“Shardul Thakur had done everything asked of him and so almost forced his selection." Harsha Bhogle had tweeted this after Shardul Thakur, fondly called the ‘Palghar Express’ in Mumbai cricketing circles, was picked in the Test squad to tour West Indies in 2016. The bustling seamer had, after all, topped the wicket-taker’s charts in the 2014-15 Ranji Trophy and produced a rip-roaring spell (5/26 including the scalp of Cheteshwar Pujara) in the finals of the 2015-16 Ranji finals against Saurashtra.
Like Bhogle said, Thakur had almost made his selection a given. But staying in the team was a different, more difficult, proposition. Despite being in his best rhythm, Thakur was released by his IPL franchise, Kings XI Punjab, midway through the 2016 season.
He played just one game in three seasons for the Punjab based franchise (2014-2016) and the frustration of being benched constantly was vented through a tweet that was later deleted by the player.
“Will play a semi-final T20 game tomorrow for my club payyade sc..playing a game after 2 months.. IPL has done wonders..Certainly," Thakur had tweeted in May, 2016, days before he was selected for the Indian team.
He toured the Caribbean without making a debut and found himself unwanted in the Test squad soon after, a fate eerily similar to that of his IPL stint with Kings XI Punjab.
He was called up into the ODI squad after a stellar IPL season for Rising Pune Supergiant and made his debut in 2017 in Sri Lanka after India had comfortably wrapped up the series. Even though he returned with impressive figures of 1/26 in 7 overs, his jersey number garnered more attention than his performance.
For Indian cricket the No 10 jersey is always associated with another man from Mumbai, an iconic figure in Indian and World cricket — Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar. The aura of his retirement hadn't died down even after close to four years when Thakur walked onto the field for his debut in a No 10 jersey. The fans were infuriated and took to Twitter to vent their anger against BCCI and the young bowler. Sadly, his impressive showing with the ball went unheeded.
Thakur played just two games before injury struck and he watched as Siddharth Kaul, picked in place of him, warmed the bench during the Sri Lankan series back in India. Even as Thakur was fit again, there was little hope that he would be picked for the South African team. However, much to the surprise of himself and several others, he was included in the squad.
Unfortunately, with India in dominating form, Thakur once again found himself cast away to the sidelines as the visitors rolled away to a 4-1 series win before the dead rubber at Centurion on Friday gave India an opportunity to experiment. In came Thakur for Bhuvneshwar Kumar and the Mumbai seamer knew that this would, in all likelihood, be his only chance to impress the selectors.
Thakur’s strengths lie in being able to bowl crunching outswingers at pace. He hits the bat hard and generates pace through the air. All of this came to the fore at Centurion as he hit a back of a length channel first ball and made Aiden Markram hop on his crease to defend. A few loose balls apart, Thakur was quite impressive in his first three overs but the turnaround came when a short ball down leg-side was mistimed by Hashim Amla and he edged it down to MS Dhoni.
Thakur had struck first blood and the spring in his step was evident for all to see. Even as Markram slammed a well-directed short ball to the mid-wicket grassbanks, Thakur stayed positive and sent the opener back with a slower delivery, inviting a drive that the South African skipper mistimed to Shreyas Iyer.
With two wickets in his kitty and his confidence boosted, Thakur returned to the attack in the 30th over, and soon enough, sent back Farhaan Behardien courtesy an extravagant shot from the No 6 batsman to deep third man. When Andile Phehlukwayo took him on for back-to-back sixes, Thakur stayed calm and positive and delivered a knuckle ball that the Proteas all-rounder edged back to him.
The Mumbai seamer had picked up four wickets and despite being a touch on the expensive side, he had made a mark in international cricket.
He may not have sealed his place in the ODI side just yet, but his four-wicket haul combined with Bhuvneshwar's lacklustre returns in ODIs would surely get India thinking. Unlike the penetrative Test and T20 bowler that he is, Bhuvneshwar the ODI bowler has been rather ordinary.
After 86 matches, he has just 90 wickets at an average close to 40 and a strike rate of 46. With ODI pitches around the World flattening out, Bhuvneshwar's primary weapon — swinging the ball either way — is all but negated. In T20s, he still manages to pick up regular wickets courtesy his variations and immaculate death bowling when batsmen look to go after him but in a much more relaxed format, Bhuvneshwar is handicapped.
Thakur, on the other hand, is a hit-the-deck bowler in the Mohammad Shami mould and has a heavy ball. His IPL exploits prove that he can resort to cutters, well-disguised slower balls and even knuckle balls when things aren't going his way, something which makes him a more appealing option than Shami.
“I am just trying to do my basics right, bowling outswingers in the corridor and putting batsmen under pressure by not giving them runs and then hitting them with bouncers. I don't sledge. I just stare to scare them. These things keep me on my toes and add to my aggression. As a fast bowler, you have to be intimidating," he had told DNA in an interview few years back.
Little has changed since then as he continues to pick wickets by hook or crook. From shedding 13 kgs to become a fitter fast bowler to adding several variations to his repertoire, Thakur has done everything asked of him so far. It is this quality of his, combined with his unique skills, that make him an enticing prospect and he could play a role during the World Cup in England.
“As I have always said that personal goals would be there – I would always want to achieve something for myself in 2018 – but more than that, it has to be based on match-by-match basis. I can't afford to think too much in the long-term. Obviously there are a few things that I may be thriving but I also have to realise that there is a process to reach there. I would just rather stay in the present and take each game as it comes and try and take wickets and contribute to the team in whatever little way I can,” Thakur had stated before the South African ODIs.
For now, he might have created a ripple effect in the serene waters that India's ODI outfit is turning into, and although it may not see him spending any lesser time on the bench, the selectors will know that when they need him, Thakur will hit the ground running.