India will clash with New Zealand in the final of the World Test Championship starting in Southampton from the 18th of June and one of the biggest strengths would be their fast-bowling quartet. Though Jasprit Bumrah is widely regarded as the best Indian pace bowler across formats and Ishant Sharma has had better returns in England, it is Mohammed Shami who will be the most threatening of the Indian quicks in the mega final and the five-Test series against England that follows.
What makes Shami so lethal? How effective is he with the new ball? Does he make the old ball reverse? Why will he pose a stiff challenge to the New Zealand batsmen?
India’s Best Fast Bowler Since July 2017 & In The WTC
India has played 38 Tests since Shami made a comeback in July, 2017 after his recovery from a career-threatening knee injury. No other fast bowler has played more than the 28 matches Shami has played for India in this time-frame - a testimony of the work-load and his improved fitness levels. He has also been India’s highest wicket-taker with 104 wickets at a splendid average of 23.92. What stands out though is Shami’s ability to pick wickets as is evident by his strike rate of 45.1 in this time-frame.
Amongst the 24 fast bowlers who have picked a minimum of 50 wickets, Shami’s strike rate places him at number 5 ahead of the likes of Pat Cummins, Tim Southee, Bumrah, Trent Boult, James Anderson and Stuart Broad.
Shami has been India’s joint-highest wicket-taker amongst fast bowlers in the inaugural World Test Championship with 36 wickets at an average of 19.77 and strike rate of 39.9. He has been very consistent picking 4-plus wickets in a match in 6 of the 10 matches he has played in the competition. His best performance came against Bangladesh in the Day and Night Test at the Eden Gardens where Shami returned with 7-58 in 29 overs - five of these were top-middle order wickets. This is a quality of Shami which he has harnessed especially since his return in 2017 - to dismiss quality opposition batsmen with the new ball early in their innings while also picking heaps of wickets in a burst which puts the opposition under pressure.
This was again witnessed against South Africa in Visakhapatnam in 2019 where Shami saw the back of Hamza, Du Plessis and Bavuma in a space of 4 overs reducing the visitors to 22 for 4 in the second innings.
Striking With The New Ball & Quality of Wickets
Shami has been brilliant with the shining red cherry for India since July, 2017 striking with the new ball in as many as 15 (in either innings) of the 28 Tests he has played in this period. Almost 70% of his wickets (72 of 104) in this period have been of batsmen before they have reached 20 which means every two of the three wickets he has taken in the last four years has been before the opposition batsman could contribute significantly to the score or in other words nearly 70% of Shami’s dismissals have been of opposition batsmen who have failed in the match - that is a staggering statistic! Also 70 of his 104 wickets are of the top-middle order.
Combining all the above and basically Shami is striking early with the new ball and also getting rid of top-middle order batsmen early in their innings highlighting the quality and timing of his wickets for India.
Coupled with his new ball prowess is his special ability to reverse swing the old ball which makes him lethal in hot and dry conditions in Asia.
Seam Position, Accuracy and Reverse Swing
Shami has one of the best seam positions and wrist positions in Test cricket. He flicks one finger at the last minute to get the ball away from the right-hander and similarly uses the index finger to get the ball to nip back in. It is a special quality which he has harnessed over the years and now mastered. Slightly split fingers help keep the seam straight but sacrifice some swing in the air. Coupled with this is his beautiful action and accuracy and ability to bowl within the three stumps and this is what makes Shami at his pace a nightmare for the opposition batsmen.
Shami has the ability to make the ball move sideways after pitching without the seam breaking or wobbling, which means it frequently either finds the bat’s edges or slips through the gap between bat and pad. Add to this his ability to reverse the old ball and India has an entire package. Shami was at his devastating best with the semi-old ball in the second innings against South Africa at Visakhapatnam where his 5-35 in 10.5 overs routed the visitors for 191.
This combination of reverse swing, seam position and accuracy makes Shami a handful in Asian conditions and also explains the high percentage of wickets bowled and in the second innings.
Record in Asia, Wickets in Second Innings & Bowled Percentage
Shami has picked 33 wickets at an average of 19.09 in India in the last four years. He has also got an excellent record in Sri Lanka and the Caribbean in this time-frame with conditions there being similar to what they are at home.
44 of Shami’s 104 wickets during this period have been either lbw or bowled - a fairly high percentage - and a direct combination of his accuracy and ability to make the ball reverse. This can make the Indian speedster a major threat in Southampton. He will rely on conventional swing with the new red Dukes Ball but could be more threatening with the old one given the hot conditions prevailing in England currently.
Shami gets more dangerous as the match gets to the fourth and fifth days and is amongst the best second innings’ bowlers in the world in Test cricket. He has picked 49 wickets at an average of 29.91 and strike rate of 56.4 in the first innings but returned with 55 wickets at 18.58 and strike rate of 35 in the second - that is a stunning differential indicating how Shami might be used in Southampton by Kohli.
The Indian skipper may let Bumrah and Ishant Sharma take a major share of the overs in the first innings and get a fresh Shami when the match reaches its climax on Day 4 or Day 5. A master of using the footmarks and wear and tear on the wicket, Shami with his ability to get the ball in with reverse-swing could be India’s trump card on the last two days of the match.
Shami also pumps up and motivates himself in the second innings - when the rest of the fast bowling machinery is tired, he steps on the gas and is at this lethal best.
One of Shami’s criticisms has been his record in England but that may change in 2021.
Record in England
Shami has found the perfect length for Indian conditions - slightly shorter than the traditional good length and coupled with the low bounce and reverse he extracts especially in the third and fourth innings of a match, it has given him the perfect recipe for going through the batsman’s defenses.
However, with the pitch offering extra bounce in SENA, the ball is likely to go over the stumps and batsmen are more comfortable at leaving Shami off a length. This explains why Shami did not get the same returns in these conditions initially in his career but of late he has made amends. He produced a match-winning five-wicket haul in the second innings in Johannesburg in 2018 and returned with 16 wickets at an average of 26.18 in India’s maiden Test series win in Australia in 2018-19.
Shami had a decent tour of England in 2018 where he returned with 16 wickets in the five-Test series. Average and strike rate do not do justice to how well he bowled especially at The Oval where he went past the outside edge on several occasions. He got three crucial wickets in the series opener in Birmingham, dismissed Jennings and Root early in the England first innings at Lord’s, got the successive wickets of Buttler and Stokes reducing England to 86 for 6 in the first innings in Southampton before returning with four in the second and bowled beautifully without luck at The Oval.
If he can adjust his length to a little closer between the third and fourth stumps and bowl a touch fuller this time around, some of those ‘near misses’ may convert into the wickets of the New Zealand batsmen and Shami might well go on to play a pivotal role with the ball in handing India a prestigious world title.