For the first time since the 2015 ODI World Cup semi-final in Sydney, Mohammed Shami bowled in international cricket in the first Test in Antigua. An overworked mule for much of the 2014-15 season, his knees had troubled him in the early stages of that tournament. But he had soldiered on. Thereafter, to say that he missed a lot of cricket would be an understatement. Never mind his limited-overs’ duties, he was absent from the Test series wins in Sri Lanka and at home against South Africa.
Now, at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium, on a flat track and with a 500-plus score he was charging in again. It isn’t easy coming from an injury, even if a relatively short-term one. To return from one that lasted nearly 18 months, especially for a fast bowler, is a test of patience and determination. A quick wicket on return then is an assurance in this uphill task. At stumps on day two, Shami had already achieved that level as the hapless Rajendra Chandrika had edged an outswinger.
Day three came about then, and approved that the fast bowler in him was raring to go full tilt again. It was the third ball of his second spell that morning, when a back-of-length delivery rose sharply to surprise Darren Bravo, who nicked it behind. Four overs later, another outswinger, a fuller delivery and Marlon Samuels was stuck at his crease. Two balls later, Jermaine Blackwood drove hard at another full delivery and was caught at gully by Ajinkya Rahane.
The Antigua pitch has been true to the Caribbean nature nowadays, placid and forcing, an aggressive ploy of five bowlers. The batsmen found it easy there, atleast the Indian batting did, and India’s romp by an innings had ticked all the boxes, Shami’s return included.
The Sabina Park pitch was a different beast altogether, especially on the first day. It looked a juicy green beauty for a couple days prior, and cheekily enough the grounds men shaved enough grass off on the morning of the match. Even so, West Indies again were caught wrong-footed as Shami gelled well with Ishant Sharma to reduce them to 7/3.
It was in the second innings though that the ‘Slinger from Bengal’ spit fire. A hard, new cherry in hand, overcast conditions on day four, and roughly an hour of play was possible. The West Indies’ batsmen though could be forgiven to think that Shami had channeled tropical storm Earl’s fury.
A sharp mix of outswing and inswing, coupled with bounce that his action affords, and the batsmen were skipping and hopping. Bravo, in particular, looked a bunny caught in the headlights of an oncoming car. Shami had worked on his weakness, the short ball, and hit him on the forehand as soon as he had come to the crease. Thereafter he peppered him with short stuff, and twice edges flew through vacant catching positions.
Bravo was gone soon after, a short-ball dismissal of course, but not before Samuels’ defence was crashed through and his off-stump knocked back. Perhaps his best was yet to come, an inswinger that beat Blackwood’s bat by a mile. It nearly bowled him, the batsman clueless and not good enough to get out off that peach of a delivery. Unplayable is the word that comes to mind.
“That was the best spell I think I have seen from a fast bowler in recent times,” said Indian coach Anil Kumble. “And he bowled well throughout day five as well, in the 140s. It isn’t easy coming back after 18 months of injury and it says a lot about his fitness and motivation as well.”
As the former leg-spinner pointed out thereafter, Shami’s problem was with his knees, which in turn was associated with the way he ran up to the crease. The bowler has now eased up this stress factor by shortening his steps taken during the run-up. Mind you, the length of the run-up stays the same and there is no drop in pace. That is definitive good news for Indian fans who are used to fast bowlers dropping pace after return from injury.
Additionally, his bouncer has become more penetrative, with the ability to surprise the batsmen in the mix of his regular swinging deliveries. Herein, the bounce Shami generated in Antigua is a perfect example. It was in contrast to what Shannon Gabriel managed, and the West Indies’ pacer is considered to be quicker than the Indian.
At the same time, the aspect of height attained by the ball after pitching was considerably, and deceivingly, different from what Shami had achieved in Australia (2014-15), the last time he had played Test cricket. More importantly, it was his consistency in hitting the right lengths across four innings that came into sharp focus.
There are two instances in the last two Tests, when the pacers needed to work out the batsmen – the first when night watchman Devendra Bishoo was batting on day three in Antigua, and the second, in Kingston, when R Ashwin was not given the ball first up on day five and instead the pacers were called into action.
Against Bishoo then, when play started, Ishant and Shami shared the ball. The former was disappointing in his line and length throughout that first Test, and this time was no different. Against a lower-order batsman, the leader of India’s attack took a while to adjust his length. It allowed Bishoo to rotate the strike and then Kraigg Brathwaite held on nicely.
Shami though had tested Bishoo more, making him play all the time. In a bid to find more gap between bat and ball, the batsman tried to move towards the legside in his stance. The bowler covered that angle up by coming round the wicket to the left-hander. That only one pacer was effective in this spell could be seen from the fact that Virat Kohli soon replaced Ishant with Amit Mishra, and attacked with the leg-spinner from one end.
As such, Blackwood’s plan to hit Shami out of the attack immediately on day five in Sabina Park comes to light. It reflects how, out of the three pacers, he has threatened the West Indies’ batsmen the most. By getting him out of action, the batsmen were able to contend better with both Ishant, content on bowling short of length wide outside the off-stump, and Umesh Yadav, bowling single-mindedly short-ball ploy.
It begs the question, if Kohli was hampered by the simple fact that only one of his three pacers was attacking the batsmen on a pitch that was increasingly getting easier to bat on as day five progressed. The Indian think tank ought to come across this pointer in their post-mortem of the third Test, even as it celebrates the return of Shami to full steam.