Shami the forgotten white-ball virtuoso returns to ODIs after a 591-day gap to become the fastest Indian to 150 wickets

There was an uncharacteristic restlessness about Mohammed Shami at the Oval on Tuesday. He fidgeted in the solitude of his long-leg outpost, tugging at his sleeves, fiddling with the cap and the shades, kicking his heels, and detachedly waving at the spectators screaming his name. Almost as if the lonely outfield preserve suffocated him, as if he wanted to bowl non-stop, every ball of every over, without break or lapse, to compensate for the lost years and the unplayed games.

It was the restless excitement of someone who had not played an ODI in 591 days; of someone, for all his red-ball magnificence, is thrust to prove himself in the white-ball domain. Shami was one of Gujarat Titan’s real title architects this year, his country’s best bowlers in the last two 50-over World Cups, yet his white ball prowess is brutally understated.

Gaps like 591 days—a combination of injuries, preservation and erratic form has contributed—could thrust him into the abyss of oblivion.

“Who has the courage – which bowler or batsman has the himmat- to say that you want to sit out. No one wishes to sit out. Of course, there is something as a workload management. I would agree with it to an extent. But at times I think there are some minus points in it as well. Because I feel at times when I am in good form and in great rhythm, you shouldn’t stop playing,” Shami had told The Indian Express this February.

But through seven probing overs, Shami reestablished his white-ball vigour, but as significantly achieved a milestone that established his white-ball mastery. He became the fastest Indian bowler to 150 ODI wickets—he was the fastest from his country to the 100th too—and the fourth quickest on the all-time list. Though the nuts and bolts of Shami’s craft, that gift-of-the-god seam presentation, the kick and the bend, is best enjoyed by watching him at full pelt, a statistical validation is essential in putting into perspective his white-ball supremacy. To embed the fact that the spells at Oval were not a one-off, but the regular stuff, and that he is one of the finest exponents with the white-ball as well.

Mohammed Shami Mohammed Shami etched his name in history books with yet another record.

Among contemporary fast bowlers from non-associate countries, only Shaheen Afridi, Mitchell Starc and Jasprit Bumrah have purchased wickets at a better average than Shami’s 25.32. Moreover, only Starc and Afridi have a superior strike rate than his 26.8 among the fast men—he is ninth in the all-time list including the spinners as well. To stretch the comparison, Bumrah takes 31.4 balls for a wicket. The latter enjoys a marginally better average (24.30) and is stingier (4.61 as opposed to Shami’s 5.61). Shami’s economy rate is frugal by modern-day yardsticks, only that Bumrah’s is phenomenal. But in their ability to pick wickets, there’s little that differentiates the pair, arguably the best new-ball duet India ever had in any format.

Mohammed Shami, center, celebrates with teammates the dismissal of England’s Ben Stokes, second left, during the first one day international cricket match between England and India at the Oval cricket ground in London. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

The gulf, though, is wide in T20Is, where Shami has featured in 18 games as opposed to Bumrah’s 58. But the anomaly needs contextualising. Bumrah burst into cricket as a freak of T20 cricket, making his name first in the IPL. Shami, contrastingly, exploded as a Test and ODI bowler. Both captains and selectors invested less faith in Shami’s T20 bowling skill-set, despite possessing the ingredients to succeed. Hence, his 18 games are spread across eight years, and the last World Cup was the first time he stitched a run of five successive games. He bled runs against the two strongest oppositions—11-an-over each against Pakistan and New Zealand—but Shami would feature prominently in India’s schemes in the T20 World Cup in Australia later this year, despite his unproven track record in this format.

The bouncer-bowling colossus

Despite an onslaught of IPL-honed talents in the country, and the omnipresence of Bumrah, Shami brings in a set of unique skills to the table. He possesses one of the sharpest bouncers in the game, and is perhaps the least reluctant employer of it. In Bumrah’s hands, the bouncer is the surprise ball, often the set-up ball. For Shami, it’s the wicket-reaper than an intimidation tool.

Mohammed Shami celebrates the fall of an England wicket during the first one day international cricket match between England and India at the Oval cricket ground in London. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

More deviously, his bouncers land a few inches further than Bumrah or Pat Cummins or Lockie Ferguson. It’ in the upper limits of the short-length band. Hence the bounce surprises and hurries the batsmen, who don’t expect that sort of kicking bounce from that length. And he ensures that the backbreaking effort he puts into the short-ball seldom goes wasted. His precision is staggering—the ball is always rising onto the area between the neck and the chest.

There is the awareness that short-pitched bowling will always leak runs, often in boundaries and with top edges coming into play, it is difficult to predict where the ball will fly to. But he knows that there are very few batsmen around with world-beating hook shots. In short, he is a bouncer-bowling colossus.

The Heavy Ball specialist

Remarkably, it is his ability to coax a similar bounce from a hard length area, the fabled heavy ball, that makes him even more dangerous. Shami gives nothing away—there is no extra whip off the shoulder or stiffening of the wrists, or change of seam position. The release point, though, is a tad higher, and the ball is released a tad earlier. “He will release the ball a tad earlier in the action, when he wants the length to be fuller. If he wants it to bounce higher from a shorter length, he will release the ball later during the action,” former bowling coach Bharat Arun had once told this newspaper. Those minor clues are incredibly difficult for batters to decipher and he has to rely entirely on his judgment, instinct and technique.

Mohammed Shami, left, celebrates with teammates the dismissal of England’s Craig Overton. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

These are traits that could make him deadly in Australia (anywhere, but more so in Australia). Like great batsmen who have more than one stroke for a particular delivery, Shami has more than one variation of the same ball. He can skid his bouncers as well as make it hold after pitching, he can swing it in and away from the batsmen, he can make it jump as well as leap into the batsmen. And with the same length, he could target chests, throats and heads.

But beyond the tools and toys at his disposal—it his cricketing intelligence that makes him more valuable at a big stage like the World Cup in Australia. From his early struggles in T20s and IPL, he has learnt to be a smarter bowler. Often, one of his greatest virtues in the longer formats was his undoing in the shortest format. He always takes his time to sort out the lengths to bowl on a pitch, but the blink-and-you-miss nature of the T20 games does not allow such luxuries. But he has made a concerted effort and improved.

Mohammed Shami bowls a delivery during the first one-day international cricket match between England and India at the Oval cricket ground in London. (AP Photo)

Another set of numbers do tell a story. In the first five seasons of the IPL, he collected just 21 wickets. In the last season alone, he gathered 20. Not much distinguishes him and Bumrah. The latter has snared 82 in the last four years, just four more than Shami.

But Shami is a forgotten white-ball virtuoso. Often in wilderness, often kept waiting, often restless at fine-leg, and needing the assistance of milestones to reflect on his straight-seamed magnificence, the kicks and the bends.

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