India v Pakistan, 2nd Test, Kolkata, 3rd day March 18, 2005

From potential to performance

Mohammad Sami: found some inspiration, at last © Getty Images
Indian fans know all about hoping for the best and preparing for the worst when it comes to entrusting someone to lead the bowling attack in the absence of the main striker. In Zaheer Khan's absence, Ajit Agarkar has often failed to rise to the challenge of spearheading the attack. And Mohammad Sami, save for a brief passage of play after lunch on the third day, has gone the Agarkar way in Shoaib Akhtar's absence.

The similarities do not end there. Sami is a short man for a fast bowler, and relies on the ball skidding off the pitch, rather than hitting the deck hard. He swings the ball enough to trouble batsmen, but not enough to be a force when the pitch is slow and the ball is holding up. He steams in off a long run, and can't bowl long spells on a hot, humid day.

Yet when India began their second innings, Sami showed what he was capable of. He gave the captain exactly what was needed, getting the ball in the right spot from the word go, in stark contrast to the first innings, where he began with a trademark no-ball. For a change, he was not attempting to burst through batsmen's defenses. Instead he settled into a good rhythm, and attempted to ask questions of the batsmen.

The first thing he did right was keep the ball full and straight to Gautam Gambhir, who had got off the mark with a streaky edge. Gambhir got a delivery that was too good for him so early in his innings. It shaped in a touch, and late, and was on a perfect yorker length. Before he could move across to cover the swing, or bring the bat down in defence, the ball had snuck through.

The early dismissal meant that Sami, who rarely looked like taking a wicket before that passage of play, had something in the bank to show. And, when Inzamam-ul-Haq set attacking fields, packing the off-side for Sehwag, Sami was able to bowl confidently, in the full knowledge that there was protection at hand. Once again, Sami's composure - he did not get overly excited - allowed him to land the ball in areas that Sehwag could not resist. And duly, one meaty heave found its way to the stumps via the bottom edge.

This was a far-cry from his performance in the first innings, when he bowled on both sides of the wicket, short and full, and offered every manner of goody to the greedy Indian batsmen. At one stage in the second innings he had figures of 3-2-3-2, and looked the part. The spearhead, it seemed, was not so blunt that it could not do damage.

But even Sami would agree that he has done too little, in too many chances, to take his place in the team for granted. Had it not been for the injuries to Shoaib, Umar Gul and Shabbir Ahmed, Sami might have been at home, watching the game on television, wondering what he needed to do to make that transition from potential to performance, trying to unravel the enigma that he is. That is what Agarkar is probably doing at the moment.

Anand Vasu is assistant editor of Cricinfo.