What are the elements of an ideal action for a fast bowler? A smooth run-up, a gradual acceleration, a jump that positions the body perfectly to release the ball, adequate use of the non-bowling arm, a high bowling arm in line with the front leg, and a good follow-through, taking the body towards the batsman but not straight enough to encroach on the danger area.
Mohammed Shami is ticking a lot of these boxes, which is why he has become a potent force at the highest level. His action, like those of other fast bowlers with fluent actions, is often termed as "repeatable" on commentary. In order to acknowledge Shami's craft, it's important to understand what exactly a repeatable action is, because fluent or otherwise, all bowlers repeat the same action for tens of thousands of balls throughout their careers.
A repeatable action is considered to be the one that is so well grounded in the basics that there is hardly any deviation over time. The load on various parts of the body is uniformly distributed, so the chances of stress-related injuries are low.
It's not that these bowlers don't get injured - in fact, Shami has had his fair share of injuries, but none of them seemed to have been directly caused by his action. Every human body is different and reacts differently to the strains of bowling. And strain it is - let's acknowledge that the human body wasn't designed to run straight and then turn sideways to propel a ball at high speeds. Fast bowling is an unnatural and an explosive activity, which can cause some wear and tear.
While Shami's run-up and action are fairly smooth, the secret of his success lies in his wrist. There are very few fast bowlers in the world who can claim to have the wrist firm and straight behind the ball every single time they bowl. Shami is one of them. His wrist is firmly cocked at the point of delivery and his slightly split fingers come down so straight that the seam invariably comes out bolt upright.
Slightly split fingers help keep the seam straight but sacrifice some swing in the air. That's the difference you find in Bhuvneshwar Kumar's bowling; as a swing bowler, he keeps his fingers fairly close together and then tilts the wrist ever so slightly in either direction to extract swing. Even though the difference in the gap between the fingers on the ball is millimetres between these two bowlers, the difference in outcome is significant.
Shami is unique, for he is neither a swing bowler nor a hit-the-deck-hard bowler. He is somewhere in between, and that adds to the problems of a batsman facing him. Though Shami doesn't swing the ball prodigiously, he gets it to shape away in the air, and more importantly, off the surface. The upright seam and his speed (in the low 140kphs) ensure that the ball only moves in the air after about two-thirds of the way to where it lands. His position at the crease (close to the stumps), high-arm release, and lack of significant lateral movement in the air force the batsman to play the straight line. Shami has the ability to make the ball move sideways after pitching without the seam breaking or wobbling, which means it frequently either finds the bat's edges or slips through the gap between bat and pad.
Blowing hot and cold
Shami is the quickest Indian bowler to 100 ODI wickets (56 matches) and he has taken 144 Test wickets in 40 Tests so far - a significant achievement for an Indian fast bowler. But that tells you only one side of the story.
In Shami's case, potential and performance haven't always gone hand in hand. Since his Test debut in Sachin Tendulkar's farewell series, in 2013, it has been clear that he has had the ingredients to become a world-class fast bowler, but it has taken him a little longer than one would have liked for him to realise his potential.
With the exception of Jasprit Bumrah and a few others in the past, Indian fast bowlers have tended to take a lot longer to evolve than Indian batsmen. This could be down to the workload and intensity at the highest level (batsmen don't feel that stress), or the lack of guidance, or perhaps both.
Shami's career has seen a few ups and downs but now it seems like he has found his groove. Earlier he lacked the consistency of maintaining one line for extended periods of time, but in 2018 we saw him bowl long spells with the same discipline. Perhaps it has something to do with his non-bowling arm, for whenever it comes down a little sooner than it should, you tend to lose your rhythm.
The biggest criticism directed against Shami was that he would bowl one on the pads after stitching three or four good balls together, allowing runs to be scored and the pressure on the batsmen to be released. Taking a wicket at the highest level is seldom only about the ball that dismissed the batsman; it is also about the balls that preceded the wicket-taking delivery. You need to keep asking probing questions ball after ball for the batsman to eventually commit a mistake. That's why they say that wicket-taking is an art slightly different from bowling well, and it needs to be learned.
When I played for India, I had very little idea about the formula for scoring runs. Though I had scored thousands of first-class runs before I was picked, I hadn't cracked the run-scoring code. This happens to almost every cricketer when he reaches the top. It can also happen to seasoned international cricketers when they switch formats. Rohit Sharma is a classic example of a batsman who has mastered white-ball cricket but still struggles to understand the rhythm of building an innings in Test cricket.
Bowlers can also take time to understand their game inside-out and to learn the craft of taking wickets. There's a subtle difference between knowing the game and knowing your own game, and it looks like that switch has flipped for Shami. He is no longer producing performances only on the back of his talent, he has started displaying a deeper understanding of the craft of fast bowling. Hopefully, he stays fit and realises the potential everyone saw when he first steamed in from the Pavilion End in his debut Test at Eden Gardens.