“Lying on moms lap watching TV … best feeling.” It’s not a tweet you would associate with a fast bowler, but there it was, floating in the world wide web. It was from Shardul Thakur in May 2013, few months after a nightmarish debut Ranji season where his weight was discussed more than his bowling. He was 83 kgs then, and even Sachin Tendulkar had told him that he had to shed a few kilos if he was serious about cricket.
In reality, not many could have been more serious about cricket than young Thakur. It’s not an unknown story, especially in Mumbai cricketing circles, but it’s worth repeating to understand where this boy has come from. A 13-year old boy trudging to the railway station at around 3.30 am in Palghar, a town on the Mumbai-Ahmedabad rail corridor, to catch the mail to reach Churchgate in the city centre of Mumbai to play cricket is not a common story in this day and age. A few gruelling years later, he caught the eye of Dinesh Lad, the coach of Rohit Sharma and father of Mumbai Ranji player Sidesh, and life began to look up. Not that it was any easier. Sample this tweet from that debut season: “oops its 4 in the morning!! Off to Wankhede from my hometown (Palghar) for practice before quarter-final tie against Baroda.”
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Sometimes, all one needs is a kick up the backside, a wake-up call as they say, and for Thakur it came in bucketful of criticism after that first season. He shed 13 kgs that year and the last couple of seasons have been dreamy and the media has been reduced to tracking the improvement in his bowling.
Touch of Aussie
For those who haven’t seen him much, he isn’t express pace — hovers around 135 kmph to 140 — but will impress with what he does with that speed. Unlike many other seamers in the country, he has the ability to get the ball to move around a bit. Outswingers come naturally to him and over the last two years, he has developed the ability to the get the ball back into right-handers.
He reminds you of those typical Australian seamers who use a lot of shoulder in the action, run in all day tirelessly, and possess the “heavy ball”. He also shares their love of bowling bouncers, often using it to good effect at domestic cricket. The other day, in the warm-up game against South Africa, he used it to harass the left-handed opener Stiaan Van Zyl, pinging his rib-cage repeatedly and the ball kept popping just short or wide of short-leg and leg slip.
However, it was another mini-battle against Hashim Amla in the same game that captures his bowling even better.
He hit the bat hard, banged in a bouncer or two, hit the off-stump area, produced an edge that fell short with his outswinger before he delivered the seal-up kiss with another one that curved away. Caught at the crease, Amla pushed at it only to see the ball seam away to fly off the edge to first slip. Just before that, he had his incoming delivery working well to trap Faf du Plessis in front. It was a spell that raised confidence that he can perform at a level higher than the Ranji Trophy as well.
He says he learnt the importance of targeting the off stump after couple of weeks spent with Glenn McGrath at the MRF Pace Foundation last year. However, it was working and playing alongside Zaheer Khan where he started to really develop and think more about his art. Zaheer taught him about the different demands that each session of play requires of a fast bowler and taught him other little tricks. In Chennai once, on a turner, Thakur bowled a slew of off-cutters, tailoring his bowling according to the demands of the pitch. His reverse-swinging ability has also improved in the last two seasons.
It’s difficult to say whether he is ready for the higher level, especially when one has seen him mostly in domestic cricket, but that performance against the South Africans was certainly impressive. It will come down to his temperament and the ability to handle the heat when bowling to good batsmen. Only time will tell whether he has the temperament to perform at the higher level and the skill-set to handle top-class batsmen who will put him under immense pressure even on his good days.
Like it happened in the same warm-up game, courtesy AB de Villiers. Puzzled after being cut away for a boundary off what he thought was a decent length delivery, he walked up to de Villiers during the next drinks break to clear his doubt. Later, the boy who likes lying on his mother’s lap, shared what transpired with a sweet little smile. “He (de Villiers) told me that for him it was a bad ball”.
2012-13 Ranji season: Four wickets at a bowling average of 82.0 from four games
2013-14: Twenty-seven wickets at 26.25 from six games, with one five-wicket haul
2014-15: Forty-eight wickets at 20.81 from ten games with five five-wicket hauls
Current season: Eighteen wickets at 26.77 from six games (includes the ongoing game against Railways, who are yet to bat in the second innings)