India vs South Africa: There’s something special about Shardul Thakur

He’s not particularly quick. Hovers around the high 130s on a good day. He doesn’t hoop it round corners or jag it excessively off the deck. He gets it talking, sure, but mostly in hushed tones. He’s accurate enough but hardly a sniper from 22 yards, offering loose dross every now and then.

And yet Shardul Thakur turned a Test match effectively on his own. His 7 for 61, the fourth best return of any bowler at the Wanderers and the first Asian seamer to take more than five wickets in an innings here, wrenched control from the hosts and placed it firmly in his own camp.

Shardul Thakur celebrates after dismissing Dean Elgar. AP

Shardul Thakur celebrates after dismissing Dean Elgar. AP

How did he do it? The simple answer is he bowled well. He hit a length that brought South Africa’s batters forward with regularity and a line that asked enough questions around the fourth stump. But cricket doesn’t work like that. At least not entirely.

Thakur was only handed the ball in the 37th over. By then, Dean Elgar and Keegan Petersen had scratched and bunted and (occasionally) stroked their way to a partnership of 60 as the score read 74 for 1 in response to India’s 202.

Mohammed Shami, Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammad Siraj had induced false shots, beaten the outside edge and turned the pressure up. But they couldn’t break the stubborn resistance. Elgar was doing Elgar things and India’s poor performance with the bat on the opening day was starting to look costly.

Of course, Thakur found the breakthrough. He’s making a habit of this. In his second Test, he had Australia’s opener Marcus Harris caught behind from one that lifted to end an opening stand of 89 in a famous three wicket win in Brisbane last year. In the drawn Test in Nottingham, his four wickets - including Joe Root for 64 - stifled England’s progress at every turn. At The Oval in a comfortable 157 run triumph, Thakur accounted for Ollie Pope on 81, Rory Burns on 50 and Root on 36. In the most recent Test in Centurion, he ended a stand of 72 when Bavuma and Quinton de Kock were climbing through the gears.

Every time a batter feels comfortable and looks set, every time a partnership has quietened the fielding team and dug in for the long haul, the man dubbed ‘Lord Thakur’ ambles in and delivers innocuous carnage.

His comparison point is a major factor. He’s marginally slower than his three compatriots and so batters must wait that little bit longer for the ball to arrive. Hard pokes and prods, like the ones that accounted for Elgar, Petersen and Rassie van der Dussen, find the edge whereas previous balls delivered with more venom zip past.

The dismissals of Temba Bavuma and Marco Jansen - caught wafting down the leg side and high from a hoik, respectively - might not have transpired in the same way had the ball arrived at the batter fractionally sooner. Pace is crucial in this game but the marginal absence of it can yield dividends if it represents a deviation from the norm.

It’s not just the speed of his pals that serves as a noteworthy contrast, but also their quality. Despite an impressive start to his Test career - 23 wickets at 19.17 and a strike-rate of 33.2 - he is patently fourth in the pecking order. In terms of natural bowling abilities, he’s probably behind Ishant Sharma and Umesh Yadav who have yet to feature in this series.

Set batters view Thakur as a target. He’s the wounded wildebeest on the edge of the herd. If batters can navigate the triumvirate ahead of him, then they can feast on his fare as a hard earned reward.

Petersen was circumspect throughout a stay of 118 balls worth 62 runs before he cast his net at a wide one that was always moving away from him. It was an unexpected lapse in an otherwise patient vigil but it was born out of a desire to give the apparent backup bowler the treatment he deserved.

Bavuma’s demise was also indicative of a need to get things moving. Thakur, however, is no medium-paced trundler. He may be the straight left following the feinted right hook, but that left is attached to the shoulder of Sonny Liston. It may be a less devastating blow, but it will knock your lights out if you let your guard down.

It would be remiss to simply dismiss Thakur as the fortunate beneficiary of over-exuberant batting and highly skilled bowling at the other end. South Africa’s new wicketkeeper Kyle Verreynne has been earmarked for this level for some time and Thakur made him look like an average first class cricketer.

He changed his point of delivery by landing in various positions in the crease. He tested Verreynne’s technique with probing away swingers only to set him up with one that nipped back, exposing the gap between bat and pad. He hit the deck hard, extracting lift from an awkward length, even hitting Jansen near the shoulder, no easy feat for a bowler 28cm shorter than the batter.

Much has been made of India’s pace attack. How this shining new arsenal equips this team with the weaponry to win anywhere in the world. They’ve won everywhere else. One land remains unconquered. One man’s golden, but outwardly ordinary, arm might have seen to that.

Daniel Gallan is a freelance journalist from Johannesburg now living and working in London, though the Wanderers will always be his spiritual home. He has contributed for a number of publications around the world including Cricinfo, Cricbuzz, the Guardian, the Telegraph and SuperSport. You can follow him on Twitter @danielgallan.

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Updated Date: January 05, 2022 10:05:47 IST

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