On yet another madcap day of Test cricket at the Wanderers on Tuesday, the unassuming Shardul Thakur played hero. His spell of 7 for 61 was not only his personal best but also the best by an Indian bowler in South Africa.
To be sure, pace spearheads Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami bowled well, too, constantly asking questions of the opposition batters and making full use of a track that had started to come loose amid the fickle South African weather, but Thakur got the wickets.
When Thakur was asked during the post-match press conference about what he did differently, he had no definitive answer. “These things happen. Bumrah and Shami were creating opportunities but I would say they were only unlucky. Nothing much in it... I only looked to bowl in the right areas,” he said.
Thakur always had the outswinger, his stock delivery. Then there was the occasional delivery that nipped back into a flummoxed batter. Even though he has lost a bit of his pace due to injuries, what he never left behind was his willingness to observe, learn and adapt.
“The opportunities that have come his way have made him stronger,” says Chennai Super Kings bowling coach and former India seamer L. Balaji, who has over the years watched the bowler from Palghar, Maharashtra, grow from strength to strength.
“Thakur has an aggressive mindset like Viru (Virender Sehwag). You wouldn’t want to restrict either of them. You just give him the ball and the best atmosphere to enjoy his skill sets. Once he has the freedom and is backed, he realises his maximum potential,” Balaji says.
A closer look at the dismissals of Dean Elgar, Keegan Petersen and Rassie van der Dussen in the first innings, and Aiden Markram in the second, can convince one that there is more to his wizardry than what appears on the surface.
Elgar’s outside edge threatened, he fishes for one and nicks to Rishabh Pant. What seemed like a regulation dismissal for a right-arm fast bowler may not be one when you observe how the seam wobbles - pointed towards first slip one moment, and towards fine leg the other - before hitting the track and deviating from its original path. Crafted by Pakistan’s Mohammad Asif and later mastered by England star James Anderson, it is a technique of bowling referred to as the ‘wobble seam’.
Getting an upright seam to oscillate as the ball moves through air pockets creates a higher probability of the raised part of the leather ball coming into contact with the surface. With the angle – more profound if there are cracks on the track – created during the dip it becomes more likely that the ball will shoot off in a direction difficult to predict by a batter.
“He (Thakur) is someone who always experiments with new variations, deliveries, and repertoire. Likes to discover something about bowling and its art. He has discovered it (the wobble seam) recently. The wobble seam which deviates in overseas conditions, has been working in Thakur’s progress,” says Balaji, who is convinced that Thakur learnt the tricks of the trade during India’s famous win at the Gabba in January, 2021 .
‘Consistent wicket-taking length’
“He doesn’t hit the deck hard. Just rolls his fingers and releases the ball which probably helps him gain seam movement off the wicket... The length he is bowling is a consistent wicket-taking length. Previously, it used to be short or full. Now more balls are pitched within a length where it is doing much on the wicket line... After Brisbane, the ball has also started to come in nicely since the England tour,” the former India paceman added, reminding one of Jos Buttler’s wicket in the Nottingham Test.
The English wicketkeeper, having failed to read a fuller delivery, left his stumps exposed to one which jagged back into the woodwork sharply.
Impactful with the bat
Thakur impressed one and all even with the bat during the English summer last year; the two fifties in Kia Oval come to mind. The nervous and often rash No. 8 batter had been replaced with a spirited and confident all-rounder with stunning 360-degree strokes and unorthodox footwork. Even Rohit Sharma, who was named the ‘Man of the Match’ for his gritty 127, felt Thakur deserved the silverware. However, as it turns out, Thakur came back with more than just praises from the tour. If Balaji is to be believed, Thakur by then had ended India’s search of the No. 8 in overseas conditions – the fourth pacer who can contribute at will with the willow when required.
“Thakur has shown potential to become a solid lower-order contributor. He has created the No. 8 model as a fast bowler. Previously we used to have three pacers at 9, 10, and 11. Irfan (Pathan) was doing a bit at 8 but Shardul has contributed as well recently. Like a Stuart Broad or Sam Curran for England; valued, impactful contributors with the bat and wicket-takers as well. The overseas pitches are more suited to seam bowling so the fourth seamer becomes very important.”
You tend to excel more at something if you enjoy doing it. Balaji explains.
“What he has invested in his bowling in the last six to seven months is what you are seeing right now. You hit primary rhythm and wicket-taking bowling when you start enjoying bowling. You bowl long spells, take wickets and start having confidence. He has added a layer at a time in every series he has played in.”
And this is only the beginning. If you go by what Thakur told the media after Stumps on day two, “The best is yet to come...”
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