Shami bounces back with new weapon
On Friday evening, Mohammed Shami took his first Test wicket in a year, six months, and 13 days. If any wicket is worth that long a wait, one necessitated by injury, surgery, and 40 days on crutches, this was probably it.
The seam was bolt upright as the ball left Shami's hand, with no hint of wobble, and the impact of seam on turf caused the ball to move away from Rajendra Chandrika. It pitched just short of a good length, not too far from off stump, climbed a few inches more than Chandrika possibly expected, and drew an instinctive jab. Outside edge taken, chance accepted, and West Indies, replying to India's 566 for 8 declared, were 29 for 1.
It was a beautiful delivery, from a bowler fully capable of bowling them, but perhaps few had really expected him to produce that particular kind of delivery.
Before this Test, 48.94% of Shami's Test wickets were either bowled or leg before, and only 31.91% caught behind or in the slip cordon. Those numbers reflected the skills he was primarily known for: pace, a fullish, attacking length, and an ability to reverse the ball. He possessed a sharp bouncer too, but did not necessarily generate steep bounce from a good length or just short of it.
He often got wickets for the opposite reason, with balls that skidded on, losing very little pace off the pitch, reaching the batsman quicker than expected, perhaps even a shade lower than expected, and punishing them for camping in the crease.
Marlon Samuels knew all about this. Shami, on Test debut, had dismissed him twice with deliveries skidding through from that perfect length, the shortest possible length he could land on while still hitting the stumps. Samuels was caught on the crease both times, bowled for 65 in the first innings and lbw for 4 in the second.
On Saturday, two-and-a-half years later, Samuels faced Shami again. He seemed to be reminding himself of those dismissals, and seemed to be a man fighting his muscle memory, a man of sluggish footwork telling himself to press forward. The result of that internal struggle was a sort of crouching shuffle across the crease, and Shami wrong-footed him twice with bouncers. Samuels got under both of them, hunching awkwardly low.
Shami's 16th ball to Samuels landed on the fullish side of a good length, in the corridor. Samuels shuffled across once more, leaning forward, and aimed for a push into the covers. All he managed was a thin edge. It settled snugly in Wriddhiman Saha's gloves, and Shami had become the joint-quickest Indian fast bowler to 50 Test wickets.
Once again there was movement, and once again a bit of extra bounce. The ball had brushed the edge of Samuels' bat close to its shoulder. In between the Chandrika and Samuels dismissals, Shami had dismissed Darren Bravo with a not dissimilar delivery, though shorter. Three balls after sending back Samuels, he got Jermaine Blackwood to fend another awkwardly lifting ball to gully.
Four wickets, all of them the result of extra bounce. This was new, and unexpected. It caused you to watch every step of his action just that little closer. Once you did that, there was one obvious change from the Shami of old.
In his first couple of years of international cricket, Shami had an idiosyncratic run to the crease, a gallop of unusually long strides. A number of experts had suggested this could cause a loss of stability when he reached the crease, and had ascribed this as a reason for his tendency to bowl loose balls. Around the time of the 2015 World Cup, Shami had said he was making an effort to shorten his running strides, and had credited Shoaib Akhtar with giving him the suggestion.
Now, making his Test comeback at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium, Shami was sprinting in with noticeably shorter strides. The question still remained: did this have any connection with the bounce he was generating?
Pondering it, Ian Bishop, the former West Indies fast bowler, suggested the bounce might have had less to do with shorter running strides than with a possible knock-on effect: a shorter delivery stride. This, he said, would give the bowler a higher point of release, and, as a consequence, the possibility of extra bounce. He took the example of Shannon Gabriel, who had troubled India with steep lift during their first innings.
Before he suffered the ankle injury that cut short his 2015-16 Australia tour, Gabriel's delivery stride, Bishop said, had grown progressively longer without him quite realising it, causing him to lose height at the crease.
In the months following his recovery, Gabriel had worked hard to correct this. It wasn't easy to tell if Shami had also, by design or as a byproduct of his reduced running stride, shortened his delivery stride, but Bishop felt he was achieving good height at release. What also pleased him was Shami's alignment at the crease, his feet lined up to point him precisely where he wanted to bowl.
It told in his line. On a pitch where bounce often seemed to be the fast bowler's only friend, Ishant Sharma may have been expected to provide the main threat, but while he did achieve steep lift, his line wasn't as close to off stump as Shami's. He did not make the batsmen play as often, and did not, as a result, force as many errors.
As the rest of West Indies' top order crumbled around him, Kraigg Brathwaite waged lonely resistance, his method simple and effective. Blessed with excellent judgment of line, he ignored as many deliveries as he could outside off stump, and waited patiently for straighter balls he could work into the leg side. Forty-eight of his 74 runs came in that direction. The cover drive barely made an appearance. Most of his off-side runs came square or behind square, when the bowlers dropped short.
In all, Brathwaite left 53 balls. But he didn't leave with equal ease against all of India's bowlers. He left 31 of the 67 balls he faced from Ishant, 13 out of 45 from Umesh Yadav, and only 6 out of 31 from Shami. He passed Shami's fourth-stump examination, but four of his team-mates didn't.
This, in short, was high-class Test bowling: pace, movement, and that new-found bounce, all allied to an excellent length and a line that forced the batsmen to play, or think about playing. A better batting side may have made fewer mistakes, but Shami was still asking the right questions, over and over.
Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo