Among the pacers in action in the first semifinal of the 2023 ICC ODI World Cup played on Wednesday, New Zealand pacer Trent Boult has probably bowled most in tandem with India’s Jasprit Bumrah at the Wankhede Stadium.
In a longish opening spell, one could see Boult searching for the right area. Time and again after completing his follow through, he would pause and have a good look at the surface but the spot continued to elude him. He went for 86 runs in his ten overs. Tim Southee is an experienced campaigner, who gets wickets by hitting that perfect length, but the spot eluded him too. He ended up conceding 100 runs. Both the New Zealand opening bowlers have played over 100 games, taken more than 200 wickets each. But they realised that bowling on a flat, slow Wankhede Stadium track is a different skill altogether. It proved to be a forgettable outing. Even Bumrah couldn’t get it right on the day. He was getting the movement but was unusually wayward with the new ball.
Mohammed Shami, however, proved to be exception. The surface was different from the one he had got a fifer on in the last game here against Sri Lanka. Tailor-made for a battle of the batters, the grass had been shaved off. But the 33-year-old Shami still conjured up the magic to make the batters dance to his tune.
The greatest thrill of watching him operate on Wednesday was in seeing how he got the ball to gather pace after pitching — the skill being in the wrist and release and finding the right spot. He hit the seam, bowled further up the wicket and got the shape on the ball. The back-of-a-length delivery has more distance to travel than the full length to draw the batter into the shot and if the ball moves late, there’s trouble.
Wasim Akram, analysing on Pakistan channel A Sport, pointed out the key to Shami’s effectiveness is where the ball finishes — into the stumps. After the semifinal, New Zealand captain Kane Williamson, also made the same point.
“He is, without a doubt, one of the top operators in the world and the way he moves the ball and he keeps bringing the stumps into play,” said Williamson, who’s team has lost 12 wickets to Shami in the two games they have played in the tournament.
On current form, Rachin Ravindra was the dangerman. If he had got set, he could have taken the chase deep. Daryl Mitchell and Kane Williamson showed that even the chase of 397 was on. With Rachin’s support, things could have become very interesting.
The stylish left-hander got through the opening spell of Bumrah and Mohammed Siraj, and looked good till Shami was brought on as first change and spoiled his plan. Bowling with the semi-new ball is not the same. It doesn’t swing as much as the new ball, but Shami, like the great Australian pacer Glenn McGrath, has mastered the art of finding just enough movement to get the edge, not too much that it beats the bat.
For Ravindra, the ball delivered from around the wicket, was angled in and then straightened just enough to take the outside edge on the way to the keeper. He had picked up Devon Conway’s wicket on the first ball with a similar ball, just a little wider drawing a false stroke from the batter. The tentativeness of the two openers also highlighted Shami’s dominance over the left-hand batters. Almost every time he is up against a southpaw, he switches to around the wicket and his angle gets them in trouble.
“We talk a lot of variations, but I still believe in pitching it up and getting wickets with the new ball. The focus was to try and take pace off, see if they’re hitting it in the air. It was a chance we had to take (with the variations),” Shami said after the game in his interview to the official broadcasters.
He, however, found himself under pressure after missing a straightforward catch of the well-set Kane Williamson as New Zealand fought back. Williamson was on 52 when he hit Bumrah straight to Shami at mid-on but the pacer spilled it.
The packed Wankhede crowd had gone silent as the third-wicket partnership between the Black Caps captain and Daryl Mitchell swelled to 181 taking the total to 220. But Shami made amends in the 33rd over with a double blow. He had Williamson caught at deep square-leg to trigger a frenzied reaction in the stands and then, one ball later, he trapped Tom Latham for zero. His bowling figures for that over read W-0-W at that point and it wasn’t far from the truth. India were back in control at 224/4 with the Kiwis needing 174 off 90 balls at a run rate 11.60.
Mitchell, however, was batting line a man possessed, clobbering seven sixes and nine fours on the way to a heroic hundred. It was a battle for the ages — Shami trying every trick, changing angles, lines and trying out all his variations. He finally got him in the 46th over for his fifth wicket. He finished with figures of 7/55 — the best by an Indian bowler in ODI cricket. A masterclass of how to bowl fast in subcontinent conditions had seen him run through one of the most consistent and disciplined batting line-ups in world cricket.
To think of it, he wasn’t even in India’s original bowling plans with all-rounder Hardik Pandya being the third seamer. Bumrah is the designated spearhead and Mohammed Siraj the No 2. But such has been Shami’s impact in the six games he has played that the talk is now whether he has etched his name as India’s greatest 50-over bowler. The numbers surely back that claim. In six innings, he has 23 wickets at this World Cup (avg 9.1, SR 10.9); overall in 17 World Cup games he has a an Indian record 54 wickets (Avg: 12.9, SR: 15.3).
The team now moves to Ahmedabad for the final, Shami’s home ground in the IPL. In the running for the player of the tournament award, he is looking forward to make his mark.
“The last two World Cups, we lost (in the semifinals). Who knows when or if we’ll get a chance, so we wanted to do everything for this, one chance we didn’t want to let go,” said Shami.