As India had their first full-fledged training session since landing in Colombo on Tuesday, Mohammed Shami seemed quiet. After a session of football at the R Premadasa Stadium on an evening where the sun shined bright for the first time in the last three days, he went through the paces, when the rest of bowlers were engaged in a fielding session.
Making a comeback into the national team after a brief break, which saw him skip the tour of West Indies and even the three-match T20Is in the Ireland, the four remaining matches of the Asia Cup and the three-match ODIs against Australia later in the month, is all that Shami has to find his groove back. A rhythm bowler, in the past, he has shown a tendency to hit the peak as the season progresses.
He is worth giving the time because the skills he brings are unique. He is perhaps the best user of the short-ball in the side, makes the ball skid as well as leap, and is masterful at using the heavy ball. He could be as fast as Jasprit Bumrah, can rip in the yorker and has developed a devious slower ball too, averages 26 and has a better strike rate 27.9) than Bumrah (31.4). He brings a wealth of World Cup experience (31 wickets in eleven games, that is nearly three scalps a game, at an average of 15). With Bhuvneshwar Kumar not part of the plans anymore, Shami, who is capable of striking early with his seam movement, was the new ball bowler India needed. Even in ODIs where two new balls are used, he is capable of finding reverse-swing.
— 𝕸𝖔𝖍𝖆𝖒𝖒𝖆𝖉 𝖘𝖍𝖆𝖒𝖎 (@MdShami11) September 1, 2023
There are not many like him who could change the course of a match in a single spell. For a team doing everything it can to get two of their returning batsmen – Shreyas Iyer and KL Rahul – back into the groove, the same largesse shall be extended to Shami, a genuine match-winner, as well. Besides, Bumrah is just back from an injury, and still finding his pace and accuracy back. It would be a recipe for disaster if India head to the World Cup with two of its most successful and experienced bowlers not in peak-rhythm.
Everything that Shami did this year was with an eye on the World Cup. His workload was carefully managed—he was kept out of T20Is after the T20I World Cup so that he remains fresh for the ODI World Cup. He skipped the two Tests against a weak West Indies, so that he does not get fatigued. But he played eight of the nine ODIs that India played in the home season before the IPL suggested he was part of the plans.
There is a school of thought that he is no longer an automatic choice in the eleven, likely to be displaced by Shardul Thakur, who could bat down the order, so that India’s tail does not become too long.
The doubts over his spot has more to do with the combination the team management wants rather than his lack of rhythm or form. India is fighting hard to overcome some of its handicaps. Their batsmen cannot deliver four-five overs in case a specialist bowler endures an off-day. Their fast bowlers don’t add much value with the bat, unlike their counterparts from Australia, England or Pakistan. To take the field with just five bowling options in limited-overs is a risk no captain will take anymore, unless the conditions are loaded in favour of bowlers.
Instead, with every passing outing India are beginning to look beyond a pacer who could deliver them 10 overs – across all phases and conditions for Thakur, who is known to make vital runs. With Bumrah being indispensable unless he isn’t fully fit, it has come to a scenario where one of Shami and Siraj has to fight for a lone spot in the eleven.
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The early indications are that Siraj is top of the pecking order between the two, especially in the current form. At the World Cup, the only other way all three of Bumrah, Shami and Siraj can play is when India bring in Axar Patel as their second spinner and get the non-negotiable batting depth. But even then the chances of two left-arm spinners — Axar and Ravindra Jadeja – being in the same XI is thin as it could get predictable for batting teams.
Going by their net sessions, Thakur looks to have a heads-up over Shami. Thakur has been getting extensive batting sessions with head coach Rahul Dravid himself sending him the throwdowns. India seem to have made peace with the fact that despite having an economy rate of 6.17, which has resulted in him finishing his quota of overs only seven times in 40 matches, he would lend balance.
But somehow, Shami needs to get games. The lack of it was evident against Nepal, his only outing in the Asia Cup. Shami wasn’t at his rhythmic best, with his run-up giving away enough hints that he needed more overs to be at his sharpest. He is old-fashioned that way, one who prefers bowling at the nets and hitting the ground running instead of shedding sweat at the gym. So the more overs under his belt, the more deceptive he could be. At some point in the next two and a half months, India would need that swinging Shami back. For that, he needs game time.
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