The bowling pattern in these last two years of white-ball cricket for the Men in Blue has been fairly predictable; two pacers - Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah - with Hardik Pandya and two spinners, along with a part-time option.
For a while, the Indian team management ignored calls from critics and fans to include a third pacer. They wanted to give this pace attack, including Pandya, a chance to grow together and statistics indicate as much. Since the 2017 Champions Trophy, India have played 42 ODIs, home and away. Kumar has featured in 32 of them, while Bumrah has played in 28 matches. Until his injury in the 2018 Asia Cup, Pandya played 30 ODIs in this interim.
India's experimentation in the run-up to the 2019 ODI World Cup was divided in three phases — first, they experimented with the spinners, then the number four spot, and the current final phase now, wherein they are trying to ascertain which two pacers beyond Kumar and Bumrah they would like to take to England this summer.
This last experimentation didn't happen earlier because of the aforementioned heavy-duty time that Kumar and Bumrah got to play. When asked about this facet in England, skipper Virat Kohli said that he did 'think about playing other pacers, but wanted to start the ODI series strong and played Kumar-Bumrah instead'. Then, if during those same series, 'opposition won a game or two, they were forced to play their primary pacer bowlers', given the desire to maintain a winning run.
His words play out true in the particular cases of Umesh Yadav and Mohammed Shami. In autumn of 2017, Australia and New Zealand came to tour India for limited-overs' cricket. Both Kumar and Bumrah featured in 7 out of 8 ODIs against those two sides. The only game they didn't play was in Bengaluru against Australia, when after a 3-0 series' lead, India picked Yadav and Shami instead.
Yadav picked 4-71, while Shami went for 0-62 in their respective 10-over spells. Australia scored 334-5 and India lost, busting coach Ravi Shastri's dream of series sweep over the Aussies on home soil. Shami was dropped and for a long time thereafter, India put a stop to experimentation with their pace attack.
Sample this. Yadav didn't play another ODI until the 2018 England tour, while the other pace option, Shardul Thakur also didn't feature in more than three ODIs since 2017. A third option was exercised in Siddarth Kaul, when he was first included in the home series against Sri Lanka (December 2017). Even then, he had to wait until the English summer to get his first 50-over game and hasn't played ODI cricket since the Asia Cup.
Surprisingly, Khaleel Ahmed, with seven ODIs since his debut in the Asia Cup, is the only pacer after Kumar-Bumrah to have any sizeable opportunity in the Indian first eleven, helped in no short measure by Pandya's absence for various reasons.
This is where Bumrah's 'rest' from the current ODI/T20I tours of Australia and New Zealand becomes crucial. If earlier, Kohli was unable to rest either of his primary pacers for obvious reasons, now that decision has been taken out of his hands. And it brings Shami back into the picture, ahead of Yadav, Thakur and Kaul. For a bowler who has played only five ODIs in three years since the 2015 World Cup (in Australia-New Zealand) until the game in Sydney, this is more than just a happy coincidence.
Post that World Cup, Shami had a long break from cricket owing to injury, and only made his comeback in 2016. Yet, he was never able to take back his ODI spot on return. What also didn't help was that India were mainly playing non-stop Test cricket during the 2016-17 season. While he did go to the 2017 Champions Trophy — a dry run for this upcoming World Cup — Shami fell even behind Yadav in the pecking order as India started that tournament with three pacers in their playing eleven.
The underlying point herein is simple. Shami had a wonderful 2018, wherein he took 49 wickets in 13 Tests in South Africa, England and Australia. His personal life's turmoil prevented a full 2018 IPL outing and it came as a blessing in disguise in that he was able to focus his mind off cricket. On return, he just bowled like he never went away, and through his performances, got himself back into ODI contention.
In one aspect, his absence from limited-overs' international cricket was seen as a distraction for Test cricket. Given his injury issues, the team management wanted to preserve him for the Test battles overseas. Even this was helpful, however. Fast bowlers often identify rhythm as the most vital component of their armoury, and it certainly helps that Shami has been bowling through 2018.
Compare him to Kumar's plight — not only was he overburdened in the first half of 2018, he missed a lot of cricket (especially in England) owing to injury, and has struggled to regain his bowling rhythm ever since. While he still remains a primary weapon in the World Cup plans, aspiring to regain his form in the next 12 ODIs, there is no doubt that the Indian think-tank is still searching for two names that can be part of the pace-bowling quartet to go to England this summer.
As Yadav, Thakur and Kaul have fallen by the wayside, this is Shami's chance to grasp. He can move the ball both ways, use reverse swing, has a surprising bouncer, and can bowl at the death too. Not to mention, he has World Cup experience under the belt, having played a vital part in India's journey to the semi-finals in 2015 Down Under.
Most importantly he is 'in rhythm' having built up both form and fitness through Test cricket in 2018. Sydney, thus, was a good start to 2019 for Shami, with both the red and white ball. A clear-run of ODI games now and the World Cup should be his next target.