"Some things depend on luck too. When you bowl, your target is to bowl a good line and length. Whether you get a wicket or not depends on luck. Of course it is frustrating that I beat the bat many times and still didn't get a wicket. But it's okay. Whatever God gives me, I have to accept." Mohammed Shami said after the 2018 Oval Test against England.
When Shami first toured England in 2014, he was just trying to learn the tricks of the trade away from home. He ended up having a tough time with five wickets from three matches at an average of 73.20 and going at 3.81 runs and over, striking every 115.2 balls.
When he returned four years later in 2018, he was a much improved bowler. He had accelerated the learning process. Analysis had taken precedence. He had studied the videotapes of James Anderson and Stuart Broad on how to bowl in English conditions. However, while he picked up 16 wickets from five matches, he had the worst average among all bowlers " 38.87 and second-worst strike-rate of 64.7 (for players who played more than two matches).
Statistics don't always paint the full picture though. It was a series where luck had deserted Shami. He kept beating the edges and inducing the edges but they either evaded the fielders or fell short or were dropped. He had five catches dropped off him through the series. And according to the cricket analytics site Cricviz, 26 percent of his deliveries had induced an edge or a miss, the most by any bowler in the series. It was the fifth-highest for any series in the website's database.
It wasn't a surprise when he cursed his luck after the Oval Test.
"I've never beaten the bat so many times in my life."
You could sense the frustration in his words.
Watching Shami bowl on Day 3 of the World Test Championship final felt as if he had travelled back to 2018 again. That luck still wasn't having the long much-needed handshake with Shami. With that beautiful upright seam, Shami kept zipping it on in overcast conditions. He was beating the inside and outside edges. He was hitting the good length areas, which was his most successful zone in 2018. He was troubling the openers with the extra bounce off the good length. He induced an outside edge off Devon Conway which flew over third slip and then again off Latham due to extra bounce again which flew tantalisingly over Ajinkya Rahane at gully. The hands were on the head. Is it 2018 all over again? Then Latham guided one uppishly wide of the gully fielder for a risky four. Though he wasn't getting the prodigious swing that the Kiwi bowlers got, he was making things happen. He didn't get a wicket on Day 3 but in his 11 overs he gave away just 19 runs, including four maidens.
While all the talk was around how the bowlers need to hit the full length, the Indian bowlers didn't quite hit those full-lengths while the New Zealand bowlers were successful bowling full. And the Indian bowlers also didn't produce much swing which the Kiwis did throughout the Indian innings.
On Day 5 though Shami had done his homework. Shami is a skilful bowler who can seam the ball both ways and when conditions assist, can swing them as well. And when he adds discipline and smarts to his skills, it could be a deadly combo. He did just that at the Ageas Bowl. He adjusted his length and went slightly fuller on the fifth day. It was a game changer.
The second ball of the day from Shami whizzed past Taylor's outside edge. A bit fullish. Swing, seam, pace. Those were early signs of what was to follow. The next ball was driven wide of mid-off for a four by Taylor. Shami didn't mind it. That's what he wanted, the batsman driving. He kept bowling in that corridor of uncertainty outside off consistently and built pressure with his discipline right through the day.
Williamson and Taylor had played 14 overs from the start of the day. But India's accuracy had kept them in check. They had managed just 16 runs.
Then Shami again dangled the 'full length' carrot outside off to Taylor. The Kiwi No 4 got sucked into it and drove. Shubman Gill at wide mid on pouched a brilliant diving catch. Shami finally had one. Luck finally said hello.
According to Cricviz, Shami's average length on Day 3 was 7.48 m from stumps but on Day 5 it was 6.94. It was a slight change but a vital one. It was still good length, but a bit further up.
He generated some swing as well.
Taylor's wicket was the gateway India needed. Ishant had Henry Nicholls in the next over. The momentum was building for India. And then Shami changed ends. The first one flew past new man BJ Watling's outside edge. And the next one was an absolute beaut. Pitched on middle, a bit fuller, angling in. It straightened after landing and fizzed past Watling's outside edge to shatter the timber. It was that upright seam doing the magic.
The Black Caps has managed just 34 runs from 23 overs with the loss of three wickets in the first session.
Post lunch, the new ball is tossed straight to Shami. He bowls a couple of outswingers, the first one beats the outside edge off Colin de Grandhomme's drive and the second one, slightly back of a length is guided past gully. He predominantly bowls outswingers and from closer to the stumps in the over.
However in the next over, he comes wide of the crease to De Grandhomme and bowls the indipper first ball. The Kiwi all-rounder is expecting an outswinger and is caught in his crease. The seam movement is prolific. He misses it by quite a margin as the ball hits the back leg off the good length. The umpire has no doubt and so does Williamson at the other end who asks De Grandhomme not to review. A lovely set up.
He nearly has the Williamson in the next over, with the one that straightens beating Williamson on the outside edge and hitting his pads. The umpire though doesn't lift his finger. India opt for the review and replays show the impact is umpire's call and it was clipping the outside of the off-stump.
With New Zealand looking to up the tempo, Williamson pulls one through square leg for four off Shami in his next over and then Kyle Jamieson lofts him over long on for a six. Jamieson had hit 21 off 15 balls and was taking the risky route by giving himself room to play his shots. Shami cleverly changes his length and darts in a bouncer off the next ball. Jamieson goes for it but ends up top-edging it to fine leg. Shami has his man. The fourth wicket of his innings. All well thought out.
Shami had returned to the international arena after missing three Tests in Australia and four against England at home due to a wrist injury he picked up in the Adelaide Test in December 2020. He then 'bowled his heart out' during the one and half months of rehab at the National Cricket Academy and then settled into the rhythm by playing in the IPL. He hadn't played the longest format in the last five months but was still charging in, bowling six-seven over spells at the Ageas Bowl and consistently hitting the late 130s and early 140s.
Shami emphasises a lot on having that rhythm. And when he bowls with it, he could be devastating. It has been on display right through the WTC and at the Ageas Bowl as well.
His four wickets had breathed life into the contest which had been marred by rains. Though India's perennial nemesis " the lower order and tail " frustrated them again.
Shami's has been a vital cog of this Indian side over the years. Injuries have time and again threatened to derail his career. However, he's come back stronger every time. He has come back stronger after the serious knee injury in 2015. He's come back stronger after the wrist injury in Australia. It's a testament to his mental strength.
In the last four years (Since 26 July 2017), he's been India's highest wicket-taking pacer in Tests and fifth-highest overall with 108 wickets from 54 innings at 23.74, striking every 44.8 balls. He's the highest wicket-taking pacer for India in the WTC as well with 40 wickets from 11 matches at 19.70, striking every 39.8 balls.
"Whenever the team has needed me, I think I have put in the effort. And by giving 100 percent I have satisfied the team with my responsibility," Shami said after the fifth day's play at the Ageas Bowl. "I have always been attacking and my thinking is also on the same lines. After the discussion of what lines and lengths the captain wants me to bowl, I work on those lines and lengths and try to maintain them," Shami added.
India are currently leading by 32 runs with eight wickets in hand in their second innings. The match can still swing any way given the conditions in Southampton and the quality present in the both the sides. If the weather holds, India manage to post a decent total and 'second-innings Shami' goes berserk, then a victory might not be improbable for the Indian side.