India’s fine win in the first one-day international against New Zealand in Napier brought along a huge bonus – Mohammed Shami’s bowling proclaimed loud and clear that he is back in the thick of things in white-ball cricket. Two wickets with the new ball and a third in the middle overs were rewards for fast, accurate, straight bowling and evidence of his intent.
Anyone watching these two spells would have been convinced that he is back to his best, hurrying batsmen into domains of doubt and indiscretion. The delight in watching him bowl on Wednesday was quite similar to the time he first surfaced as a rookie paceman. It was apt that he completed the feat of becoming the fastest to 100 ODI wickets for an Indian bowler.
Speaking of his six overs in Napier, the 22 dot balls he bowled is just as significant a piece of statistics as the three wickets are. But then cold statistics do not reveal the intensity with which he delivered his overs. His battles with Martin Guptill in the opening over and Mitchell Santner when he came back to bowl two overs with the old ball were a treat to watch.
The first two overs saw him prise out Guptill and Colin Munro and pegging the Kiwis on the backfoot for the rest of its innings. The manner in which he bowled straight removed the option for the home batsmen to target the shorter square boundaries, highlighting his acute awareness of the ground conditions and the demands placed on bowlers.
The wonderful line and length that he hit in Napier would have pleased the thinktank after he seemed rusty in the two games against the West Indies in India. He conceded 160 runs in the matches in Guwahati and Visakhapatnam and that would have caused deep furrows on the foreheads of the Indian team’s brains trust.
For quite a while, the selectors and the team management were giving a range of fast bowlers the opportunity to seal the deal. Yet, hard as they tried, those on the periphery were unable to make a strong enough impression to be able to secure their place in the squad on a consistent basis. It needed Shami to overcome injury and personal trauma for the attack to get a more complete look.
It is significant that Jasprit Bumrah, whose maiden game in India colours was a good three years after Shami made his India debut in Delhi, has played more white-ball games and taken more wickets in limited-over cricket than the senior fast bowler in the last three years. Of course, Shami has spent much time on the sidelines recovering from an injury sustained in 2015.
A painful left knee through the tour of Australia and the ICC Cricket World Cup 2015 in Australia and New Zealand saw him require surgery and a long spell in rehabilitation. With Mohit Sharma fading away from the international scene and Umesh Yadav not being pressed into service as much, a rather different look was imposed on India’s new ball attack in the captain Virat Kohli era.
Despite returning to the ODI side in 2017, Shami was not as effective. He played a mere three one-day internationals that year and two towards the end of 2018, raising questions if he would get to play a second World Cup. The fact that he has claimed eight wickets in the four games this month pitchforks him ahead of a lot of claimants for a berth in the World Cup squad this year.
In some ways, the selectors, the team management and the support staff can take credit for the manner in which Shami’s workload has been managed since his return to full fitness. His has been one of the first names penciled in the India XI for 18 of the last 20 Tests since July 2017 when he has claimed 68 wickets. He was conserved when it came to white-ball cricket.
Yes, there were some questions if his skills in limited-overs cricket had diminished since he did not appear to have the same appetite for bowling as he had in the Tests. On the evidence of the last three games in Australia and New Zealand, he has shown that he retains the fire in his belly and can be a huge part of the mix when it comes to bowling with the white ball.
The coming together of Shami’s white-ball bowling could not have happened at a more opportune moment for India. The cloud of doubt hovering over Hardik Pandya’s availability at the moment is the only jigsaw piece that remains to be put in place as far as India’s bowling combination for the World Cup is concerned.
There can be no doubt that he has been India’s most lethal and consistent fast bowler since Zaheer Khan and before the onset of young Turk Jasprit Bumrah. And it augurs well for India that his hunger to excel in all formats has been stoked right in time for the team’s campaign in the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019.
Indeed, with the best strike rate among Indian bowlers in all ODIs, Shami can now expect to be part of another trio of fast bowlers doing World Cup duty for India. Back in 2015, he had formed a good partnership with the likes of Umesh Yadav and Mohit Sharma, claiming 48 wickets among them. And now, he will forge a formidable trio with Jasprit Bumrah and Bhuvneshwar Kumar.