2:18 PM IST
Karthik Krishnaswamy in Christchurch
Batsmen don’t like to be beaten, but if you’re the captain, and one of your fast bowlers is making the ball do all sorts of things in the nets, you might get excited even if you’re at the receiving end.
Virat Kohli was certainly excited when Mohammed Shami swerved two successive balls into him in the nets at the Hagley Oval. “Ravi bhai!” he yelled out to his coach, who was stationed where an umpire would be. “Yeh India jaisa reverse ho raha hai (it’s reversing like it does in India)!”
The next one beat Kohli’s inside edge and hit his front pad, and Shami raised a celebratory arm in his follow-through, a wide grin on his face. This time, Kohli didn’t need words to express what he felt, and simply went “ohoho!”
As excited as Kohli was, he wasn’t going to let Shami walk all over him. To his next ball, he stepped out of his crease and crashed a flat-bat drive through the covers.
“Kharaab kar diya yaar (you’ve ruined it),” Shami said, referring to the condition of the ball.
“Toh kya karoon (So what do I do)?” Kohli replied. “Bas khade hoke pad pe khaata rahoon (Just stand back and keep getting hit on the pad)?”
Those three balls, crudely, encapsulated Shami the Test bowler. Fast, skillful, relentlessly attacking, forcing batsmen into gladiatorial contests. When he is on the go, every ball is an event. In Test matches in India, it’s a routine occurrence for a crowd quietened by a longish partnership to come to life abruptly when Shami comes into the attack and zips his first or second ball past the edge. The same thought flashes through every spectator’s mind. “Something could happen here.”
And ball after ball, Shami is at the batsman, making him play, never letting him relax. One hits the seam and moves, one way or another; another kicks up out of nowhere; the next one skids through quicker than expected. Almost everything is within that narrow band from fourth stump to middle stump.
But there are times when a fast bowler can’t attack relentlessly. Times when there isn’t much happening in the air or off the pitch. Times when he might have to station a short extra-cover and a short midwicket and simply bowl good length, on off stump, and wait for a mistake. Times when he might have to bowl wide outside off stump to a 7-2 field.
While conditions away from Asia offer fast bowlers more assistance, and should, all other things being equal, allow them to attack much more, it isn’t always the case because, well, all other things aren’t always equal. In Asia, India usually play with two high-quality spinners who bowl a bulk of the overs, and a fast bowler can afford to bowl short, intense bursts of all-out attack. They can’t always bowl this way overseas, especially since their batsmen may not always give them the same sort of cushion of runs that they do at home.
This is why Ishant Sharma is an indispensable member of India’s overseas bowling attacks, even if they can pick Umesh Yadav over him on a lot of their home pitches, if they want to.
Sharma can bowl the boring overs. Shami, well, not so much.
There were periods during New Zealand’s first innings at the Basin Reserve last week, for instance, when it might have helped India to have Shami bowl a boring over or two and help build some dot-ball pressure. But he kept attacking, sometimes with his lengths – there were a number of short balls to Tom Blundell, for instance, after he had been squared up by a couple of them early on – but mostly with his line, which was always intending to make the batsman play.
Bowling an attacking line is a noble ambition, but it comes with a lower margin for error than a wider, defensive line. Get it slightly wrong, and you can bowl too straight and get picked off through the leg side, and if your line is right but your length is too full or too short, you can go for runs on both sides of the pitch, which is harder to set a field for.
Shami didn’t bowl badly, as such, but he was well below his best, and went for nearly four an over. The effect of this was magnified by the circumstances: India had only made 165 in their first innings, and one more of their fast bowlers, Jasprit Bumrah, was also looking off-colour.
Another bowler might have switched to a more defensive Plan B in those circumstances, but Shami largely kept bowling the same way. India may well have wanted him to keep bowling like that, of course, believing that quick wickets was their best way back into the match, and it’s a perfectly legitimate way of looking at things.
But it’s also possible that Shami kept bowling in his usual way because it’s the only way he knows to bowl. He is certainly not shown too much evidence in his Test career so far that he is capable of bowling dry and playing the waiting game. It could be one reason for the disparity between his records in the first innings (not too flash) and the second innings (sensational).
It remains to be seen what kind of spells Shami is required to deliver in Christchurch. But whether he is called on to bowl the boring overs or not, it’s one skill he could add to his CV to step up from being a mighty fine fast bowler to being a world-class one.