Shardul Thakur is in the pole position to replace the injured Umesh Yadav in the crucial third Test between India and Australia starting at the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG) from the 7th of January. Thakur has already represented India in whites – he made his Test debut against the West Indies in Hyderabad in 2018 but could bowl all of just 10 deliveries before a groin injury forced him off the field and did not allow any further participation in the match.
Thakur is the favourite amongst the three contenders – the others being T Natarajan and Navdeep Saini – because of his experience and first-class record. He has picked 206 wickets in 62 first-class matches at an average of 28.55 and strike rate of 54.1. Thakur’s exploits include 10 four-wickets in an innings and 12 five-wickets in an innings. Saini has picked 128 wickets in 46 first-class matches. Although his bowling average (28.46) is marginally better than Thakur’s, it is the latter’s experience and strike rate which makes him the front-runner. Thakur has picked a wicket approximately every 9 overs as compared to Saini’s 10. The third option for India, T Natarajan, has just played 20 first-class matches in which he has picked 64 wickets and is essentially regarded as a limited-overs’ bowler.
Thakur did not have a great Ranji Trophy season in 2019-2020 in which he picked just one solitary wicket in 2 matches but had returned with 10 wickets in just 3 innings at 16.80 a piece at a strike rate of 24.7 in 2018-19. His best performance came in the 2015-16 Final against Saurashtra in Pune which he bagged 8 wickets (including a fifer in the second innings) to hand Mumbai an innings’ victory and with it their 41st Ranji Trophy title. Thakur was the leading wicket-taker for Mumbai that season with 41 wickets in 11 matches (20 innings) at an average of 24.51 and strike rate of 53.4. The right-arm fast-medium bowler was also the joint highest wicket-taker of the previous season. He picked 48 wickets in 10 matches at an average of 20.81 and strike rate of 42.9 in the 2014-15 Ranji season.
Thakur was the highest wicket-taker of the India A vs Australia A series in 2016 Down Under. He picked 9 wickets in the two matches (three innings) in Brisbane at 20.88 a piece at a strike rate of 36.4. Thus, he has the experience of playing on the fast and bouncy tracks of Australia and has tasted success there in Indian colours.
Apart from his impressive record for the most successful Ranji team in India’s domestic circuit, Thakur brings with himself two additional qualities. He has the ability to swing the ball and can surprise the Australian batsmen with the movement he generates if given the new ball. This will add variety to India’s pace attack which will be led by Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Siraj. Secondly, Thakur is a workhorse who has the stamina to bowl long spells at pace throughout the day. This augurs well for India as stand-in-captain, Ajinkya Rahane can then use Bumrah and Siraj for short aggressive bursts while also maintaining pressure with pace from the other end. Thakur has received praise from none other than the great Australian fast bowling legend – Jeff Thomson – who singled out the bowler’s ability to bowl on flat Indian tracks and pick a heap of wickets.
Thakur, born in Palghar, a small town north of Mumbai, had a tough childhood and had to travel for hours to play cricket every day. His humble beginnings and the daily rigour have made him into a mentally tough cricketer with an excellent temperament, inner strength and fighting spirit – qualities which will stand him in good stead in Australia where there is often plenty of talk and banter. The grind he had to go through to play cricket and then rise amongst the ranks to play for India has toughened Thakur and ingrained in him the ‘never say die attitude’ – qualities which make him a natural fit for the Kohli-Shastri led new Indian team.
Coupled with this is his ability to contribute with the bat. With India’s tail not amongst the best in international cricket and given the 5+1+5 formation (5 batsmen, 1 wicket-keeper and 5 bowlers) they would again field in Sydney, Thakur could get the team some invaluable runs in the lower order – something which is not expected of Natarajan or Saini. Thakur has 6 fifties and an average of 16 in first-class cricket.
Thakur could not live up to his billing on his Test debut. India will hope that the bowler delivers the goods in his second beginning at the SCG.