It's not often that an Indian fast bowler takes a nine-wicket haul on Test debut on Indian soil. Mohammed Shami's spell on the rather docile Eden Gardens pitch against the West Indies last November raised a billion hopes. He got the ball to reverse-swing both ways, he was accurate and most importantly, he bowled fast. He was consistently touching early 140 kmph mark with accuracy. The toe crushers were back in vogue and after a very long time, an Indian bowler was beating international batsmen for pace. It felt that Indian cricket had unearthed a rare commodity.
I was particularly impressed with his approach to the crease, close to the stumps release, high-arm action, perfect wrist position that enabled bolt upright seam presentation and also the areas in which he bowled. His pitch-maps for the first few games were quite identical as far as lines were concerned — always around the off-stump. Once you bowl from close to the stumps with a high-arm action, you don't create angles and if you can follow it up with consistent off-stump line, the job of a batsman becomes reasonably difficult.
To play or not to play is the biggest dilemma the batsman encounters. But it seems that the bowler we saw at the Eden Gardens and in the subsequent few matches didn't take the flight to New Zealand, for both the accuracy and the speed has been missing. While he had some success with the new ball in the ODI series, his old ball numbers (a boundary every fourth ball after 40th over) and the potency in both the Test matches was below par.
He's still running in hard, the arm is still high, he's still close to the stumps and the ball is coming out okay too, yet something is amiss. Both the consistency with regards to the off-stump channel and the pace has gone missing. When he's trying to bowl an out-swinger, the ball, instead of remaining close to the off-stump, is finishing at least a foot and a half wider. The extra width allows the batsman to free his arms.
And when he tries to bring it back to the right-hander, the ball drifts down the leg side for easy runs. It doesn't come as a surprise that he looked half the bowler in NZ that he really is. The obvious questions that come to mind are — have international batsmen deciphered him and hence he's trying different things? Or were the first few performances just a flash in the pan? Finally, is he carrying a niggle?
Let me address these questions one by one — Shami hasn't played that much cricket to be deciphered and, more importantly, I don't think he's trying to reinvent himself. I also strongly feel that the first glimpses weren't a fluke either; for he's ticked most boxes a fast bowler should be ticking. While I can be reasonably sure about the first two, I can't be 100% accurate about the last one and hence would let it pass. So, what's plaguing India's premier fast bowler?
In my humble opinion, it's just the workload that's pulling him down. Ever since he made his Test debut in November, he has played 17 international matches (Tests and ODI combined) and bowled over 1,900 balls. In the same period Mitchell Johnson has bowled 1,451 balls, Junaid Khan bowled 1,433 and Tim Southee only 1,395 balls. Becoming the spearhead of Indian fast bowling has come at a hefty price, for he's been asked to bowl maximum number of overs amongst pacers in his first season at the highest level.
This is the most Shami has bowled in a span of 100 days in his entire career. Once, in the season of 2012-13 he bowled 2200 balls but that was spread across 180 days, which meant a lot of rest and a lot of time for recuperation. Also, bowling at the highest level takes a lot more out of a bowler than bowling in Ranji/Duleep Trophy.
The knowledge that a billion people are watching and the fact that every bad ball gets dispatched to the fence ensures that you never bowl at your 70%, at least not in your first season at the top. The muscles that were used to working only half as hard are pushed to do twice the work without significant change in their strength.
Yes, as a member of the Indian team he would be getting special attention but it's too short a time to transform him physically. Shami has been an exciting find and it's in Indian cricket's interest that he is managed well. Else, he might either drop a little bit of pace or gets dropped from the loop completely. A stitch in time would save nine.