Shami offers Dhoni hope for the future
India lost their first and only ODI of the series. They fell short by more than a few. Most of it was down to conceding 143 runs in the last 15 overs. Most of their bowlers struggled once they were put under pressure by Jos Buttler and Joe Root. It might sound ridiculous, and will be easy to miss, that those final few overs involved some of the best death bowling by an Indian fast bowler in a long time.
Mohammed Shami, who had an ordinary Test series, ran in hard and speared in yorker after yorker to bowl five overs, from the 42nd on, for just 34 runs and took two wickets. In that spell he went for five boundaries, one of which was the direct result of a horrible bounce for Shikhar Dhawan at the 30-yard circle at midwicket.
The best part about Shami's spell was it was classic, simple old-fashioned death bowling, which relied on the principle that if you bowl straight yorkers, batsmen can neither get under them nor have the space to open the face on them. The only aspect missing was that these were not the deadly yorkers of the Pakistani variety, but then again it is difficult to reverse-swing them with a ball that is going to get no older than 25 overs. While not the mean possessed toe-crushers, these weren't the soft wide-outside-off ones either.
Dhoni could give Shami mid-off and mid-on back for most of his spell so he had cover of some sort if he erred in length when striving for that yorker. And once you start getting them right with the regularity of Shami today, the only real option you leave the batsman is the ramp over short fine leg. It was tried three times against Shami in that spell. One brought him Root's wicket, one nearly bowled Ben Stokes, and the third went for four.
Once you get into this bowling rhythm, the only errors you make are by bowling too full, but once you have the batsman on the leash these low full tosses are hard to hit, and you have cover at long-on and long-off. Shami began the spell with a low full toss, which was driven for a single. Another similar delivery later in the spell went for four, but it took a special effort from Stokes to whip it past midwicket. These are less demoralising than length balls, slower or otherwise, which are deposited rows back into the stands.
Shami was at his best in the 48th over, bowling to Chris Woakes. The first ball was a yorker just outside off. Woakes had no room to play. He tried a drive, and missed. Next ball tailed in a little, at the same length. Woakes was lucky to survive this one. You could feel the leash tightening. You feel this with many bowlers and many batsmen in modern cricket, but then the bowler tries a cute slower ball for some reason. But there was no respite from Shami. The third ball was even straighter, and cleaned Woakes up.
In contrast, at the other end, Umesh Yadav tried too many things, and went for a plenty. Some of it could be put down to the confidence of the two bowlers. Yadav was making a comeback and had only this game whereas Shami has had a good ODI series, and he is also Dhoni's trusted man in the last 10 overs. Since the start of India's overseas tours with South Africa last year, Shami has bowled more balls in the last 10 overs than any other India bowler. Bhuvneshwar Kumar with 128 is a distant second to Shami's 245. And you would have thought from his first two overs that Bhuvneshwar had played one match too many on a creditable tour for him. Dhoni just bowled him eight at the top, and didn't bother him with another spell.
"His execution was great, which I feel is lacking in some of our other fast bowlers," Dhoni said of Shami. "Definitely he bowled really well today, especially those yorkers. Whenever I needed him or asked him to bowl, he bowled really well."
Dhoni would ideally have bowlers who can keep it simple by just going for those yorkers and not wander into the cute variations, but he knows how difficult it is. "The yorker is keeping things simple, but it is very difficult to execute," he said. "It takes a lot out of you, to bowl a yorker at a good pace. Especially with third man and fine leg inside, people look to use the ramp shot. You have to be aware of what is happening. To play that shot a lot of the batsmen get down very early, so you have to be aware of the field and at the same time be aware of what the batsman is trying to do. Still I feel most of the successful slog-over bowlers today are the ones who bowl the yorkers well."
After India had won the series with another facile win at Edgbaston, Dhoni said the series had been a complete performance, except that their bowlers had not yet been tested at the death. His bowlers as a unit might have taken some pasting at Headingley, but if more of them can be like Shami, and if Shami can replicate what he did here, Dhoni can be hopeful in the future.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo