For a long time fast bowlers in Indian cricket were as rare as a hen’s teeth. Even those who had started off as fast bowlers, Kapil Dev and Javagal Srinath for instance, settled down to a friendlier medium pace and instead concentrated on developing other skills like swing, reverse swing and such subtleties in a bid to prolong their shelf life.
It is only in recent years that India have had the luxury of choosing from a mix of at least a dozen pacers capable of bowling in the mid-to-high 140 kmph speed. Umesh Yadav and Jasprit Bumrah, two of the quicker men, are currently in the national squad, with the latter playing both Tests with some credit. There are four others who are not part of the squad, but sent to South Africa to provide pace bowling practice to the Indian batsmen.
On Tuesday, among Indian bowlers on view, and this includes Ishant Sharma and Hardik Pandya, the bowler to really make a mark on the fourth day of the Centurion Test was Bengal seamer Mohammed Shami.
Shami lacks the raw pace of Umesh. But he has other skills to fall back upon. And when all those skills come together, like they did in the first session of the morning, Shami looks exceptionally good. So exceptional in fact that even a well set, accomplished AB de Villiers was drawn into edging a peach of a delivery to the wicketkeeper.
The most noticeable aspect of Shami’s bowling is that his action takes so little out of him. He does not have the bustle of an Ishant, nor an expansive leap at the delivery stride in order to get into a sideways position. On the other hand, he sports an uncomplicated ‘mixed’ action which seems to have found worldwide favour of late for the minimal stress it places on a fast bowler’s lower back.
Frankly, Shami’s issues are elsewhere, lower down the body, where his dodgy knee required surgery a couple of years ago. He had played through the 2015 World Cup in pain. Fluid collection in his knee had to be sucked out more than a couple of times during that period. Despite the obvious pain and discomfort, he played a leading role in India’s march to the semi-finals with a haul of 17 wickets.
Shami underwent knee surgery later and was bed-ridden for two months. The doctor believed that the surgery was career-threatening. But he didn’t know Shami. The fighter that he is, he slowly but surely, battled back into fitness following an extensive rehabilitation programme at the National Cricket Academy in Bangalore.
During that phase we would watch him painfully hobbling around with his leg in a cast and often wonder if the pacer would ever get back to bowling at the highest level. But Shami not only clawed his way back to fitness but soon shot ahead of the competition to be the number one choice fast bowler. In a line-up that included the redoubtable Bhuvaneshwar Kumar, the experienced Ishant, the pacy Umesh and the unorthodox Bumrah, this certainly was saying something.
Shami’s strength is his length. When he gets it right it becomes awkward for batsmen. It draws them into the drive, yet isn’t there to execute. The subtle swing and seam movement he gets either way makes him extremely potent with the new ball.
Additionally, Shami is not shy of bouncing out the batsman. His sharp speed, coupled with well-directed bouncers, can be unsettling on unhelpful tracks. Shami is also very skillful with the old ball, especially when he gets it to reverse.
Unfortunately he also suffers from a lack of consistency. Although widely accepted as India’s best fast bowler, the frustrating aspect of the pacer is that he does not always bring his ‘A’ game to the bowling crease.
In this series, for instance, his bowling looked very average in the first innings. So pedestrian that skipper Virat Kohli was forced to use him very sparingly. He bowled the least number of overs and even in those he did not look like he had worked up any kind of a rhythm.
In the second essay too, after Bumrah had given the team a superb start Shami almost threw it away with an indifferent bowling display.
But Tuesday morning was something else. He bowled to superb lines. Along with his ability to reverse swing at a brisk pace he harried the batsmen in the pre-lunch session. He prised out both the well-set overnight batsmen Dean Elgar (61) and de Villiers (80). But lack of support from the fielders let him and the team down.
Quinton de Kock edged four successive deliveries, three of which went across the third man fence before his luck ran out. He was pouched off the fourth. This was during the incisive spell when he bagged three of his four wickets.
It was an encore of the first Test where he came alive only in the second innings.
It is this inability to get it all right during every spell that is a source of frustration for the team. They are aware of his ability and the damage he could inflict. The fact that he cannot always turn it on is the reality the team must learn to live with.