shami had made his India debut in the ODIs (January, 2013) and then produced a few impressive spells in the series against England, former skipper Sourav Ganguly gave his assessment: “Shami does bowl the heavy ball.”A heavy ball is cricket speak for a delivery that is quicker than it looks and hits the bat harder or higher than is expected to.
Also the master of bowling with the heavy ball, where one side is kept rough and the other soaked in sweat and shining, Shami was ready on the final day when captain Virat Kohli summoned him. His coach knew he was waiting for that very moment, the surface scruffed up by four days of wear and tear offering the bowler variable bounce.
Add his superb seam position and metronomic accuracy, and it spells more danger to the batsmen. On a wearing pitch, when the cracks begin to widen, it plays tricks when the seam hits them at the right length and line, and the batsman is often on a wing and a prayer.
De kock foxed
It was no surprise Shami’s four victims were bowled. Accuracy, pace, seam and a hint of reverse all together proved lethal. Ask Quinton de Kock, the first-innings centurion.
The left-handed batsman played a touch away from his body, pushing forward having judged the line of the ball outside off-stump. It hit a crack and nipped back a couple of inches, enough to go between bat and pad and hit the stumps.
Temba Bavuma too had no clue. He played the right line, but Shami almost always pitches it farther than the three-fourths length pacers usually adopt on sub-continent pitches. The ball hit a crack and stayed low and straight, going under his bat to hit off-stump.
Thus it is no surprise that four of Shami’s five five-wicket innings hauls have come in the second innings. Three have led to Indian victories, including the third Test at Johannesburg in early 2018. The 2015 Sydney game was drawn while Australia won in Perth in the 2018-19 series that India claimed 2-1.
The jostling for spots among Indian pacers has become intense, especially since Jasprit Bumrah made his Test debut in South Africa last year. Sharma has the height to bowl bouncers, and has worked on fitness to be able to do the holding job.
Shami is not as fast as Umesh Yadav or tall as Sharma, but has is an integral part of the pace line-up due to the skills he brings to the party. However, some of his great spells have gone unrewarded.
Last year in England, he produced a great spell in the Oval Test, repeatedly troubling skipper Joe Root and Alastair Cook, both set and on way to big centuries. The wicket just didn’t come, but fans in the stands behind him gave a standing ovation after each over as he got back to his fielding spot in the deep.
If Shami hasn’t consistently stayed in the limelight on the field, it has had to do with knee trouble, which robbed him of a full year following the 2015 World Cup. That explains why he has played just 43 Tests, taking 158 wickets at an average of 28.45.
He has returned strongly, and has not lost focus despite a domestic dispute in the last one year.
Ask his coach Siddique and he attributes his success more than anything to improved fitness.
“He has raised his fitness to a very high level. It has helped him in his rhythm, and when he is in rhythm, he is one of the most dangerous bowlers in the world.”