There’s a lot to like about the current Indian Test team, and Mohammed Shami is the face of one of the great transformations in Indian cricket over the last decade. India is a country of spinners, their entire cricketing history has leaned on the backbone of those wily, cunning craftsmen who would use land and air to sell batsmen a million elusive dreams. Fast bowlers, in this part of the world, have been a lot like comets, most are unnoticeable, but the brightest ones only show up once in a generation.
There were tremors in the New Zealand, England and Australia tours between 2013 and 2014, but it was truly during the 2015 ICC World Cup when reality finally dawned. Cricket in Australia has always meant early alarms and crusty-eyed searches for the television remote. As match after match slowly broke their sleep, India woke up to a national team which used their fast bowlers as spearheads and not softening machines for the spinners, and the result was devastating. By the time India landed in Sydney for the semi-final, they were looking well-primed to defend their title from 2011. In a batting-obsessed era of cricket, bowling is often the differentiator, and MS Dhoni’s men had bowled out the opposition in each of the seven matches they had played.
They lost the semi-final, but there was so much that India could take back from that tournament, and the biggest positive was the impact of their fast-bowlers and how they finally had an entire pool of genuine speedsters to choose from. Umesh Yadav, Shami and Mohit Sharma all bowled well north of 140 kmph, and picked up 48 wickets in eight matches between them. Shami’s 17 wickets came at an average of 17.59 and he gave away less than five runs an over in conditions tailor-made for explosive batting.
In Shami, India have found an old-fashioned fast bowler. He likes to present an upright seam, is almost always up for bowling the difficult overs, and loves to bowl for wickets. In Test cricket, especially outside the sub-continent, Shami’s attacking mindset becomes a massive asset for his captain, even if at times, it can go awry. Usually a picture of directness and single-minded focus towards hitting the stumps, he has, at times in his career, lost complete control of his rhythm and struggled to get it back early enough.
His tendency to meander showed up at its worst in the first Test of the 2014 series in England. Everything seemed to go India’s way for the first two and a half days — they scored 457 batting first and then had England at 298-9 — until their two biggest nightmares showed up: failing to bowl out the tail, and letting opponents off the hook in the first Test of an away series. Joe Root and James Anderson stitched together a world record partnership and India let go of a glorious chance to keep England on the mat.
His technical and mental growth since that wretched match has reflected India’s, as a Test team. At Johannesburg earlier this year, while chasing a victory that most previous teams from this country wouldn’t have dreamt of pursuing, Shami walked in with the lead at less than 200 and only three wickets left in hand. His gutsy and hard-hitting 27 helped set a respectable target of 241 on a deteriorating pitch. During the last innings, just as India started to find a way through the South African middle order, Virat Kohli went to Shami, and got a return of three wickets in nine balls, all of them clean bowled. India needed that victory, more than anything else just to show as a result for the positive cricket they had played throughout the series, and for once, they didn’t let the tail keep them at bay.
This summer, with Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah unavailable for selection, Shami is once again India’s spearhead for a Test series. In Kohli, he has a captain who lives by his fast bowlers, and it’s time to repay that faith once more. It is always difficult when you’re one from a pool of candidates, rather than being a favorite, but in front of a season that has an Australia tour and the World Cup lined up, this is Shami’s chance to stand out as leader of the pack. He, like many others from this squad, would be itching to avenge the horrors of their previous Test tour of England.
If Shami clicks, apart from having a potent bowling force, India will also have a bowler capable of bowling the most memorable deliveries. In between all the edges and caught-behinds and leg-before wickets, Shami, more than any other fast bowler in India, is capable of producing the delivery that will find a place in your memory for the longest time. Just ask Alastair Cook.