Shardul Thakur has been desperate for game-time in top-fight cricket for a while, and might finally be getting somewhere with that wish.
After getting a solitary IPL game during his three-season stint at Kings XI Punjab, Thakur was released from the squad midway through the 2016 season. A frustrated Thakur took to Twitter and posted: "Will play a semifinal t20 game tomorrow for my club payyade sc..playing a game after 2 months..ipl has done wonders .. Certainly".
Thakur then became a semi-regular at Rising Pune Supergiant and Chennai Super Kings, but hasn't got enough games to prove himself in international cricket since breaking into India's Test squad in May 2016. This is partly down to his history of injuries and the incredible depth on India's pace front.
He wasn't initially supposed to be part of India's most recent ODI series against West Indies, but an injury to Bhuvneshwar Kumar on the eve of the opener in Chennai paved a way back for the 28-year old.
Thakur got in for the second and third ODIs and although he travelled for runs in both games, he showed he could surprise batsmen with his pace - or the lack of it. He broke a fiery 135-run stand between Nicholas Pooran and Kieron Pollard by fooling Pooran with a slower offcutter. In addition to the offcutter, Thakur has a variety of bouncers and the knuckle ball in his repertoire.
Plus, Thakur can bat, like he showed in that tight chase in the ODI series decider in Cuttack. With an Ajit Agarkar-esque bat-swing, Thakur rattled off 17 from six balls and even had his captain Virat Kohli off his seat, celebrating wildly in the dressing room. Earlier, in the 2014 Ranji Trophy, Thakur had cracked 87 off 100 balls on a seaming track in Kanpur to win the game for Mumbai.
"I was part of the team before, somehow I couldn't fit into the playing XI," Thakur had told the Indian Express. "I played a game in South Africa, later played two games in Sri Lanka. [In] Asia Cup I played one game, I have got breaks between games. [The] positive thing is that I was part of the winning cause. Hopefully, I will get more chances in future. Every cricketer waits for a day like this. This doesn't happen overnight, a lot of hardwork goes into this. This time it was batting, I hope next time it is bowling."
Thakur had been part of India's limited-overs plans in the Asia Cup in September 2018, but a groin strain sidelined him from that tournament. He managed to recover in time to make his Test debut against West Indies in Hyderabad the next month. However, that was limited to a mere ten balls after his front leg buckled upon landing in his second over, and sent him for a lengthy rehab.
Thakur's injury-enforced absence coincided with the rapid emergence of Deepak Chahar and re-emergence of Mohammed Shami in white-ball cricket. Thakur isn't really in consideration for the Test side now, but with both Chahar (injured) and Shami (rested) missing from India's limited-overs squads for the upcoming series against Sri Lanka and Australia, he could get a chance to make a name for himself.
He is a name already, of course. Apart from stellar performances for Mumbai in the Ranji Trophy, most recently in the IPL 2019 final he bounced out both Quinton de Kock and Krunal Pandya for Super Kings with slippery short deliveries. While de Kock was caught behind by MS Dhoni, Thakur himself tore to his left and completed a sprawling return catch near the square-leg region to get rid of Pandya. It ended in heartbreak, though. With the final coming down to two needed off the last ball, Thakur was trapped by a vintage slower dipping yorker from Lasith Malinga.
A surgery on his troublesome foot and warming the bench for the T20Is at home against Bangladesh followed, but Thakur was back in the mix for the ODIs against West Indies.
Chahar has more tricks up his sleeve - and reportedly Stephen Fleming had picked him as a batting allrounder for Rising Pune for IPL 2016. But, now, he is likely to be out of action till March-April 2020, according to chief selector MSK Prasad.
Navdeep Saini can crank it up to speeds north of 140kph, but he's a proper tail-ender, who bats at No. 11 for Delhi. So, Thakur comes the closest to being a like-for-like swap for Chahar. Well, who knows if Thakur can chalk up a few match-winning spells here, and land a few blows with the bat there, he can even be in contention for the New Zealand tour.
Thakur, however, is no stranger to this stop-gap role, having done it for Mumbai in domestic cricket. He had said as much, when he was filling in for the rested seniors in the Nidahas T20I tri-series in 2018.
"If other senior bowlers are missing from the team, then I have to step up," Thakur had said in Sri Lanka. "I have done this previously for other teams that I have played for. I have come in place of Zaheer Khan, Dhawal Kulkarni and Ajit Agarkar while playing for Mumbai. I had to step up in that role. When senior bowlers are rested, I have to step up and fill that role to lead the pace attack."
Thakur is now likely to get the game-time against Sri Lanka that he has been searching for, but whether he can turn the Cuttack cameo into a substantial role remains to be seen.