Jasprit Bumrah is feeling his way back into international cricket after a stress fracture. Bhuvneshwar Kumar is injured. Umesh Yadav isn't an automatic pick in 50-overs cricket anymore. Ishant Sharma is a Test specialist. So whom does India turn towards for vital breakthroughs? Mohammed Shami, of course. Upfront with the new ball, his job is to pick wickets. In the middle overs, he does a containing job to allow Kuldeep Yadav and/or Yuzvendra Chahal to come into their own. At the death, with teams looking to play out Bumrah and capitalise at the other end, Shami comes into his own, spearing his yorkers at will and slicing through lower orders.
Virat Kohli has been vocal about Shami's presence in the white-ball set-up for his pace, yorkers and death bowling. His new-ball efforts have flown under the radar, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. In the Rajkot ODI against Australia, he struck upfront in Australia's steep chase of 341 to remove Warner, although the credit for that should entirely go to Manish Pandey's athleticism. That was the only highlight for Shami in an otherwise forgettable first spell, where he went for plenty. But later, he rode on Bumrah's brilliance to nip out the tail, removing Ashton Turner and Pat Cummins with searing yorkers, even though the game had gone beyond the visitors by then.
Australia's lower order of Alex Carey, Turner and Ashton Agar isn't quite as intimidating as Carey, Glenn Maxwell and Marcus Stoinis. Turner was returning to ODIs after nine months, best remembered for his unbelievable 84 off 43 balls in Mohali last year that helped Australia pull off an incredible chase of 359. It proved to be a turning point in their series win last year. But against a rip-roaring Shami this time, Turner stood no chance because he had to attack from the outset. He was a split-second late and the off stump had been flattened. Ditto with Cummins. This was a clear case of one man softening the opposition with his hostility and another wiping them out.
A similar story panned out in the series decider in Bengaluru. Shami nailed his yorkers in the death overs again to remove Cummins and Zampa, even as Steven Smith waged a lone battle. It proved to be the difference between Australia getting 330 and finishing with 286. Death bowling was India's game changer without doubt, but Shami left his mark much earlier when he removed Warner in the fourth over by getting one to swing back in and have him nick off. This was a classic Test match dismissal that busted any one-dimensional theory there may have been about Shami only being effective at the death.
Bumrah may have finished the Australia series with just one wicket to Shami's seven, but in building up pressure with his pin-point accuracy, he only aided Shami to nip them out at the other end. When in full flow, this is a modern-day bowling partnership to be savoured. And for that, Shami deserves almost as much credit as Bumrah.
The changes in Shami's work ethic and fitness have contributed a great deal to this resurgence. Between the 2015 World Cup and the start of 2019, when India toured Australia for a limited-overs series, Shami played a grand sum of five ODIs. His fitness wasn't upto the mark, he used to build up steam at a leisurely pace, four good balls would invariably be followed by a boundary ball, and pressure wouldn't be sustained. But in New Zealand, it all changed. He just let it rip. It's become a sort of a pattern in his ODI career ever since.
Since his ODI comeback in October 2018, Shami has picked up 52 wickets in 26 innings at an average of just under 25, strike rate around 26 and economy rate of under six. Nearly 40% of his dismissals have been bowled, six of them nailed into the blockhole. He is far from one-dimensional, or at least that is the perception around him in ODIs. Death bowling is simply another bow to his string. It allows him to derive confidence from his end-overs execution on days when he is taken for runs upfront, like Rajkot last week.
Shami's ODI rejuvenation began exactly a year ago in Napier, the ODI series opener. He busted all the shackles around him and let loose. Venom, bolt upright seam position, movement off the deck and all that in an incisive opening spell of 4-2-13-2 that set the tone for India's 4-1 series win. Shami would finish with nine scalps - joint-most with Chahal - from four games at an economy rate of just 4.75.
Bumrah's absence made Shami's impact all the more remarkable because India had then risked playing their spinners in grounds with short boundaries. And they cashed in on Shami's brilliance. He kept threatening the stumps, moving the ball away to get batsmen nicking, hitting the seam to sneak through the gap between bat and pad.
This was Shami unleashed, bowling without the fear of injuries, without the fear of having fluids sucked out of his ankles every day. His improved fitness, owing to his restriction of carbohydrates, weight training and bans on biryani, sweets and bread, all helping him pound in from get go. There wasn't any real doubt about his skills, as much as there were question marks over him as an ideal package in ODIs, because Shami doesn't quite have the slower variations or the knuckleball. He was either hell or high water.
Pace and nip off the deck is his calling card, and with reverse swing - a major weapon in his arsenal taken away from the ODI game because of two new balls from both ends - he needed to reinvent himself going into the 2019 World Cup. He did, by delivering death-over masterclasses and thriving in situations where oppositions had to attack him because they would invariably look to play out Bumrah at the other end.
He has been nipping out big wickets after the batsmen have played themselves into a hole by trying to play out the trump card at the other end, without realising Shami himself is one. These qualities helped him go all out at the World Cup, where he went from being in the reserves to a hat-trick hero and a bonafide match-winner.
Against Afghanistan, he was designated to bowl the final over after Bumrah bowled the penultimate over, in which he delivered four yorkers that proved difficult to get away. This gave Shami 15 to defend off the final over to prevent an upset, and he did. How? By delivering yorkers of his own after getting tonked first ball for a four. Three of them, full fast and on the stumps with the ball moving in a tad late. The hat-trick was his, the match India's. Bumrah's pressure-soaking had made it possible for Shami to thrive. Against West Indies, he burst through the top order to leave his mark again.
Kumar's injury had given Shami a window, and that was enough for him to ransack the house. While little separated them statistically, Shami showed he was better suited to break partnerships in the middle overs and keep the pressure on. It has not often been India's strength. Back those with his ability to deliver searing yorkers and surprise short balls with his extra pace, and he becomes lethal. Now as he heads back to New Zealand, he has a chance to prove his mastery in the shortest format too. With Kumar and Deepak Chahar injured, Shardul Thakur and Navdeep Saini just feeling their way in and Khaleel Ahmed far below in the pecking order, the field is open for Shami to become an all-weather specialist.