Fast bowlers like conditions where they can stack their slip cordons, and Mohammed Shami is no exception, but you suspect he is at his happiest on pitches that make other fast bowlers sulk with the lack of carry. When he is asleep and dreaming about bowling, he probably dreams of galloping towards a dusty, cracked, fifth-day pitch with two short midwickets in his peripheral vision.
Those fielders aren't there for the uppish flick. If that happens, it's a bonus. No, they are there to encourage Shami to bowl his favourite line, pitching six inches outside off stump and nipping back to hit the top of middle. Even better if the ball hits a crack or a bald patch and scoots through at shin height.
On the first four days of the Visakhapatnam Test, fast bowlers from the two sides bowled a combined 105 overs and took four wickets. In 10.5 overs on the fifth day, Shami took five all by himself, four of them hitting the stumps.
Shami gets a lot of batsmen bowled. Of his 158 wickets in Test cricket, 48 (30.38%) have been bowled. Of the 18 fast bowlers to have taken 100 or more Test wickets since Shami's debut, only one has a greater percentage of bowled dismissals. If you didn't read it here, you wouldn't guess that that bowler is Shannon Gabriel.
It sounds counter-intuitive that Gabriel - a tall, hit-the-deck bowler who is renowned for his unpleasant bounce - gets so many batsmen bowled, but there are reasons for this. First, a massive chunk of those wickets are played-on (21 out of 41 overall, judging by wicket descriptions on ESPNcricinfo). And among the world's top fast bowlers, he probably moves the ball the least. When he beats the inside edge, therefore, he is likelier to sneak through the gap between bat and pad than to hit the pad. Over his entire career, Gabriel has 44 bowleds (33.08%) and 16 lbws (12.03%).
Shami's bowled (30.38%) and lbw (13.92%) percentages aren't too dissimilar to Gabriel's. These percentages paint a different picture to the stereotype of the subcontinental fast bowler, who bowls full and attacks the stumps, gets a lot of reverse-swing, and achieves high percentages of both bowled and lbw.
Shami certainly attacks the stumps, but he doesn't usually get batsmen out by bowling full. The classic Shami dismissal isn't the viciously dipping Waqar Younis-style yorker. Instead, he gets batsmen bowled when they are rooted to the crease, moving neither forward or back. This is perhaps why Shami doesn't get all that many lbws.
The typical length Shami hits when he gets batsmen bowled isn't the traditional good length, which batsmen generally try and get forward to, but one that's slightly shorter. It's fuller than, say, Ishant Sharma's natural length, but shorter than the length Umesh Yadav bowls when he lands his outswinger just right. It's probably the length he grew up bowling.
From that length, the ball often goes on to hit the top of off stump in Indian conditions. Couple that length with his skiddy pace, and Shami becomes an uncomfortable proposition for most batsmen to handle. When that length meets that skid and a fifth-day surface like the one in Visakhapatnam, he becomes close to unplayable.
Watch his dismissal of Temba Bavuma. There is a tendency for viewers on TV, who have the luxury of watching the same ball multiple times in slow-motion, to see batsmen get defeated by low bounce and infer than they should have been on the front foot. It's extremely difficult for batsmen to get forward to the Shami length, however, because their muscle memory won't let them, and that muscle memory is the product of facing thousands of balls that hit the same sort of spot and don't keep low. Their muscle memory isn't wrong, except for the one time that it is.
Even when the ball doesn't necessarily creep through at ankle or shin height, Shami can beat batsmen with movement. He can swing the ball both ways, but whether it's conventional or reverse, it's seldom extravagant banana swing. More often than not, the movement is off the pitch, thanks to his gloriously upright seam position. This is harder to adjust to than swing.
On this Visakhapatnam pitch, it wasn't even necessary for Shami to present the seam so well; sometimes he just needed to hit a crack.
If you freeze the replay of Faf du Plessis' dismissal to Shami at the point where the ball hits the pitch, the length is short of the traditional good length, and the line is comfortably a full set of stumps outside off. A number of batsmen would have reacted exactly as du Plessis did, and shouldered arms. But before he knew it, his off stump had been knocked back.
The pitch didn't morph into a low-bouncing jigsaw puzzle overnight; it must have had these characteristics, at least in partial measure, even on day four, but Vernon Philander and Kagiso Rabada, two of the finest fast bowlers in world cricket, couldn't exploit them the way Shami did. The bowling styles of Philander and Rabada didn't develop on pitches like this one. Shami's did.
"Shami, we've seen him in these conditions, not just today but previously as well," Rohit Sharma said in his post-match press conference. "I still remember our debut together in Kolkata, where the pitch kind of... I wouldn't say [it was] like this but on day four, on day five, it was slightly lower and slower, and he knows how to bowl on those pitches."
Both enjoyed stellar debuts in that game; Rohit scored a century in the first innings, and Shami picked up nine wickets in the match, six of them bowled.
"He gets reverse-swing straight into play, once he knows there is some help on offer, and he uses those conditions," Rohit said. "See, it's not easy to bowl when you know the reverse-swing is happening; you need to pitch it in the right area, you need to make sure that the ball is just around off stump, so that it comes and hits the middle stump. Otherwise sometimes you can drag [the ball onto the pads], and while doing that you can leak a lot of runs as well.
"I guess he's mastered that pretty well by now, bowling with the old ball and trying to [get the] ball to reverse, and yes, these type of conditions are pretty ideal for him. He makes the batsman play all the balls, which is slightly tough on that kind of pitch. When you know you have to play all six balls, and the pitch at times, as we have seen, is doing something from the crack, or staying low at times as well - it keeps you in the game, for the fielders and all the other bowlers as well - and the batsman doesn't really know what's coming next, because he can swing it both ways.
"So by now he's mastered how to bowl with the old ball, and growing up in Calcutta where, you know, there is not much bounce - when he started playing, obviously; now it's a different Kolkata - but when he started playing I'm sure it was similar kind of tracks he grew up on."
On Sunday, Shami was bang in the middle of his comfort zone; bowling at home, in the second innings. His home average in Tests is 23.57, and his second-innings average overall is 22.58. His second-innings average at home is a ridiculous 17.34.
"When he is asleep and dreaming about bowling, he probably dreams of galloping towards a dusty, cracked, fifth-day pitch with two short midwickets in his peripheral vision."
Outside that comfort zone, he hasn't been quite as lethal. He averages 30.39 away from home, 34.47 in the first innings overall, and an unflattering 36.19 while bowling in the first innings away from home.
On surfaces with more bounce than the typical Indian pitch, the ball is less likely to go on and hit the stumps from Shami's natural length. Batsmen, therefore, can play back to him with a greater degree of certainty. The fields Shami bowls to in overseas conditions, usually, are set for the outside edge, with more catchers behind the wicket. They don't offer him the same amount of leg-side protection when he strays in line.
Shami gets more seam movement away from home, and a lot more bounce, and when he combines those two in the fourth-stump channel he can look menacing, but there are days, such as during the Oval Test last year, when he beats the bat so often without finding the edge that you wonder if he could pitch it a few inches closer to the batsman.
These fine margins were probably why Shami averaged 26.01 in largely seam-friendly conditions during India's recent run of away tours, while Jasprit Bumrah averaged 19.24 and a new-and-improved Ishant Sharma 20.50. Shami did a fine job overall, and ran through sides on a couple of occasions, but there were times when his rhythm appeared off and his wicket threat subdued.
Opportunities to improve that away record will arrive soon enough, when India tour New Zealand and Australia next year. Until then, in their next four Tests against South Africa and Bangladesh, all at home, India will be delighted if he can keep hitting that Shami length and keep producing that Shami skid.