How does Shardul Thakur get his wickets? By outthinking the batsmen

“Many people have that lazy opinion about Shardul,” L Balaji, Shardul Thakur’s bowling coach at Chennai Super Kings, says when it’s put across that Thakur has a happy knack of taking a wicket. Lazy?

“I also use it but what I am protesting against is the fact that sometimes people use it to suggest that he can get lucky with the wicket-taking balls. As if he hasn’t worked intelligently through a spell. As if he hasn’t bowled them deliberately. Let me tell you, he is a very intelligent bowler.”

That intelligence was seen in the seven-wicket haul in game-turning spells on day 2 at Johannesburg.

It’s what he didn’t do that caught the eye. A predominantly outswing bowler, he just didn’t show that card to the left-handed Dean Elgar. Perhaps, that was the reason Elgar eventually reached out to one outside off and nicked it. What does Thakur usually do? Curve it back into the left-hander. But that wasn’t seen much. Time and again, he kept cutting them away.

There is a bit of Australia’s Ben Hilfenhaus about his bowling. As Rahul Dravid would certify post his last tour to Australia in 2012, Hilfenhaus, a largely outswing bowler, had the lovely skill of nipping it back in too.

The anglers to Elgar were also released from reasonably close to the stumps. “In the recent years, the way he uses the angles has been pretty good,” says Balaji. “He can go wide and try the outswinger to the right-handers and go closer and take it away from the left-hander.” Counter-intuitive, to an extent.

So Elgar kept poking inside the line but the ball that curves back in never came. And unsurprisingly he nicked one of those anglers released not too wide from the stumps.

It was a crucial spell. Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammad Shami had been outstanding in their opening spells but wicketless. Then KL Rahul erred in perhaps carrying on a bit too long with Mohammad Siraj, who was tentative after his thigh strain and low on gas. Perhaps, Thakur could have been brought in earlier. The game was threatening to slip away when Thakur yanked it back for India.

“He is a man who loves responsibility. Not a type of a guy to keep quiet!” says Balaji. “He would ask you, why he wasn’t given a bowl in the end overs. Or in the middle. Or with the new ball. Basically, any situation he thinks he hasn’t been given a go, he would want an answer from you. Just to check if it’s due to better option out there or he was seen as not fitting that role. And then he would work so hard to get that skill and would show you in the nets that he has it. Now, how about giving me that role?!” Balaji laughs.

“Just the character you want in a team. And mind you, when I say he would ask a question, it won’t be with any negativity or that he is too upset. He just wants to know what you are thinking and what he can do.”

With Elgar packed off, he reverted to out swingers to the right-handed Keaton Petersen. He kept changing his angles of release. There was a lovely delivery from wide of the crease, that just about began to shape away from the off stump line but Petersen managed to cover the line. Encouraged, though, Thakur kept up with it and soon came an outswinger from slightly wide of the crease – wider than the nipbacker to Elgar, and Petersen ended up tricked into a loose drive, perhaps because of that angle.

Thinking them out

More intelligence came through. If it was largely the angler for Elgar and outswinger from different points at the crease for Petersen, he started to mix them up for Rassie van der Dussen Out, out, and then in. To add to the troubles of van der Dussen, he got it to bounce higher as well. Inside-edge on to the pad and Pant lunged ahead to pouch it.

The three-wicket burst wasn’t enough to get India on top. Thakur ended his spell, others had a go but a wicket wasn’t coming. A 50-wicket partnership was strung together between Temba Bavuma and the wicketkeeper Kyle Verreynne.

Once again, Rahul threw the ball to Thakur and he did the job with a full nipbacker. Stuck at the crease to a ball he should have leaned forward, Verreynne frantically stabbed at it but couldn’t get any wood on leather and was trapped lbw.

Not satisfied yet, the man who asks straight questions to his coaches and captains, went for his old trick from the past. The bouncer. It kicked up towards the ribcage of Bavuma, who fended at it awkwardly and it went off the edge to a diving Pant down the leg side. A five-for, and supremely deserving one at that.

Balaji also points out the transformation Thakur has had to go through, which adds to his respect.

“Remember, he used to be much quicker a few years ago. Loved his bouncers – he still does- and would hit the deck real hard. But the back injuries meant he had to lose out on pace, but he has comeback stronger because of his intelligence, confidence, and hard work. He is one of the more confident bowlers that I have seen. He always backs himself. That’s why he could come back strongly like this. You can also see that confidence in his batting, of course.”

“It’s not a surprise to me at all as he is a bowler who has lots of first-class experience. You learn all these things there – spells, how to bowl differently in different sessions of play, when to attack, when to defend, and when to try the bouncers to try intimidating. In his mindset, he is like the 80’s West Indian pacers. He might not have the pace, but he thinks like them,” Balaji says.

Thakur has retained some of that old venom from his younger days. He doesn’t reach out of his bouncers as much as he used to do, but continues to hit the pitch hard for his back of length deliveries. And then he can seamlessly slip into a full length for his curvy out swingers. The nipbacker too is done silently without the batsmen getting too much of a look at it from the action. These days, he has developed into a bowler who can string all these individual threads into a good thinking spell. Happy knack of picking wickets? Shardul Thakur is a lot more than that. Intelligent, relentless, a trier – not in the sense of a hard worker but someone who actively tries out different things when the usual doesn’t do the job. When others can’t do it, no wonder the captain throws the ball to him with more than mere hope.

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