Sometime last year, Bharat Arun, India’s bowling coach, talked about Mohammad Shami’s astonishing skill to do things with the ball that are usually at variance with each other: The ability to skid the ball and also, hurl in the ‘heavy’ ball that hits the deck and hits the bat hard. Usually, the two require different abilities and are not commonly produced by the same bowler. We shall come to Arun’s theory about the skidding ball, which was the wrecker-in-chief on the final day and helped India skittle out South Africa in the first Test.
“It’s a natural skill, of course, that depends on the release action, but Shami does two things with it. The seam presentation, just look at how steady it gets across the track. Then, he focusses on getting a bat-width movement, just enough to beat the bat and either hit the pad or stumps. Now and then, in helpful conditions, he will, of course, get the ball to cut a lot more, but essentially, he is focused on moving it just a little. The big seam deviations look good on TV, but don’t fetch you wickets,” he had told this newspaper.
How does all this help in getting the ball to skid, though?
“He isn’t trying to cut the ball all that much. As in you won’t see his fingers whipping across the seam and stuff like that. So, all the focus is on the releasing it with a proud seam position. The important thing is still the smooth action and the way you release of course, which comes naturally to him. Combined with the proud seam, the ball skids. And he attacks the stumps more than anyone on such surfaces.”
Or, in other words, he knows exactly what he wants the ball to do and how to do it. When he wants the ball to skim towards the stumps, he doesn’t do anything extravagant. None of the cutting-across-the-seam and such. Keep it loose-limbed, get the seam up and proud, and swing it with that smooth repeatable action.
Temba Bavuma, Faf du Plessis and Quinton de Kock were three of his five wickets and they were all done in by a combination of the bowler’s skidding art and their own mistakes. Bavuma’s game is so back-foot reliant that he doesn’t come forward even for lengths. It’s dangerous in conditions like these. He doesn’t retreat but ends up playing from the crease.
With regard to du Plessis, this wasn’t the first time he was out shouldering arms, and as an Indian team member quipped, “Even in South Africa, he has been out shouldering arms to full deliveries just outside off.”
The last-innings centurion, de Kock, seemed frozen and had a lazy defensive waft at the ball that straightened just about from the off and middle line to knock out the off stump.
Sometime during South Africa’s long first innings, the broadcaster went for a slow-mo of Shami’s run-up. It was a hot humid day, and it seemed as if Shami was almost on a gentle jog. No one perhaps captures Sunil Gavaskar’s favourite theme of ‘conservation of energy’ better than Shami. Gavaskar meant it on field or while batting, but Shami does it even while bowling. At times, it almost seems as if his mind isn’t even there. He can bowl well within himself, almost projecting a casualness, but in his mind, he is obviously conserving. Or, in other words, he isn’t a Jason Gillespie, whose intensity during every ball he bowled across spells could be intimidating. Shami switches on and off, sometimes as his mood seizes, and sometimes because of the conditions.
When he senses that there is reverse swing on offer or the pitch is a bit up-and-down and variable bounce is available, he then turns it on. The jog turns into a sprint and you can see him striving every inch along the way. He bursts through the crease and slings it furiously.
That usually happens later on in the Test and it’s no surprise that four of his five five-fors have come in opposition’s second innings. Shami has 80 wickets in second innings at an average of 22.58; he had taken 78 wickets at 34.47 in first innings. Interestingly, this is the first time after 1996, when Javagal Srinath reversed out South Africa in Ahmedabad, that an Indian fast bowler has a five-for in the fourth innings of the match. (Shami’s other 3 five-fors have been in the third innings of the match).
And there is the case of the improved fitness that has definitely helped in Shami getting much sharper through the spells and able to rev it up on demand. At one stage in 2015, he weighed 93 kgs but he is now 75 and all the better for it.
At the end of the game, Kohli talked about how the likes of Shami decide the workload themselves. “They ask for shorter spells. If you see his (Shami’s) 4 five-wicket hauls, it comes in second innings when team invariably needs it. He reverses it well and that’s his strength. He has been the strike bowler for us in the second innings consistently now.”
Kohli could have got back Shami a bit earlier to break the ninth-wicket stand between Dane Piedt and Senuran Muthusamy, but he brought him on an hour after lunch. Perhaps, it too was dictated by the workload management, but it just took three overs for him to remove the last two wickets.
Bowling fast in India in hot, energy-sapping conditions takes a lot more than mere skill. Even the way you drink water matters. Michael Kasprowicz once talked about how he was struggling in India when Javagal Srinath came up with an advice that changed his career.
“I notice that you are drinking too much water. You are gulping it. Just sip some and spit some out,” Srinath told the Aussie.
“I was amazed by it. Because it was so hot, I was drinking water at every opportunity and now Srinath tells me don’t. And it worked!”.
We don’t know if Shami gulps or spits, but going by how aware he has been with the energy-conservation, he must be doing it just fine. Add to it the self-awareness about his bowling art and the control over it, he has come a long way. In this Test, he made India not worry too much about the absence of Jasprit Bumrah, which is the possibly the best tribute that can be given to Shami.