With two eye-catching performances – one in South Africa in the final ODI and one here at Colombo – Thakur is suddenly being seen as a potential replacement for the listless Unadkat.
"I wasn't even picked for under-19 in my first year. So I worked harder and got picked the next year. It was a blessing in disguise I think now because it meant I matured very early. I realised you have to face failures. It's about improving your game and your fitness all the time. The best part is when you go back a second time and succeed where you'd failed before," an emotional Shardul Thakur said in an interview a week before the Nidahas Trophy.
The youngster had faced failures, but never let them bog him down, and has always found a way to overcome his difficulties. Like 'Robert Bruce and the Spider' story, repeated failures eventually lead to success and this has been Thakur's mantra.
6 March, 2018: India vs Sri Lanka, Over 3 in Match 1 of the Nidahas Trophy
Colombo stood stunned as Kusal Perera conjured up his inner Sanath Jayasuriya to lambast young Thakur for 27 runs in an over. The Mumbai seamer had absolutely no place to go hide as Perera unleashed shot after shot to decimate the Indians in a run chase of 175.
The first ball disappeared over mid-wicket for four, the second was manoeuvred through point for another boundary, the third was driven down the ground for another boundary, the fourth, a harmless slow ball, was bludgeoned over long-off, a no-ball next was thumped through sweeper-cover and the resultant free hit was smashed through the off side for a boundary.
Five fours and a six came off the over as Thakur and India were left high and dry by the Perera onslaught. The scorecard would show the Sri Lankan wicket-keeper batsman making a 37-ball 66 and the hosts winning the game. It would also show Thakur's dismal economy rate of 12 in 3.3 overs.
However, what it wouldn't quite reveal is Thakur's determined comeback, which reminded one of what he said in the aforementioned interview. Treated with utter disdain, Thakur returned in the 14th over, varying his pace, length and line to bamboozle the batsmen. Just five runs came off the over and he would have had a wicket to show as well, if Rishabh Pant had held on to a catch.
With 30 runs needed from 30 balls, Thakur sent down another brilliant over, conceding three runs and piling the pressure on the Lankans, who would finally scrape through for a win.
A week later, with another go at the Lankans all but guaranteed, Thakur was uber prepared. He came in first change after Jaydev Unadkat and Washington Sundar, and nipped out Danushka Gunathilaka off the first legitimate ball he bowled courtesy a brilliant take from Suresh Raina. Although he went for 10 in his first over, Thakur bounced back yet again, bowling a stellar second over – the 12th of the innings. He went fuller, then wider, then brought out a hat-trick of knuckle balls, the last of which accounted for the dangerous-looking Thisara Perera, and stymied Sri Lanka's surge at the death.
Two other knuckle balls brought two more wickets as Thakur finished with enviable figures of 4/27, which could easily have been a five-wicket haul had Raina grabbed onto a fairly regulation chance off another knuckle ball.
What stood out in Thakur's splendid performance was his ability to hit back and stick to his plans even after receiving a beating. Kusal Perera's blistering attack would have left career-threatening scars on most seamers. But Thakur isn't one to back down from a challenge. Like he says, he has gotten accustomed to failure so much that he knows the exact route by which to circumvent the same.
"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," Thakur had said in an interview.
Apparently, he has added another weapon to his repertoire, the difficult-to-master knuckle ball. Bhuvneshwar Kumar, a wonderful exponent of that delivery, was rested for the Nidahas Trophy and Thakur duly stepped up.
"I've learnt to bowl the knuckle ball over the last one year. I've also tried learning the leg-cutter from Bhuvi (Bhuvneshwar Kumar)", Thakur said.
Not only did he bowl remarkably well in the second half of the innings against the Lankans, he also showcased a wide range of variations which puts him in a direct battle with Unadkat for a spot in the final XI when the Big B's – Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah – return.
Thakur was always thought to be in a tussle with Mohammad Siraj for the fourth seamer's slot (read reserve seamer). However, with two eye-catching performances – one in South Africa in the final ODI and one here at Colombo – Thakur is suddenly being seen as a potential replacement for the listless Unadkat, whose economy in recent times is eerily similar to his Indian Premier League (IPL) auction price of Rs 11.5 crores this season!
The Mumbaikar has impressed in the few opportunities he has managed to get. Despite sitting in the top half of the Ranji Trophy wicket-takers chart for years in succession, it took Thakur a brilliant IPL to impress the selectors.
Now that he has found success, Thakur is aware of how to sustain it. His ability to overcome barriers, fight obstacles and come roaring back make him the perfect wingman to Bhuvneshwar and Bumrah, once they return. Till then, his aim would be to maintain consistency and put up similar noteworthy performances.
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